HOUSTON — In the somber moments after the Pittsburgh Pirates lost Game 4 of the 1979 World Series to the Baltimore Orioles to fall behind three games to one, Willie Stargell spoke to his teammates.
Stargell, the Hall of Fame slugger, who commanded that wild, boisterous team with a well-placed glance as much as with a stern word, tried to make certain that, as much fun as the players had, they played to their capabilities. But to that point in the World Series they had not. They were on the precipice of elimination.
“Willie just told us, ‘Millions of people are watching and they have not seen the real Pirates,” said Kent Tekulve, the Pirates’ closer at the time. “He said, ‘Whatever happens, let’s at least show them one game how the Buccos really play baseball.’”
The Bucs gave the viewers at home three real Pirates games in a row and won the World Series. They are one of only six teams out of 48 that fell into a daunting three-games-to-one hole in a best-of-seven series, only to climb out and win the World Series.
The Houston Astros are a third of the way to making it seven teams. They beat Atlanta in Game 5 on Sunday and they trail three games to two in the Series. Game 6 is on Tuesday at their home park, where they hope to win twice and join the 2016 Cubs, the 1985 Royals, the 1968 Tigers, the 1958 Yankees, the 1925 Pirates and of course, the ’79 “We Are Family” Pirates.
“I never doubted we could do it,” said Jim Rooker, the Pirates’ starter in Game 5 of that series. “We had a bunch of fun, crazy guys, and that definitely helps.”
But there is no clear formula for how to stave off elimination three straight times to win a World Series, no blueprint easily transferable across decades. The ’79 Pirates relied on many things, including motivation supplied by the mayor of Baltimore, who announced the parade route before Game 5.
“After each win we joked, ‘We just canceled a parade,’” Tekulve said. “‘Let’s cancel another one.’”
In 2016, the Chicago Cubs were clearly tight when the World Series began. Shouldering the burden of more than a century of failure had doomed many Cubs pretenders before them, and that team started out that way, too.
But after a narrow victory in Game 5 on Oct. 30, management allowed the Cubs’ players to remain in Chicago for the day off. Instead of another day of batting practice and interviews in Cleveland, the players remained behind in Chicago to celebrate Halloween with their families.
David Ross, the team’s catcher, took his kids to join Ryan Dempster’s family for trick-or-treating in the Wrigleyville neighborhood. When they rang doorbells, people held bags of candy and wore stunned expressions on their faces to see that Cubs players were at their doors, instead of grinding away in a batting cage in Cleveland.
“People were freaking out,” Ross said, “But we were able to relax and have fun and then just kind of reset. I think it made a big difference.”
Later that night, many of the players wore costumes on the plane, which left Chicago around 9 p.m., and that loose group won the next two games in Cleveland and ended a 108-year drought.
In 1985, the Royals faced disaster after losing Game 4 in St. Louis. But that group had the unusual distinction of already knowing it could overcome a 3-1 deficit, because it had just done so in the American League Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays.
John Wathan, the Royals’ veteran catcher, recalled an interview he gave before the pivotal Game 5 of the World Series that encapsulated the team’s attitude.
“I said on the radio that teams win three games in a row all the time during the regular season,” he said on Monday. “It’s not that hard. We knew we could do it.”
Wathan also noted that the ’85 Royals, like the ’79 Pirates and the 2021 Astros, had a veteran core that never panicked. He said Manager Dick Howser would tell the players what Dusty Baker has told the Astros.
“He’d say, ‘You know you can do it,’” Wathan recalled. “’Now just go out there and do it.’”
It helped that Kansas City had a virtuosic pitching staff that included Danny Jackson, Charlie Leibrandt, Dan Quisenberry and the 21-year-old sensation Bret Saberhagen. The Pirates also had an impressive staff in 1979, with Bert Blyleven, John Candelaria and Jim Bibby. But Rooker, who had been injured, was the surprise starter for Game 5. He threw four shutout innings before allowing a run in the fifth, and Blyleven pitched four shutout innings in relief.
But on their way to Three Rivers Stadium that morning, the players learned that Manager Chuck Tanner’s mother had died. Tekulve recalled that the players, normally boisterous and loud, sat glumly with their backs to their lockers, staring into the middle of the clubhouse, not knowing how to approach Tanner, or what to say.
Finally, not long before batting practice, Tanner appeared in the home clubhouse and told the players, “I know you heard about my mother. She knew we were in trouble, and she went to get help.’”
It was the perfect approach.
“He knew exactly what to say that would allow us to get back to work,” Tekulve said. “He was letting us know it was OK.”
After Game 5, the Pirates went to Baltimore, and on the day off before Game 6, Rooker was surprised to hear Orioles fans on the street tell him that the Pirates had the series in the bag.
“It was weird,” Rooker said. “They felt like we did, that we were going to win.”
They did not know that before Game 6, Candelaria’s back was so sore, a teammate had to tie his spikes for him. Somehow, Candelaria threw six scoreless innings and Tekulve tossed the last three to complete the shutout.
Courageous performances like that are also a helpful tool when trying to overcome a 3-1 deficit.
“John was one of the toughest guys I ever played with,” Tekulve said.
Tekulve was tough, too. Over the last few games, he kept telling himself it was July 16, not October. He carried that approach into the ninth inning of Game 7 and after he recorded two strikeouts and the ball went around he horn, Tekulve took it back from Bill Madlock, the third baseman.
“Twenty-five other teams went into spring training looking for this out,” he said. “We’re the ones who are going to find it.”
So, the lessons on how to come back from a 3-1 deficit include tough, confident veterans; compassionate managers; a little trick-or-treating; mayors with big mouths and a rekindled confidence after losing three times.
“We were down 3-1, now we’re still down 3-2,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said after Sunday’s Game 5. “I truly believe, if there’s one team that can accomplish that in this league, it’s us.”