In his first year as a manager, in 1963 at Quad Cities, Iowa, Chuck Tanner made a mistake. Coaching at third base, he yanked a runner to his feet and aimed him toward the plate.
Unlike St. Louis Coach Chuck Hiller, who grabbed the Cardinals' Andy Van Slyke at third Monday night and became responsible for an important out in a crucial game, Tanner escaped retribution.
Far more remarkable, at least as his career unfolds in Tanner's memory, the current boss of the Pittsburgh Pirates has not made a mistake since. If that smacks a bit of egotism, it at least avoids the second-guess sleeplessness common to managers in the National League East.
Four teams were separated by no more than two games in the loss column entering tonight's play and the fact that Pittsburgh was one of them lends credence to Tanner's claim of managerial perfection. If he isn't doing it with mirrors, he must have a touch of genius.
A check of the runs-batted-in column shows the Pirates with 529, a figure exceeded by all other National League teams except cellar-dwellers New York and Cincinnati. Pittsburgh's leader with 66 is Jason Thompson, who has been hampered in recent days by a bad back.
Bill Madlock, the Pirates' best batter, is slowed by a pulled tendon in his right calf. Dave Parker, another of the club's dependable hitters, is playing despite a strained right knee. Mike Easler spent most of August on the disabled list with a torn left thumb.
"We've got some guys hobbling, but they all want to be in the lineup," Tanner said. "How your team copes with the down side decides who wins it. So far, we've done pretty well. Our pitching has been outstanding all this time and we have a bunch of men who have kept a good attitude."
Despite the series of injuries, the Pirates since the All-Star break have posted the best record in the National League, 39-28. From fifth place on July 8, they have flirted with the lead, and Tanner sees no reason why they can't finish on top.
"The way this thing has gone, it'll probably finish in a four-way tie," Tanner said. "Our shot is certainly as good as anybody else's. The key to every ball club is the starting rotation, and we've got five quality pitchers."
None of the five--John Candelaria, Larry McWilliams, Jose DeLeon, Lee Tunnell or Rick Rhoden--has won more than 13 games, a failure largely traceable to that minuscule RBI total. Since All-Star time, the Pittsburgh staff has compiled an astounding earned-run average of 3.04.
Injuries have affected the pitching, too. Don Robinson, who led the club with 15 victories a year ago, is 2-2 and Jim Bibby, the 19-game winner of 1980, is 4-12 in a comeback bid following shoulder surgery. It was not until DeLeon and Tunnell filled those holes that the club began its move in July.
"We had a lot of things to sort out the first third of the season," Tanner said. "We didn't have Robinson, we were trying to bring Bibby back and it took a little bit of time for Tunnell and DeLeon to fit in. But that was all right. Nobody was expecting us to do anything, anyway. I think we've surprised a few clubs and I hope we can keep on surprising them."
Before the start of each home stand, Tanner answers fans' questions on the cable-TV station that shows the Pirates' games locally. On Monday, a technical problem prevented the questions from getting on the air, and Tanner was asked if censorship was involved.
"No, I'm glad they're interested and I welcome the questions," Tanner said. "I have a reason for everything I do and if they knew more about baseball than I did, they'd be here managing and I'd be sitting home.
"I never second-guess myself, because I never made a wrong decision. If something didn't work out, it's because the other guys are pretty good, too. If I put (Kent) Tekulve in to pitch to (Johnny) Bench and Bench homers, it was still the right move. Bench just made their move a better one.
"I once took a guy out who was pitching a no-hitter, we lost the game and I'm still convinced it was the right move. I was in Seattle (1967) and Butch Haefner, who later played with the Red Sox, had missed spring training and he was weakening.
"The inning before, he gave up three line drives that were caught and this inning he fills the bases on an error and two walks with one out--a real rope. I put in a relief pitcher and George Altman hits a high fly that the outfielder misses. All three runs score, the game is tied and we wind up losing in extra innings.
"I was on a radio show afterward and the fans were screaming at me. If those people could have gone through the chicken wire, it might have been all over for me."
It might be all over for Tanner if a similar circumstance arose here, especially if the reliever should be Rod Scurry, whose every appearance these days is greeted by boos. There aren't a lot of fans at Three Rivers Stadium, with unemployment prevalent in the area, but they are intense, as witness the transistor battery that sailed past Parker's head following an error on Sunday.
"That could have happened anywhere, but I hated to see it happen in Pittsburgh," Tanner said. "Most of the fans here are good fans, and they're very enthusiastic even if they don't have the money to come out very often. Our TV and radio ratings are among the highest in baseball and if I had all the money in the world, I'd open the gates and let them all in free."
Was that John Galbreath shouting, "Mistake, mistake"?