I’M FASCINATED by the 1969 Pilots, Seattle’s one-year Major League Baseball team. OK — obsessed might be a better word.
This is the 50-year anniversary of all that bad baseball played at Sicks’ Stadium. And that seemed like as good a reason as I’d ever have to write about Ray Oyler, the light-hitting shortstop and fan favorite who made his home here after he was done playing.
But there’s so much more.
Did you know that 18 of the 53 Pilots players are dead? I do, because I check every couple of weeks, hoping I don’t have to add anyone to my list. (Most recent death: pitcher Marty Pattin, Oct. 3, 2018. RIP.)
I know that promising young right-hander Miguel Fuentes threw the Pilots’ final pitch, getting Reggie Jackson out, then was shot to death at a bar in his native Puerto Rico less than four months later.
I know that pitcher John Gelnar lost two games on July 20 at Sicks’ Stadium, but no one really noticed, because Neil Armstong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon that day.
And I know that fiery outfielder Lou Piniella, who later became the best manager the Mariners ever had, was a Pilot during spring training but was traded before the start of the season.
The 1969 Pilots Rookie Stars card from Topps features Piniella, who looks like a square-jawed movie star. About the time the Pilots had had enough of Piniella at spring training in Arizona, young Kansas City outfielder Steve Whitaker wasn’t helping himself in the Royals’ camp in Florida.
Whitaker, a Tacoma native, had reported late, talked into not showing up in support of the players’ union. Problem was, 69 players did report. Whitaker was one of only four who didn’t. About a week after he finally arrived, he was traded to Seattle.
“We both had reputations as crazy nutjobs,” says Whitaker, 75, who runs a real estate company in Florida with his son. “So, we’re two crazies, traded for one another.”
Whitaker says that after the deal he flew to Arizona and was picked up at the airport by Marvin Milkes, the Pilots’ general manager.
“He told me, ‘We’re giving you an opportunity, but if you do anything, I’ll have you out of here as soon as I can sign the papers.’ ”
Oh, and welcome to the ballclub.
Whitaker hit the last two home runs in Pilots history, one in each of the final two games, against Oakland at Sicks’ Stadium, as the team finished its only season with a 64-98 record. Whitaker hit six homers all year. After 16 games in 1970 with the San Francisco Giants, he never played in the majors again.
Piniella? He was Rookie of the Year with the Royals in ’69, hitting .282 with 11 home runs and 68 RBI, and played until 1984.