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'Family' reunion; Close ties still bind '79 Pirates

PITTSBURGH -- John Candelaria can't quite pinpoint when the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates adopted "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge as the club's de facto theme song on the way to a World Series title.

Ultimately, the timing doesn't really matter. What matters is that every word rang true. The proof came on those off days on the road during that memorable summer and fall, when Candelaria and his teammates would rent a hotel suite, open up a few pops -- "or whatever," as the pitcher put it with a smile -- and open the floor for discussion.

"If there was anything on anyone's mind, right then and there in that room, that's where it stayed," Candelaria said Saturday while joining more than a dozen members of the 1979 team for a 40th anniversary celebration at PNC Park. "And we were good about that."

Candelaria -- who won 14 games for the Pirates in 1979 and earned the victory in Game 6 of the World Series against Baltimore as Pittsburgh became the first team to rally from a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven to win it all -- isn't sure how successful his group would have been able to keep things in house in today's social media environment.

"We would have been in deep crap," Candelaria said. "Cameras and everything? Aww geez. That would have been ugly. It really would have."

Those long talks deep into the night helped forge the bond that helped the Pirates emerge from an early-season funk to chase down Montreal to capture the division title. Pittsburgh swept Cincinnati in the National League Championship Series, then stormed back against the Orioles, culminating in a chilly, on-field celebration at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore on Oct. 17.

In the giddy aftermath, they thought 1979 was the start of something special. It wasn't. The Pirates failed to reach the playoffs in the 1980s, and despite pockets of success -- from the Barry Bonds-led group that reached the NLCS three straight years in the early 1990s and the Andrew McCutchen-led group that advanced to the postseason from 2013 to 2015 -- Pittsburgh is still waiting for another shot at the World Series.

"Forty years, I never would have thought that the Pirates would have gone 40 years without doing it again," outfielder Dave Parker said.

It sounds like a long time, and in some ways, it is. Several members of the team -- from manager Chuck Tanner to Hall of Fame first baseman Willie Stargell -- have passed away. Parker -- a seven-time All-Star during his 19-year career -- is battling Parkinson's and used a cane to make his way onto the field before the current version of the Pirates faced the Philadelphia Phillies. Several others used wheelchairs to get around.

And yet from the moment they gathered, in some ways it was as if no time had passed.

"We had fun," Parker said. "Other teams would come in and not know if we were getting ready for a game or doing a barbeque. We were a team that had fun and threw everything we had on the field we could to win."

Including copious amounts of offense from Parker, who hit .310 with 25 home runs and 94 RBIs in 1979 while also winning a Gold Glove and finishing 10th in the Most Valuable Player voting, part of a prime that made the player nicknamed "Cobra" one of the most feared players in baseball.

Despite finishing with 2,712 hits, a career .290 batting average and 339 home runs, Parker remains on the outside of the Hall of Fame looking in. There is a groundswell of support recently, and Parker insists he's not worried about his legacy.

"Well, I think I should be there," Parker said. "Most people that know me and played against me, they look at me as being a Hall of Famer anyway. I don't think that there is anybody from 1975 to '81 that was a better player than me."

And how would Parker and Stargell have fared in today's home-run centric version of the game?

"We would have capsized some boats," said the left-handed hitting Parker with a laugh, referencing the Allegheny River that runs behind the right-field wall at PNC Park.

Instead, he had to settle for blasts at cavernous -- and now long since gone -- Three Rivers Stadium. While the game looks different than the way it did when "We Are Family" blared, Parker is confident his group of Pirates would have found a way to thrive anyway.

"We looking to go out and take 3-1 from somebody," he said. "These guys, you never know how these guys heart is. These guys got big hearts, and that was reflected 40 years ago, and if we had to tear it up right now, it'd be effective right now."