Rooker recalls long walk from Philadelphia; likes Pirates’ chances in ’14

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – Jim Rooker spent 13 seasons as a pitcher in the major leagues, the last eight as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1973-80. He made his big league debut in 1968 with the Detroit Tigers before being selected by the Kansas City Royals in the 1968 October expansion draft.

However, the lefthander is better known for one slip of the tongue as a broadcaster in 1989 rather than his 103 career victories, 3.46 ERA, 976 strikeouts or 1,810.1 innings of work. He also earned a World Series ring in 1979 as a member of “We Are Family.”

“The years I spent in Pittsburgh as a player we had some good players and seasons, but sports writers like you won’t let me forget about that night in Philadelphia,” the 71-year-old said, jokingly, Wednesday at Belmont Hills Country Club following a round of golf in the Ohio Valley Christian Soldiers Classic in memory of Jeffrey Showalter.

Rooker, who was well-known during his playing days as one to openly voice his opinion, joined the Pirates’ radio and television broadcast team as a color analyst in 1981, a year after he hung up his glove and spikes. He remained in the booth until 1993 when he joined ESPN until 1997.

It was on June 8 at Veterans Stadium when Rooker made a comment he – and his feet – would soon regret some nine innings later. The Pirates had just exploded for 10 first-inning runs when the host Phillies came to bat. That’s when Rooker stuck not one foot, but both feet, in his mouth by uttering those ill-fated words to broadcast partner, Lanny Frattere, which were aired over the radio, “If we don’t win this one, I don’t think I’d want to be on that plane ride home. Matter of fact, if we don’t win, I’ll walk back to Pittsburgh.”

Whoops! He not only cursed the Buccos, but himself, as well, as Philadelphia took the lead in the eighth inning in rallying for an improbable, 15-11, victory.

“That was a memorable time,” Rooker recalled. “We raised $81,000 for charity on that walk.”

Rooker, along with a support group, made the 300-mile trek across the Keystone State following the season. It has now become a yearly event with the help of Pittsburgh Pirates Charities.

“That’s probably the biggest thing I remember as an announcer,” he said. “It was a lot of fun, but it was also a lot of agony at the same time.”

The Phillies’ comeback was fueled by a pair of home runs by little-known Steve Jeltz, who, ironically, only had five career homers in his 8-year career.

Rooker had a wide range of thoughts about the current edition of the Pirates, who are involved in the middle of a heated pennant chase in the National League’s Central Division with Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati.

“They are finally exciting again and they’re a factor again,” he allowed. “They may be a couple of players short. I think their offense needs a little more juice, but their pitching has held them in there. That’s very important.

“I think they’ve got a chance, but hopefully, they go a little deeper in the playoffs than they did a year ago.”

Does he think they should’ve made a trade before the deadline expired recently?

“For me I say ‘yes, try to get more bats in the lineup,’ but that’s easy for me to say because I’m not the guy that has to make that decision. And now that they didn’t, it becomes more difficult. Personally, I think they need a little more punch in their lineup because, usually, pitching can get you to the playoffs. It did in the past for the Pirates, but when you get to the playoffs, more times than not, the other teams pitching is as good as yours, and in this case, their lineup is a little better than the Pirates right now.

“They’ve been able to ham-and-egg it thus far, but it becomes more difficult late in the season and in the playoffs when you’re playing the cream of the crop.”

Josh Harrison is having a breakout season, can he continue?

“I don’t think anyone, including Josh, thought he would have a season like this. He’s always been a good player off the bench in the past. You just don’t know how long he can keep this up, but you’ve got to continue riding that hot bat.

“I’m excited for him and hopes he continues it and carries it over to next season.”

With his throwing troubles from third base and a demotion to role player, what do you think is Pedro Alvarez’s future hold in Pittsburgh?

“That guy has talent, but you’d think by now he would’ve made some adjustments, but he hasn’t. I think it is more mental right now than physical.”

How long can the Pirates survive without injured all-stars Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker?

“The bench has been playing really well in their absences everyday, but all that does is weaken your bench. If someone else gets hurt, I think all heck breaks loose. You can only keep your fingers crossed for so long.”

Can the current pitching staff get the job done?

“Yes. They showed last year what they can do. There’s nothing better than experience, and they got that last season. I think the pitchers are better than their numbers show, especially with the lack of run support at times. I think the offense will get better and that, in turn, will help the pitchers win-loss numbers and ERAs.”

North can be reached at knorth@timesleader-online.com