A few years ago I wrote a book about baseball's greatest blunders. I missed the '73 Pirates, who probably should have won their fourth straight National League East title but instead finished 80-82, with the 82-79 Mets winning the division.
The following is from a new book, Matthew Silverman's Swinging '73: Baseball's Wildest Season:
In Pittsburgh, though, going on without the "Great One" had left a giant hole not only in the outfield but in the clubhouse and the greater community. Manny Sanguillen, an All-Star catcher, was chosen to replace his close friend in right field. Manager Bill Virdon didn't admit to the mistake until June and didn't play hard-hitting rookie Richie Zisk in right field every day until late July. (Another rookie with a deadly stroke, Dave Parker, also spent an inordinate amount of time on the bench.)
Virdon wound up getting fired, but not until September. In retrospect, it was quite an incredible decision, to essentially go with two catchers in the lineup -- Sanguillen and Milt May -- when both Zisk and Parker were hanging around. When Zisk did play, he was the Pirates' second-best hitter.
But there was another decision that looks at least as bizarre: Steve Blass started 18 games for the Pirates that season, and went 3-9 with a 9.85 ERA. Also, 84 walks and 27 strikeouts in 89 innings.
Yes, that was the Steve Blass Disease season. Today, there's no way a manager would let a pitcher start so many games while so obviously messed up. But Virdon did it. And he wasn't alone. Virdon's replacement, Danny Murtaugh -- who'd managed the Pirates so well in previous seasons -- gave Blass three starts in September, all of which the Pirates lost. Granted, he didn't give up a ton of runs -- well, until the third one -- but his control issues were still terribly obvious.
It took a LOT for the Mets to win; you could probably make a good argument that they were more miraculous in '73 than they'd been in '69, except for the World Series. But Bill Virdon gave them a lot of help.