The rag-tag bunch of rookies Gene Lamont inherited from legendary Pirates manager Jim Leyland in 1997 were widely expected to finish last in the NL Central. Unexpectedly, Lamont’s low-budget squad went 79-83 and nearly stole the division crown from the Houston Astros in the last week of the season.
Lamont was no stranger to splashy debuts. He homered off of Cal Koonce of the Red Sox in his first major league at-bat for the Tigers in 1970. Lamont had spent five years as a highly touted catcher in the Detroit organization after being drafted ahead of Johnny Bench by the Tigers in 1965. But after his auspicious big-league debut Lamont managed just three more homers and 14 RBIs over the next five years, only appearing in 87 major-league games.
Lamont joined the Royals’ organization after retiring as a player in 1977, managing their Single-A Fort Myers club for two years and Double-A Jacksonville for four, finishing first in 1982 (when he was named the Southern League’s Manager of the Year) and 1983. After two seasons in Omaha he joined the Pirates’ new manager, Jim Leyland, as Pittsburgh’s third base coach in 1986. The Pirates finished dead last in the National League that year, but thanks to the emergence of Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds, crawled closer to respectability in 1987 with an 80-82 record.
By 1992, the Pirates had twice won the NL East with a team built mainly from homegrown talent.
When manager Jeff Torborg left the White Sox to take the same position with the Mets in 1992, Chicago hired Lamont, who had grown up a Cubs fan in Kirkland, IL. Under their new skipper, the Sox dropped a game in the won-loss column, but in 1993 rebounded to win 94 and finish first in the AL West for the first time since Tony LaRussa‘s Chicago club had won 99 games in 1983. Lamont’s resultant AL Manager of the Year honors was earned by coaxing top performances out of Frank Thomas (.317, 41 homers, 128 RBIs) and Robin Ventura (.262, 22, 94) and nurturing an outstanding rotation that featured Jack McDowell (22-10, 3.37 ERA), Alex Fernandez (18-9, 3.13), Wilson Alvarez (15-8, 2.95), and Jason Bere (12-5, 3.47).
With a squad similar to the 1993 steamroller, Chicago probably would have made the playoffs in ’94 were it not for the players’ strike. In 1995, the team slumped badly, and with the White Sox in fourth place after an 11-20 start Chicago replaced Lamont with Terry Bevington. Lamont headed back to Pittsburgh to take a coaching job with the Pirates.
Since most of Pittsburgh’s stars had moved on due to deep cuts in the club’s payroll, the Pirates’ roster mostly featured inexperienced, unknown rookies. Within a year, manager Jim Leyland had left the last-place Pirates to head the Florida Marlins, leaving Lamont in charge. Adopting an aggressive style of play that focused on fundamentals and clutch hitting, Lamont’s young, hungry squad consistently surprised teams throughout the National League. His team’s unexpected second-place finish gave him enough votes to finish as runner-up to the Giants’ Dusty Baker in the Manager of the Year balloting.
The Pirates slumped to last place in ’98 (with losses in 25 of their last 30 games) leading some to criticize Lamont’s low-key, laid-back demeanor as a bad fit for a team sorely in need of a spark. But team management kept Lamont on board in the hopes that he could return the team to prominence by the time Pittsburgh’s new ballpark opened in 2001. Given the vote of confidence, Lamont’s Pirates rebounded to a 73-83 record in ’99.