Steve Nicosia

This article was written by Philip Bolda

A first-round draft pick by Pittsburgh in the 1973 amateur draft, Steve Nicosia made his major-league debut with the Pirates on July 8, 1978. Plagued by injuries throughout his eight-year career in the majors, Nicosia had a lifetime batting average of .248 and hit 11 home runs in 938 at-bats. Though he was mainly a backup catcher, he started in four games of the 1979 World Series, including the decisive Game Seven victory over the Baltimore Orioles. 

Steven Richard Nicosia was born on August 6, 1955, in Paterson, New Jersey, to Berniero and Grace Cardinale Nicosia. He had two older siblings Nicholas and Lillian. His father, known as Jerry, did not graduate from high school, and Grace attended three years of high school. Jerry was a presser in a clothing shop, and Grace worked as a cleaner in a clothing shop. 

The family moved south and Steve grew up in Florida, graduating from North Miami Beach High School, playing baseball, soccer, and football there,1 and playing American Legion ball before catching the eyes of fabled Pirates scout Howie Haak. The Pirates made him a first-round draft pick in 1973. His father had died in August of 1972 at the age of 54. 

Nicosia said he started playing baseball at the urging of his brother, Nicholas, who was eight years his senior. “My brother was always an inspiration and a mentor to me,” Nicosia said in 2013. “He taught me everything I know, from the time I was 4 years old.”2 Nicosia also played soccer and football in high school.3 

Nicosia was one of 15 players (“unheralded heroes”) highlighted in former umpire Ron Luciano’s book The Fall of the Roman Umpire. Nicosia said he briefly tried pitching as a high-school sophomore. He hit batters with his first two pitches, walked the next batter on four pitches, and gave up a grand slam on the next. “I could see I probably wasn’t going to make the big leagues as a pitcher,” the book quotes him as saying. “I couldn’t even make the second inning.” He transferred to North Miami Beach High School the next year and volunteered to catch, opening his path to pro baseball.4

Of his six years as a major-league platoon player or backup catcher, he said, “Unless you’re crazy, life in the bullpen will make you crazy.”5

When Howie Haak scouted Nicosia in Miami, he reported that the youngster had a “gun” for an arm. Haak was for 20 years a special-assignment scout for the Pirates, and his involvement carried great weight in Pittsburgh; he was the one who recommended that the Pirates draft Roberto Clemente out of the Dodgers farm system.

The first catcher ever taken by the Pirates in the first round of the amateur draft, Nicosia was one of 88 catchers chosen in the 1973 draft, only eight of whom made the majors – including Eddie Murray, selected by the Orioles as a catcher in the third round. Nicosia was the 24th overall draft pick, and Pirates farm director Harding Peterson said Haak rated him among the top six prospects in the country. “We were surprised that no one drafted Nicosia before us,” Peterson said.6

Nicosia said he might have gone earlier in the draft if not for a pulled muscle in his right shoulder, which kept him out of his last eight high-school games. “My American Legion coach, Fred Hannum, was a Pirate bird dog, and I think he kept the club up on my condition,,” Nicosia said.7 Former Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh, who saw Nicosia catch in a high-school all-star game, agreed that he was ready for the first round of the draft.8

By the time the Pirates were in spring training in February 1975, Nicosia had been tabbed as a player to watch by Pittsburgh sportswriters. He was only 19 and “he has to watch his weight,” but “someday he could replace Manny Sanguillen.” It was noted that Nicosia had a “strong accurate arm” was a “fine defensive catcher” and “had the potential to become a first-rate big-league hitter.”9 

“I’m willing to pay the price to become a big leaguer,” Nicosia was quoted as saying. “I just don’t eat desserts and other fattening food.”10 

Beyond his weight, Nicosia also gained “the lazy tag,” with several scouts reporting that he “needs a kick in the rump once in a while.”11

The Pirates paid Nicosia a reported $50,000 bonus to sign. He quickly found a difference in becoming a professional ball player. “I had never played every day before,” he said. “I got off to a good start, but after two weeks I got tired. I caught 30 straight games. My body couldn’t cope with playing every day.”12

At 17, Nicosia began his career at Charleston (South Carolina) of the Class A Western Carolinas League followed by three end-of-season games with Sherbrooke (Quebec) of the Double-A Eastern League. He was the youngest player on the squad when he arrived in Charleston, joining Pirate prospects John Candelaria and Willie Randolph. Charleston’s manager was former major-league infielder Chuck Cottier, whom Nicosia credited with teaching him more about baseball than he had ever learned before. Nicosia had 23 passed balls in 53 games and hit .230. 

In 1974 Nicosia batted .304 for Salem of the Class A Carolina League, with 9 triples, 15 home runs and 92 RBIs. He made the league all-star team at catcher. Stocked with talented young players, Salem won the Carolina League championship.

Johnny Lipon, his manager at Salem, and called Nicosia “the finest young catcher I’ve ever seen,” noting that he had also been Ray Fosse’s manager at Triple-A Portland in 1967.13

Nicosia played in the instructional league in the fall of 1974 and was in spring training with the Pirates in 1975, but was sent back to Double A, this time with the Shreveport Captains. He continued to improve defensively, leading Texas League catchers in fielding percentage. He hit .268 and was named an all-star. 

Nicosia and Willie Randolph were among the Pirates’ winter-league players in Venezuela in the fall of 1975, playing for Johnny Lipon and the Magallanes team. In the 1976 season he was in Triple A, with the Charleston (West Virginia) Charlies, where the 20-year-old batted.262. In the fall of 1976 he was back in Venezuela, making the league’s all-star team along with Dave Parker, Mitchell Page and Ken Macha. After an impressive spring camp before the 1977 season, Nicosia played in only 25 games for the Triple-A Columbus (Ohio) Clippers before having knee surgery in July.

Nicosia had a break-through season with Columbus in 1978. His .322 batting average was second in the International League to teammate Mike Easler’s .330. At season’s end Nicosia went 0-for-5 in a brief stint with the Pirates.

Nicosia had spent 2½ years at Triple A before making his major-league debut. Reflecting after his career on his time in the minors, Nicosia said, “(T)he most surprising thing I learned in the minor leagues is how little I learned.” He also quipped, “The best thing about looking back on the minor leagues is being able to look back on it.”14

The 22-year-old Nicosia was brought up from Columbus on July 2, 1978, when right fielder Dave Parker went on the disabled list. He was returned to the Clippers on July 16 when Parker was activated, and was later called up in September. At this point he was out of minor-league options, seeming to assure him a place on the 25-man roster the next season.

The Pirates did indeed keep Nicosia on the roster in 1979, and he had a solid rookie season, platooning as the starting catcher with Ed Ott. He batted .288 in 70 games. His first major-league hit, on April 7 at Pittsburgh, was a home run off the Montreal Expos’ Ross Grimsley. On August 5 he was involved in a game that became a hallmark of the team and of manager Chuck Tanner. Against the Philadelphia Phillies and Steve Carlton, Nicosia went 4-for-4 with two doubles, a homer and three runs scored. In the bottom of the ninth inning, with the score tied 8-8, two outs and the bases loaded, Tanner brought in left-handed pinch-hitter John Milner to bat for Nicosia. The Phillies countered with southpaw Tug McGraw. Milner hit a walk-off grand slam on McGraw’s first pitch.

Nicosia didn’t mind one bit, telling teammates on the bench, “What are the chances of a guy like me (a.248 career hitter) going 5-for-5?”15 “That’s the way Tanner plays the game, and we’re in this as a team.”16

Nicosia did not play in the Pirates’ NLCS sweep of the Cincinnati Reds, but started four games in the World Series and was behind the plate when Kent Tekulve closed out the seventh and final game. Nicosia was only 1-for-16, but made key defensive plays, including tagging the Baltimore Orioles’ Ken Singleton out at the plate in Game Three, preserving a 3-2 Pirates lead. He was praised for his pitch selection. “You’ve got to give a lot of credit to Nicosia,” Jim Rooker said after his gutty pitching performance in Game Five. “He called for the fastball on the right-handed hitters and ran it in on them.”17

Nicosia expressed a great deal of respect for Tanner. “Any time things were going bad, Stargell would say, ‘We need to have a team party,’ ” Nicosia recalled in 2009. “We’d rent a suite on the road, on a day off, and have a big pool party, just have some alcohol and have a good time. Most managers might put a squelch on that, have their coaches try to make it not happen. Chuck would come down and have a beer, then leave us alone.”18

A lasting of image of Nicosia after Game Seven was burned into the memories of Pirates fans. As Baltimore fans swarmed the field, several grabbed for souvenirs and focused on the catcher’s mask. “Dad’s whaling on this guy who’s trying to steal his mask,” his daughter Nikki said after seeing the game on DVD years later.19

Again playing as a platoon catcher for the 1980 Pirates, the 24-year-old hit just .216. On June 23 in St. Louis, he was embarrassed when he allowed a stolen base to 41-year-old pitcher Jim Kaat. Just before the 1981 season began, Ed Ott, Nicosia’s platoon partner, was traded to the California Angels. Nicosia had been expected to become the starter but he got off to a slow start in April. Tony Peña was called up from Triple-A Portland, quickly became the starter, and held the role for the next six seasons. Nicosia batted .231 in the 102-game, strike-shortened season.

Nicosia built a reputation as a steady catcher who knew how to handle a pitcher. Bill James noted that in 1981 the Pirates had a better record with Nicosia in the lineup than with Peña (24-24 with Nicosia, 22-32 with Peña). The Pirates had finished 25-23 in the first “half” of the season, and 21-33 when they returned from the players strike.20 Nicosia let it be known that he would prefer to be traded to a club that would play him 120 games in a season, but that he was not bitter about his situation in Pittsburgh. “I have an excellent relationship with Chuck Tanner,” he said. “I will never forget what Chuck did in the 1979 World Series. I platooned and caught three of the first six games. I didn’t hit a lick. When it came to the seventh game, left-hander Scott McGregor started for Baltimore. I wouldn’t have blamed Chuck if he started Ott. But he stuck with me and winning that game will be something I’ll cherish the rest of my life.”21

Perhaps Nicosia’s most impressive batting statistic, and one that clearly endeared him to Tanner and Pirates fans, was his success against the Phillies’ ace, Steve Carlton. Nicosia hit .339 against Carlton in 60 plate appearances. He so often found his way into the lineup against Carlton that he ended with more than twice as many at-bats against Carlton than against any other pitcher.

Nicosia played in only 39 games for the 1982 Pirates. He was 26 years old and had already suffered through a variety of injuries, including having surgery on both knees.22 After the season he was eligible for arbitration but settled on a contract before his case was heard.

After going just 6-for-46 or the 1983 Pirates, Nicosia was traded to the San Francisco Giants for former Pirates catcher Milt May and cash. Peña now dominated playing time, appearing behind the plate in 126 games while heading toward a career-high 149 for the season. The trade was completed in mid-August just after Nicosia ended a stint on the 15-day disabled list with tendinitis in his right shoulder.

In 1984 Nicosia had a chance to become the Giants’ starting catcher but was slowed by an early injury to his wrist. By the end of May, Bob Brenly was getting most of the playing time. In his backup role, Nicosia hit .303 in 48 games. However his reputation as a pinch-hitter and as a tough player grew in his short stint with the Giants. In early June he got eight hits in consecutive at-bats over three games, setting a Giants record. On June 28  he homered off former teammate John Candelaria and then hit a walk-off double in the 11th inning to give the Giants a 4-3 win over his old team.23 On July 18 he hit two triples in a game – one of 74 two-triple games by catchers since 1919.

The home run off Candelaria was Nicosia’s last in the big leagues. In August he broke two ribs in a home-plate collision with Mike Scioscia of the Dodgers while trying to score from second base, knocking him out of regular action for six weeks. The next season he was a free agent and batted only.186 playing for first the Montreal Expos and then the Toronto Blue Jays. He became the first player released by both Canadian major-league teams in one year to end his career.

When he signed with the Expos, there was again talk of him becoming the everyday catcher. But Nicosia’s picture in the Montreal Gazette was captioned “Steve Nicosia – Often Injured” and noted the he had “serious defensive problems”; at one point in the season he had allowed 27 consecutive runners to steal second.24

In 2009, at the time of the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Pirates championship, Nicosia was living in Georgia, working for a company that serviced Marriott Hotels.25 He later moved to Plantation, Florida, and remained active with Pirates fantasy camps, reunions of the 1979 team and other appearances.26 After years of injuries, he had knee-replacement surgery.

Nicosia and his wife, Pam, went to high school together. Their four daughters all took part in sports. Kim and Kelly attended Florida Atlantic University and Florida International University respectively, both playing softball on athletic scholarships. Nikki and Traci, twins, played softball at Michigan State. Nicosia coached all of his daughters at one time or another and also coached his grandson’s Little League team. He was a volunteer leader with the Pembroke Pines, Florida, softball program,27 “(I)t keeps me feeling young,” he said. “It’s been a real positive experience.”28

Last revised: August 1, 2016

 

This biography appears in "When Pops Led the Family: The 1979 Pitttsburgh Pirates" (SABR, 2016), edited by Bill Nowlin and Gregory H. Wolf.