Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Record-Breaking Pirates -- a Real Shame

In most newspapers around the country this morning it was a note that rate one paragraph, perhaps two: The Pittsburgh Pirates became the first professional franchise in the history of the United States to have 17 consecutive losing seasons when they lost on Monday to the Chicago Cubs.

There’s a bit of irony that the loss would come against the Cubs who have gone 100 years without winning a World Series and a mere 64 without getting to The World Series. No doubt that will cheer people up in Pittsburgh a great deal.

It is amazing that the Pirates have fallen as far as they have fallen and then stayed bad for so long. I mean even the Tampa Bay Rays finally pieced together a pennant winning team after years of high draft picks and they did it playing in one of the most God-awful stadiums ever created.

The Pirates play in an absolutely gorgeous ballpark. They play in a town with great tradition and extraordinarily loyal fans. My guess is if they ever popped back into contention people would pack PNC Park to witness their rebirth.

But there is no sign at all of that happening. The Pirates keep trading players for prospects every year, claiming that they’re going to rebuild through youth. The problem is, whenever that youth begins to develop, they trade it in order to avoid arbitration or re-signing someone before they become a free agent.

A couple of times there have been glimmers. In 2007, the Pirates had three young pitchers who appeared to have the potential to be the core of a decent team in Paul Maholm, Mike Gorzelanny and Ian Snell. Only Maholm remains and his ERA lingers near the five runs per nine inning mark. Of course it is tough to pitch consistently when your defense is lousy and you know most nights you have to hold the other team to under three runs to have any chance to win.

A year ago, after playing fairly well in the first half of the season the Pirates traded Xavier Nady and Jason Bay, two established, productive outfielders in return for a bunch of prospects. Neither Nady nor Bay was going to be a free agent at the end of 2008 so if they had stuck around this season along with some of the other players the Pirates unloaded—including their one true franchise player, Jack Wilson—this year, they might have had a chance to at least end the sub-.500 streak.

But they’re gone and, worst of all, hope is gone in Pittsburgh. I find that sad. I remember the great Pirate teams of the 70s—the one that won The World Series in 1971 when Roberto Clemente put on one of the great performances of all time against the Orioles—and then the Willie Stargell-led group that came from 3-1 down to again beat the Orioles, winning the last two games in Baltimore.

That was the first World Series I covered and the Pirates were a fun team to be around. Chuck Tanner, the manager, was a great talker and so were Stargell and Manny Sanguillen. It was a fun clubhouse.

That World Series also produced one of my more humiliating moments. After the Pirates won game six, 4-0, I was assigned to the Orioles clubhouse. Jim Palmer had pitched very well even though he had lost and he was the natural sidebar. When Palmer came out to his locker, everyone waiting for him kind of hesitated. No one wants to ask the first question and get barked at by a frustrated player.

But it was late and I was on deadline. I walked over to Palmer, who I had talked to in locker room situations in the past but only as part of a group. I introduced myself.

“What do you need?” Palmer asked.

The rule in those situations is always ask an easy question first. You don’t start by asking what pitch the guy threw on the game-winning homer. So, knowing he had pitched well, I threw a softball: “How’d you feel out there?” I figured the answer would be something about having good stuff, only making a couple mistakes and so on. I was wrong.


He looked at the other writers who had started to gather around his locker after I walked up and said, “How does a guy like this even get in here?” With that he stormed off to the training room while I kept trying to say that I hadn’t asked how he felt NOW but how he felt on the mound.

Doug DeCinces, who lockered a few feet away, looked at me and said: “Don’t feel bad. I heard what you asked.”

I appreciated that but now I had a bunch of deadline-pressed guys standing around me wanting to know what the hell I was thinking getting Palmer so angry. A few minutes later, Palmer came back. My old friend and mentor Bill Millsaps, from The Richmond Times-Dispatch, said quietly, “Okay Jim, let’s try this again: How did you feel while pitching tonight?”

Palmer never looked at me but he answered the question and all the others he was asked. Years later, when he became an Orioles TV analyst, I reminded him of the story and we both laughed about it. I think he forgave me because he liked my golf books.

I also covered the Pirates last winning team, the 1992 team—Barry Bonds’ last year in Pittsburgh—that lost a 2-1 lead in game seven of the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves and ultimately lost 3-2 on a pinch-hit, two runs single by Francisco Cabrera. I was working on my first baseball book, “Play Ball,” that year and spent a lot of time with Jim Leyland.

Leyland was amazingly open and cooperative with me during the season—I still remember him telling me in spring training that year that Bobby Bonilla would never be able to handle the pressure in New York; boy did he have that right—and I was really torn throughout that series. The Braves were a fabulous group to deal with—Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Terry Pendleton and company were about as easy a group to be around as you could ask for. The Pirates had good guys too, but they also had Bonds who was a world class jerk even then.

So, when Cabrera got the hit and Sid Bream slid home with the winning run, I was happy for the Braves, but felt terrible for Leyland. Since I wasn’t on deadline, I sat with him in his office until everyone else had left. He finally looked at me and said in a choked voice: “My God this is so hard.”

Five years later, he finally got his World Series ring but he was in Miami by then and the Pirates were in a free fall that shows no sign of ending anytime soon. I think Pittsburgh is a great town, I always enjoy myself up there and love going to the ballpark. But it is depressingly empty these days and there is no sign that there will be any reason for it to be filled again anytime soon.

Which is truly a shame.


Dana King said...

I'm a Pittsburgh native and life-long Pirate fan currently living in Laurel MD. (My first memory I can put to a time and place is of riding in the car with my father, listening to Bill Mazeroski's home run win the 1960 World Series.) I have considered getting the MLB Extra Innings TV package so I could catch Pirates' games, since they're never on national TV. It's a hard decision. It's hard to get caught up in each year's team, only to see the players most integral to that team get traded every July. I'm still ,oyal, but they're going to have to let some people stay, and bring in people to fill a few holes, before I'm willing to extend myself much.

It shouldn't be too hard. I mean, are the Orioles and Nats likely to pry loose my affections any time soon?

Anonymous said...

If I were a mega-rich person looking to buy a MLB club, this would seem to me like a sleeping giant, as absurd as that sounds. If you get the right person in the GM chair, put some money into scouting, and really TRY, that could be a great place. Pittsburgh is one of the 2 or 3 best sports towns in this country. Its phenomenal. I think they want to love the Pirates again.
The problem has been that they don't even try. They collect their revenue sharing, keep drafting in the top 5 and taking guys rated in the 30s, and then paying them accordingly. Until management truly cares about winning, nothing will change unless they get really lucky.

Anonymous said...

In reference to the topic, and Ed. O's comment....what are the greatest sleeping giant pro sports franchises? Pirates are definitely on there. The Penguins already proved that winners can return to glory with fans.

Who else in baseball...maybe KC? In football and basketball, the list seems pretty short too.

Anonymous said...

To me, the definition of a "sleeping giant" is a team that has been a powerhouse before, and loved by their city, but through lack of competitiveness and\or poor management (the two tend to go hand-in-hand)has become practically irrelevant in their city. Some recent examples would be the Minnesota Twins at the start of the '00s and last year's Chicago Blackhawks.

The 2 "sleeping giants" in baseball I can think of are the Reds and Orioles. Cincy is a town that loves baseball but the incompetent management can't or won't put a winner on the field. And it seems to me that if the Orioles could win again consistently, people would flood Camden Yards. But people hate Angelos, he messes up the team, and they are stuck in a division with the Yanks and Sox. It is hard to envision them being able to be consistently competitive in that division.

In football, I don't know if the sleeping giant tag can apply because most teams sell out anyway (in most years, maybe not this year), whether they are good or not. Not a lot of cities get apathetic over their NFL teams completely. The Raiders may be a candidate, but nothing good is happening there while Al Davis is in charge. Maybe Detroit. People in MI want them to win so bad, but have just become so used to it never happening.

Jim said...

The Reds are a really good candidate. And the Tigers showed briefly they could be, but the situation in Detroit is so grim, or seems to be, that maybe the best is behind them. I don't see how they can support 3 major franchises going forward.

After that, I'd have to argue that the NFL has so much turnover that almost every team outside the Raiders has a shot in a 5 year period, so sleeper doesn't necessarily apply to them.

In the NBA, the Celtics were, but they have awoken. Only wish they still played in the old Garden. And for that sake, the Bulls in Chicago Stadium.

Marketing Slimeball said...

Thanks for writing this. As a long-time and faithful Pirates fan all I can say is that my sense of optimism follows the seasons: Giddy, bright and new in the springtime, slowly becoming dry and parched during the summer, and inevitably withering and becoming cold as fall approaches.

I'd love to see a playoff game in PNC Park. Many are the late innings (after a 3-run home run has put the visiting team in a comfortable lead) where I sit and look around at the unoccupied rows of blue seats and imagine the roar of a full house and the crisp night air of an October ball game.

I just don't know if the current ownership will ever deliver that playoff game to Pittsburgh. It's a shame.

Anonymous said...

are all of you blind? including the reporter??? this is the first season that the Pirates have ever "cleaned house". keeping bay, nady, wilson, sanchez, mclouth and the rest amounted to no winning seasons. paying 8 million to sanchez and 6 plus to wilson sound like good deals to you people? this is only Neil Huntington's second season as the GM and i applaud what he is doing. why pay average veterans top dollar when they cant bring your city a championship, much less the playoffs. the pirates ARE spending lots of money on the draft and on their scouting... just like the Rays, the Twins and even the Marlins operate. Wake up people and realize that this is the best thing that has happened to Pirate baseball in almost two decades.

Jay said...

I can remember when finding a Pittsburgh Pirates card in a pack of baseball cards was a coup.

Now, they would barely be considered good enough to stick in the spokes of your wheel.

And yes I realize how much that last comment just dated me.