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.
“HOW DO I FEEL?” Palmer screamed. “HOW DO I FEEL? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I JUST LOST THE SIXTH GAME OF THE WORLD SERIES AND YOU COME IN HERE AND ASK ME HOW I FEEL?”
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.