Will Pirates Ever Win?

The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t been over .500 for a season in so long that they are threatening to have players on the roster who weren’t even born the last time that occurred. It’s getting close.

Once upon a time the Pirates were the pride of the city, the team that gave the world Roberto Clemente, Harvey Haddix’s 12 perfect innings, Bill Mazeroski’s seventh-game World Series-winning home run to beat the Yankees, Ralph Kiner, Pie Traynor, Paul Waner, Lloyd Waner and Honus Wagner. For those who don’t know their history, Wagner is more than the most valuable baseball card ever. He was just about the greatest shortstop ever.

Now honestly, how many players on the current Pirates roster can you even name?

The Pirates will enter the 2012 season with 19 straight years of losing campaigns, from 1993 to 2011. That is not only the Major League record for team ineptitude, it’s a streak that is beginning to reach Barry Bonds home-run proportions or Rickey Henderson stolen-base proportions. In other words, it’s a record that seems to have staying power, one that may not be threatened in our lifetimes (I hope not, anyway).

Second place on the all-time worst list is a tie between the Boston Red Sox of 1919-1933, the Philadelphia/Kansas City/Oakland Athletics of 1953-1967, and the Philadelphia Phillies of 1933-1947. Two of those horrendous streaks were characterized by franchise-altering developments. The Red Sox demise, following a glorious early-20th century run, coincided with selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees. The losing streak ended after Tom Yawkey became owner and began pouring money into the club.

As for the A’s, the beginning of their shaky period followed the retirement of Connie Mack as manager after a half century, the move away from Philadelphia, and the Kansas City A’s being operated as a pseudo-AAA team of the New York Yankees given the way the team promptly handed over any worthwhile player seemingly on demand in a lousy trade. The A’s came out of this tailspin after owner Charlie Finley built a solid farm system, stopped trading away the good players that matured in it and moved the club to Oakland in 1968.

The Phillies were horrible for so long because they had nincompoop owners, were in a two-team city, and didn’t even seem to want to be good.

Of those three rotten predecessors, it seems as if the Pirates’ woes are most comparable to the Phillies. Pittsburgh has gone through more than one owner, several general managers and field managers, but could never seem to figure out how to put a competitive team on the field in this era of free agency. The owners were either not rich enough to spend, or were unwilling to invest in top-of-the-line free agents. The farm system produced some good players, but as soon as they seemed ready to seriously help win games, their contracts were up and the Pirates were not prepared to give them enough money to stay put.

In 2010 the Pirates finished 57-105, the worst record in the majors. That seemed to indicate they have made no progress whatsoever since this long-running disaster began. Then, just when it seemed as if the last Pirates fan had concluded things would be forever hopeless and jumped into the Allegheny River, Pittsburgh won 70 games in 2011.

Most incredibly, there were moments last summer when the Pirates hinted at the prospect of a (gadzooks) winning season. On July 8, the Pirates entered the All-Star break with a winning record for the first time since 1992. On July 15 and on July 18 the Pirates were in first place in the National League Central Division. Many fans probably turned their newspapers upside-down those days, just to make sure the standings were correct.

The good days didn’t last, but it made a few fans blink. That was the latest the Pirates had been in first place since 1997.

The Pirates had three players, Andrew McCutcheon (Wait, I have heard of him!), Joel Hanrahan, and Kevin Correia (I think I heard his name mentioned somewhere, too), selected for the All-Star game. These days the roster for each league in the All-Star game seems to resemble  the size of NFL pre-season rosters, but still. It was the first time since 1990 the Pirates had three All-Stars in the same year.

What’s it all mean? Hard to tell. We don’t hear about the Pirates wooing Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder. Is the young talent for real? Can the Pirates go 82-80?

For the first time in a long, long time Pirates fans can dare to be optimistic. That may mean they have modest hopes of cracking that .500 mark rather than dreaming of a World Series or playoff appearance like other teams’ fans, but you’ve got to crawl before you can run.

Tags: Andrew McCutcheon Bill Mazeroski Boston Red Sox Charlie Finley Harvey Haddix Honus Wagner Joel Hanrahan Kevin Correia Lloyd Waner Oakland A's Paul Waner Philadelphia Phillies Pie Traynor Pittsburgh Pirates Ralph Kiner Roberto Clemente

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