Dom Cosentino is a lifelong Pirates fan (yes, they still exist). To commemorate the 17th consecutive losing season of the franchise, he’s provided this essay on what it’s like to be under .500 all those years.
Sept. 30, 1990, was a bright, early autumn afternoon in Pittsburgh, a Sunday in which the Steelers were playing the Miami Dolphins at Three Rivers Stadium.
Only nobody cared.
The record shows that 54,691 were in attendance—roughly 5,000 short of capacity—and I was one of them, age 15. But the actual crowd was far less.
Aside from the weather, two distinct memories from that afternoon stand out: Bubby Brister throwing three interceptions, and the wild cheering that suddenly ensued as a result of something that didn’t even happen in Pittsburgh, let alone on the field at Three Rivers.
The Pirates were playing in St. Louis that afternoon, and just after Doug Drabek got Denny Walling to bounce out to second, with Jose Lind flipping a throw to Sid Bream for the final out, Drabek jumped with joy into Bream’s arms. And the crowd at Three Rivers, a number of whom had brought radios, finally had something to do other than yawn or boo.
True story: A Steelers game was played with chants of “Let’s Go Bucs” coming from the crowd. The Pirates had clinched the National League Eastern Division title, their first championship in 11 years, and the first of what would be three division crowns in a row.
The Steelers? Shit, this was end of the Chuck Noll Era, and the Steel Curtain by that time had become weathered and rusted—it was Week 4, and after losing 28-6 that day to the Dolphins, the Steelers still had not scored an offensive touchdown that season.
It all sounds like so much fiction now, the Steelers being an afterthought while the local television news stations were flooding the zone at places like the Clark Bar—located on the ground floor of the old candy factory, just across the parking lot from the stadium—for slurred, IC Light-soaked baseball commentary from delirious yinzers like Stanley from Polish Hill.
These days, yinzers like Stanley wouldn’t know the Pirates still played in Pittsburgh except that there has to be something to do at PNC Park in the three hours or so before somebody gets around to setting off the fireworks that Dude at Work had promised him when he gave him the tickets. Dude at Work, of course, had initially received those tickets as a birthday gift from his girlfriend but didn’t want to use them because, well, let’s face it – he had better things to do. Even in Pittsburgh.
Yesterday, the 2009 Pirates lost their 82nd game, clinching the franchise’s 17th consecutive losing season – a record for North American professional sports teams, and a staggering feat of futility for a franchise that really does have five World Series titles to its credit. Oh, but it’s true: eternal suckitude has a home, and it’s located in the same posh neighborhood as the reigning Super Bowl and Stanley Cup champions. Just try not to stare as you pass the blighted property with the broken windows, the overgrown lawn, and the tattered Jolly Roger flag, OK?
The Buccos’ long, lamented losing skid dates back to the last of those three straight division titles, to the night of Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series against the Braves. A 2-0 lead to start the bottom of the ninth that night had dissolved into a 3-2 defeat, and while it was generally understood that that was it for that group of Pirates—Drabek and Barry Bonds were certain to leave via free agency—no one in their right mind could say for certain that, by 2010, the team would still be trying to get back to .500.
But here we are. What a day.
It is widely assumed that baseball’s economic imbalance is to blame for the Pirates’ woes. And while that explanation had some merit to it in the years after 1992, it no longer suffices.
Consider: Since ‘92, every other team in Major League Baseball except for two—the Nationals (nee Expos) and the Royals—has made the playoffs. Two of the teams that didn’t even exist in ‘92—the Marlins and the Diamondbacks—have won the World Series, with the Marlins having done so twice. And the other two that weren’t born yet – the Rockies and the Rays – have won pennants.
Yep. The playing field has more or less evened out.
But the Pirates still suck.
This, after all, is the team that could have acquired Ryan Howard for Kip Wells or Kris Benson. And passed on both offers.
Two former general managers—Cam Bonifay and then Dave Littlefield—were notorious for holding fire sales in the name of keeping the team’s costs down, but they were also guilty of giving a singles-hitting catcher like Jason Kendall a $60 million contract when they were bidding against themselves, and for dealing for Matt Morris at the trade deadline—when Morris was 33-years-old, couldn’t pitch anymore, and earned more than $10 million per season.
It’s as if management were trying to prove it was better to be stupid than cheap.
You would think a team that drafts in or around the top five every year for nearly two decades would have something to show for it. And the Pirates do: A collection of pitchers who developed arm trouble before ever reaching the big leagues. In 10 drafts from 1998 to 2007, the Pirates took pitchers in first round eight times. Other than Paul Maholm, none has had anything resembling real success at the big-league level. And several didn’t even make it that far.
Things were so bad at one point that other teams actually laughed out loud at the Pirates during the infamous 2003 Rule 5 draft, when five of the top six picks were simply plucked from their system right from under their nose. Like beggars passing the hat, the team collected $250,000 as compensation and tried to spin the entire affair as a positive.
“I heard the laughs coming from back there,” Pirates farm director Brian Graham said. “Realistically, it’s a compliment. You don’t want to lose players, and it’s not a positive for us. But it is a compliment.”
He really said that. With a straight face.
The closest the Bucs have come to being competitive in all these years was 1997, when the “Freak Show”—so-called because their payroll was a mere $9—finished 79-83 and wasn’t eliminated from playoff contention in a weak NL Central until just before the last weekend of the season. Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon combined for a no-hitter one night that summer against the Astros, and more than 44,000 were in the stands to see it happen. Truly a magical time.
A lot of Pirates fans — and there are plenty of us dumb enough to add up to “a lot”—have developed a routine every summer. Every time there’s another trade, the text messages and e-mails announcing the deal(s) start going around, followed by the usual sighs of resignation and anger. And there’s always at least someone who takes the bright side by declaring any deal a good one—as if, after 17 years of this crap, the Pirates somehow deserve the benefit of the doubt when swapping a seasoned veteran for another batch of unproven prospects.
Finally, there are my friends, the ones lucky enough to root for teams like the Phillies and the Yankees, teams that actually play games that matter after Memorial Day. They do things like send me texts saying, “What r u up 2 tonite? This chick I’m with is colder than the Pirates’ chances at making the playoffs. Hit me up if u go out.”
I laugh at stuff like that, and I play along, taking comfort in the knowledge that at least My Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t baseball’s equivalent of truly sad-sack franchises like the Detroit Lions or the Los Angeles Clippers.
Nope. They’re actually worse.