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Revival by the River
The Resurgence of the Pittsburgh Pirates
By Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Donna Eyring
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
All rights reserved.
Raising the Jolly Roger
2013 Pirates Validate Pride of Fans Who Never Accepted Losing
By Gene Collier
Until now you could only raise it, but now you can praise it as well, because the tattered and battered Jolly Roger now flies over a winning franchise and an ever-resilient city where baseball pride is again validated at long last.
That any franchise in any major sport could erect the kind of futility infrastructure that spanned two full decades of uninterrupted failure was almost incomprehensible, but there was nothing in any way unpredictable about this town's reaction to all that losing.
Pittsburgh hated it.
The Pirates, such as they've been for the 20 consecutive summers leading to this one, were never considered lovable losers around here, were never given even a temporary license to stink with impunity like the long-suffering Chicago Cubs and their insufferable "We Wubs Da Cubs," audience or the 120-loss New York Mets of 1962, who were at least comical.
Not here, buddy.
This town finds losing about as cuddly as a wharf rat.
What various ownership groups pushed onto the field here beginning in 1993 was never considered anything but tremendously annoying, completely embarrassing and shamefully unworthy of a baseball stage erected by Honus Wagner and the Waners, a baseball stage polished to an ornate majesty by Clemente and Stargell, a baseball stage that once delivered performances that solidified Pittsburgh's station in baseball's pantheon.
Even after an uninterrupted two-decade nosedive unmatched in sports history, the Pirates were winners still in the city where they won nine pennants and five World Series and produced 40 Hall of Famers.
Then, somehow, they produced something else: a lost generation of fans who never felt any kind of Pirates pride, at least not authentically, not first hand. Those poor kids. Even when a sort-of pennant race got whipped up by the 1997 "Freak Show" Pirates, working within the seriously terrible National League Central on a total team payroll of $9 million, they finished second with a record of 79-83, five games behind the wholly forgettable Houston Astros.
How they did all that isn't the kind of thing that can be explained in a sports column. That takes a novella at the minimum, perhaps a doctoral thesis or a feature length slasher film, but regardless of the platform, it starts with the coin of the realm: talent.
The Pirates didn't wade into this; they threw themselves off a cliff. There were winners of three consecutive division titles and were standing a single out from the 1992 World Series when they decided they couldn't or wouldn't or shouldn't compete financially with the clubs who would be sweet-talking their talented free agents.
So once upon a time you watched a prodigy, a wisp of a leftfielder named Barry Bonds, playing left and crushing baseballs, and suddenly you were staring at Orlando Merced, then Orlando Merced and Dave Clark, then Dave Clark and Will Pennyfeather, then Jermaine Allensworth and Keith Osik and Mike Benjamin and Brant Brown, then Kris Benson and Jimmy Anderson and Pat Meares and John Vander Wal, then Tike Redman and Adam Hyzdu, and there goes Ramon Martinez running straight from the PNC Park mound into retirement without so much as a change of clothes, then you were looking at Raul Mondesi disappearing into thin air on a bereavement mission, then it was Jose Castillo and wiener wacking Randall Simon and Ian Snell, and then, the 2009 Pittsburgh Pirates were led by RBI machine Andy LaRoche.
Not Adam LaRoche, Andy LaRoche.
He drove in 64.
A year later, the so-called first season of the new Pirates dynasty ended with a record of 57-105.
But for every combination of player personnel management threw the dice on for two decades, the larger issue was that the dice weren't as faulty as the shooters. Pittsburgh earned its tawdry loser stripes from the top down, failing spectacularly at drafting, scouting, player development, hiring, firing, public relations, etc.
They failed spectacularly at just about everything but ballpark building, providing the oft-acknowledged best ballpark in baseball as the breath-taking theater for a brand of baseball that was consistently bad except for those times when it was all but irredeemably bad.
The 2013 Pirates never acknowledged a winning season as their primary mission. They never accepted 20 consecutive losing seasons as primarily their burden. But Neil Walker lived it, and plenty of others have heard way too much of this history lesson.
That they eventually changed the course of franchise history isn't something that will soon be forgotten. They didn't just raise the Jolly Roger. They honored it.CHAPTER 2
Losers No More
Pirates' Win Ends Two Decades of Futility
By Bill Brink September 4, 2013
With one word, Andrew McCutchen summarized the feelings of his organization and dismissed two decades of woeful Pirates history.
The question wasn't even complete yet and already he knew the answer. Nope, Mr. McCutchen doesn't care that the Pirates' next win will be their 82nd of 2013, securing a winning season for the first time since 1992. They moved one step closer to that long-elusive goal with victory No. 81 — assured of a record of at least .500 for the first time in two decades — defeating the Milwaukee Brewers, 4-3, at Miller Park.
In a surprising season in which they are jostling with the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in their division and had the best record in Major League baseball at the end of July, they are losers no more, but not quite yet winners.
Most — but not all — players and members of the organization no longer care about compiling a winning season. Some say they're past that. Some say it distracts from the immediate task at hand. Some say mediocrity is not the goal.
"I think that if we were any other organization, you probably wouldn't [care] and the question probably wouldn't even be asked," Neil Walker said. "The fact that 82 wins is such a big number in this city because of obvious reasons, it holds a lot more weight."
Mr. McCutchen made his major league debut June 4, 2009, giving him the most playing time on the active roster of anyone in the organization. (Jeff Karstens made his Pirates debut in 2008, but has not pitched this season due to injury.) Mr. McCutchen said fretting about winning 82 games, or a playoff berth for that matter, distracts from the most important focal point: winning that night's game.
"You're putting pressure on yourself when you do that," he said. "Thinking about playoffs, wild cards, teams winning and losing. You're putting added pressure on yourself that you don't need to put on yourself. You can't control what other teams do."
Mr. Walker debuted not long after Mr. McCutchen (Sept. 1, 2009). Mr. Walker, you might have heard, is from around these parts, so he understands the significance of the losing streak outside the prism of this current team.
"If you're asking me, as a fan, as a growing-up fan ... that number has some significance, yes," he said. "To the other 24 guys, I don't think it holds that much weight."
In 1992, the Pirates won 96 games, finished first in the National League East and lost to the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series. Since that time, they have not won more than 79 games in a season until now. Their 82nd win in a 162-game season would ensure that even if they lost every single game the rest of the way, they would finish with a .506 winning percentage and end the streak. That's not enough for the current crew.
"The ring is the goal," said hitting coach Jay Bell, a shortstop on the 1992 Pirates and owner of a World Series ring. "That's the prize. As you go through the course of a season, that's what you're looking to obtain all year long. Getting over .500 is not the goal by any means."
That streak, by the way, remains the longest in the history of North American professional sports. The Philadelphia Phillies held the previous Major League Baseball record with 16 consecutive losing seasons from 1933-48.
The NHL's Vancouver Canucks (1976-91) and the NBA's Kansas City/Sacramento Kings (1983-98) each lost for 15 consecutive years. The NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished below .500 for 14 consecutive seasons (1983-96).
Despite the implications, few members of the organization perceive ending the streak as a worthy achievement.
"Never been a goal," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said. "Not counting down the days for that, counting the days that we can hoist the National League Central flag at PNC Park."
The previous time the Pirates had a winning season, Mr. Coonelly was practicing law in Washington, D.C., and advising Major League Baseball during negotiations that eventually resulted in the strike-shortened 1994 season. He joined the Pirates in 2007 and witnesses the transformation daily, especially among the fans.
"This year they're in their seats earlier, they're locked in for the first pitch, so they're getting to the ballpark earlier because they see something special happening," he said.
Mr. Coonelly spoke recently in the visitors dugout at Petco Park in San Diego. Behind him, some of the Pirates displayed no sense of urgency. Instead they laughed at a reenactment of first-base coach Rick Sofield's tumble down the steps the previous night and a chalk outline of his body on the dugout floor.
Few people spend as much time around the team as clubhouse manager Scott Bonnett. "Bones" to players and colleagues, he was a 20-year-old batboy in Cincinnati when the Reds won the 1990 World Series. He joined the Pirates before the 2000 season, so he has seen his share of winning and losing clubhouses.
"In years past, you heard ... they're keeping track of how many games over [.500]," Mr. Bonnett said. "This year, you haven't heard it."
Mr. Bonnett credited manager Clint Hurdle's positive demeanor and the addition of catcher Russell Martin with improving the on-field product and the cohesion of the clubhouse, which in a sport such as baseball, with such a large individual component, is not always necessary for a successful team.
"This year they've been there, done that, and somehow they all are rooting for each other and you don't see that often," Mr. Bonnett said. "Everybody's hanging out with everybody, everybody's having fun with each other."
His view of breaking the streak echoed others in the franchise: "A couple years ago .500 meant a lot. Now, I don't want .500. I want pennants. Championships."
An 82nd win remains important in the sense that they have to win an 82nd game before they can win, say, a 94th game, and the last thing the Pirates want to do is see a one-game wild-card loss wash away their greatest season since Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek. They want the division.
"That's 162 days of hard work and then you go play one game, and if you don't play good that day then you head to the house," Mr. Hurdle said. "That's going to be a hard pill to swallow every year for a couple teams."
He often reminds people that his current team has not lost for 20 seasons. He's in year three. Mr. Coonelly is in year six, Mr. McCutchen and Mr. Walker in year five, Mr. Bell in year one. "Our vision will be to win the division," he said. "It won't be to win more games than we lose."
As pervasive as the lack of thought given to 82 is, it is not all-encompassing. Charlie Morton joined the Pirates in the trade that cleared a spot for the team to call up Mr. McCutchen. Mr. Morton made his Pirates debut six days after Mr. McCutchen did. Mr. Morton cares.
"It's been 20 years of losing," he said. "It does matter to put a winning team out there for a lot of people and for the city. That's not our goal but it's the byproduct of having a good team.
"Say [the Pirates] never went to the playoffs, but won 82 games every year. There wouldn't be that shadow kind of following the city around. I describe it as kind of like a relief."CHAPTER 3
81st Win Ends Run of Losing Seasons
Pirates Ride Snider's Homer to Beat Brewers, 4-3
By Bill Brink September 3, 2013
How the Pirates find themselves in a sort of limbo.
After their 4-3 win against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, they have 81 victories this season. It is unlikely the Pirates will lose all their 24 remaining games, but, if they do, they have ensured a finish of at least .500 for the first time since 1992.
"It's just a win, man," said Travis Snider, whose pinch-hit home run in the ninth inning put the Pirates ahead. "We got a lot more baseball to play. Getting caught up in that personal achievements is not what we're here for."
Most of the players don't care about that. More important for the current team, the win moved the Pirates two games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. The Cardinals lost to the Cincinnati Reds for the second night in a row, this time by 1-0.
"We're just playing to win a World Series," said Andrew McCutchen, who also homered. "That's what we're here for. That's what it's all about. We're one step closer every day."
Nothing changed in the clubhouse. Players ate spaghetti and meatballs in silence — the music usually playing after wins was turned down so the media could interview Snider — and watched highlights from around the league. Manager Clint Hurdle patiently answered questions about the losing streak, as he has all year.
"It's a step in the right direction," he said. "It was on our to-do list."
Snider homered off Jim Henderson to break a 3-3 tie. It was his fourth home run this season and first since June 15. He came off the disabled list Sunday after missing August due to pain in his left big toe.
"Going down to Triple-A, Double-A, getting the at-bats, playing on a regular basis, addressing some of the mechanical breakdowns that have been caused over the last couple months — things weren't right," Snider said. "I felt like I had a good run down there and felt confident coming up here whatever role they were going to put me in to just go out there and compete."
McCutchen hit his 18th homer this season and 100th of his career, in the first. He clobbered Yovani Gallardo's 2-2 fastball to left-center.
"It's definitely a great milestone for myself to be able to do that," McCutchen said.
McCutchen noted that the Pirates don't play to break even, but allowed that the season has been enjoyable.
"It's one of those things, it feels like a dream almost because we've had a lot of years of losing and now that we're winning and we're continuing to get better, it's fun to be a part of," he said.
The new additions pitched in Tuesday.
Marlon Byrd went 2 for 3 with two RBIs and Justin Morneau went 3 for 3.
"It's nice being a part of this," Byrd said. "I'm just a piece of the puzzle, come in, drive in runs whenever I can and help the team win."
Byrd has been a Pirate for seven games, but already adopted the clubhouse's approach to dealing with the losing streak.
"We have one focus," he said, "and that's getting to the playoffs and winning the whole thing."
The game proceeded into the eighth tied at 2-2 before Byrd gave the Pirates the lead. McCutchen walked and took third on Morneau's single. Byrd doubled down the left-field line to score McCutchen.
The Brewers tied it in the bottom half of the eighth, though. Vin Mazzaro issued a leadoff walk to Caleb Gindl, who took second on Norichika Aoki's grounder. Jean Segura singled home Gindl to tie the score, 3-3.
Earlier this season, Hurdle talked to the Clemente family — relatives of Roberto Clemente, the iconic Pirate who wore No. 21.
"They told me that we can't have 21 losing seasons," Hurdle said. "We've got to find a way to not have Roberto's number tied to that. I told them we would do anything we could to take care of that, and that's been taken care of."
Francisco Liriano takes the mound tonight when the Pirates try for their 82nd win, which all but guarantees their first winning season since 1992. There's basically no chance the Pirates and a few other teams suffer losing streaks that result in a one-game playoff and an 81-82 record. Barring that, they hover, not yet assured winners but no longer losers, either.
Excerpted from Revival by the River by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Donna Eyring. Copyright © 2013 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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