Pirates Fans Fed Up With Losing
PITTSBURGH - Dave Parker, Bert Blyleven, Phil Garner and Margaret Stargell, widow of Hall of Fame slugger Willie, were among those at PNC Park as the Pittsburgh Pirates spent last weekend celebrating the 30th anniversary of their most recent championship season.
The current team sported throwback uniforms with pillbox caps. All that was missing was Sister Sledge singing We Are Family, the anthem that became the Steel City's rallying cry.
More often than not since that glorious time, the Pirates have been Pittsburgh's dysfunctional family. With 51 wins and 71 losses entering Tuesday, the Pirates are closing in on their 17th consecutive losing season, a major league record for consistent futility.
"They'll win another World Series before I die. That's my wish," says Pirates fan David Radcliffe, 43, from Seneca, Pa. "Every year it's the same thing. They promise you they're going to be competitive, then halfway through the season everybody's gone."
Compounding recent frustration, management has all but gutted this year's major league roster. The only position player remaining from opening day is catcher Ryan Doumit.
PNC Park, which nine years ago replaced Three Rivers Stadium, offers majestic views of the cityscape across the Allegheny. Ticket prices are reasonable. What has been lacking since 1992, when Sid Bream beat Barry Bonds' throw to the plate and the Atlanta Braves ousted Pittsburgh from the playoffs, has been a winner - even the hope of a winner.
"Even the beauty of PNC Park at sunset doesn't make up for not having hope," says Nikki Willoughby, 34."With most bad teams, fans say, 'We'll get 'em next year.' But Pirates fans can't even play that card."
The Pirates, plugged into one of baseball's smallest markets, have a history of trading away or refusing to re-sign stars rather than rewarding them with large salaries.
Last summer, the second under principal owner Bob Nutting, outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady were traded.
But Pirates fans have never seen a housecleaning as thorough as this year's; the team traded 10 players in June and July. General manager Neal Huntington observed that he wasn't exactly breaking up the 1927 New York Yankees. Still, his team was six games out when he started the sell-off by trading All-Star center fielder Nate McLouth to Atlanta for three players.
On the surface, the Pirates' retooling seems like the same old song: veteran players out the door for less expensive players. Team President Frank Coonelly says this time it's different.
"It really has never been done here the way we're doing it," he says. "There was never this effort to take a look at the entire system, to build aggressively through the draft, build aggressively through international markets and to make wholesale changes at the major league level. What (fans) really saw were efforts to patch holes."
In nearly every trade, the Pirates have acquired multiple young players. That's part of Huntington's "quantity of quality" master plan.
"Most fans are unhappy because we've taken away the faces that they recognized," Huntington says. "But our belief is they'd rather cheer for a winning team that has lots of good players."
The message was poorly received in the clubhouse, but some now see the reasoning.
"However you look at it, we didn't give them the reason to add pieces," left-hander Paul Maholm says. "We gave them the reason to do what they did because a lot of the guys were going to become free agents."
Before the end of June, Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett were dealt to the Washington Nationals and veterans Eric Hinske and Craig Monroe (released) were gone. In July, starting infielders Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson as well as pitchers Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow followed.
"You look around, and there's someone new sitting here every day," Doumit says. "It's tough. You build relationships. But from the business aspect, you have to maintain your professionalism and try to win."
'It's so sad'
Two seasons ago, local radio station WDVE released Hey, Pittsburgh Pirates, an irreverent parody of the No. 1 hit Hey There Delilah by Plain White T's. The chorus: Oh, when will you compete? When will you compete?
The question lingers.
"All my life I've been a Pirates fan, and it's so sad," says 78-year-old Rosalie M. Heslet, sitting with a scorecard in the left-field grandstand last week. "They've traded away all the good players, they're not paying money to get good players and the good players don't want to come here."
Management is not deaf to the cries of the long-suffering fans. "We get lots of letters. Most are unhappy," Huntington says.
How long should fans wait?
"Great question," Huntington says. "We're never going to concede next year or tomorrow's game. You look at (recent) surprise teams, and we have many of the same elements (beginning with) good starting pitching."
The team sees big-time potential in multi tool outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who is hitting .284 with 14 steals since making his debut in June, and Garrett Jones, a 28-year-old who leads National League rookies with 14 home runs.
On the horizon, they'll look to pitching prospect Tim Alderson (acquired for Sanchez). It's yet to be seen if outfielder Lastings Milledge will fulfill his potential. But the Pirates have acquired other options in outfielders Jose Tabata (Nady trade) and Gorkys Hernandez (McLouth) and think they have drafted wisely with third baseman Pedro Alvarez (second overall 2008) and catcher Tony Sanchez (fourth overall 2009).
Pirates players were up in arms when McLouth, a Gold Glove outfielder who was leading the team in home runs and had been recently signed to a three-year, $15.75 million deal, was the first to be traded. Critics say Huntington didn't get enough.
"Teams aren't giving up their No. 1, their No. 2, their No. 3 prospects," Huntington says. "A year ago I was criticized for asking for unreasonable returns, and a year later I'm criticized for not getting enough. We targeted the players we wanted to get."
For now, the players they do have hope to avoid the old cycle.
"I'm not going anywhere. I know that," McCutchen says.
But fans wonder what happens if McCutchen and others become stars.
"The reality is you can't keep them all," Huntington says. "We have a chance to develop talent and retain the talent. It may never be a $100 million (payroll). But Tampa, Minnesota, Cleveland, Colorado, Florida are all teams competing."
Manager John Russell, occasionally criticized for his stoic nature, has weathered the purge. What he sees is a beginning, though he realizes fans have heard that before.
"Like Neal said, the exodus is over," Russell says. "We don't want to do that anymore. We feel like what we've done is put ourselves in position to grow. We have a lot of promise."