Commentary

Lost Pirates recharting their course

With no winning season since '92, fans of once-proud franchise want to believe again

Updated: September 8, 2009, 4:53 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- It is not the one thing, they all say. It's not the bad trade that set the franchise back 20 years, or the guy they were supposed to draft but didn't, or the curious and fatal departure from Latin America, or the players that management held on to past their primes, or the crop of young talent that really wasn't that good in the first place. It's not the ruthlessly uneven economic system that guarantees even a return to the very top would be a short one. And it's not just the flip side of that system -- free agency -- that robbed them of their last, great, Hall of Fame-level player.

It is not the one thing, the locals say, that has ruined the Pittsburgh Pirates. It's the combination of everything.

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
AP Photo/John SwartBarry Bonds led the Pirates to the NLCS three times, but it was all downhill after he signed with San Francisco.

Get the bad news out of the way first. It's better that way. The Pirates have not savored a winning season since the last game of the last day of their 1992 season -- three weeks before Bill Clinton was elected president the first time -- when sweet victory gave way to a mouthful of soap. National League Championship Series, Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 1992. They had been dead, down three games to one. But now, in Game 7, the Pirates led the Braves 2-0, nobody on, nobody out, bottom of the ninth. Pittsburgh knows the sequence.

Doug Drabek is pitching a shutout. Then Terry Pendleton doubles. David Justice bounces to second and Chico Lind -- in the only year in which he'd win a Gold Glove -- mangles the play for a fateful error. Sid Bream walks to load the bases.

Stan Belinda relieves Drabek. Ron Gant hits a sac fly. It's 2-1 now. Damon Berryhill walks. Brian Hunter pops out. Two outs.

Francisco Cabrera singles to left. Justice scores to tie it, with Bream, the sore-legged former Pirate, creaking painfully around the bases behind him. Barry Bonds uncorks the throw home, accurate but too soft. The Braves win the pennant 3-2.

"In 1992, I had my World Series tickets, " said Paul Hannah, a 37-year-old Pirates fan from Ligonier, about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. "We knew Bonds was leaving. We knew it was the end. I know we've had a lot of AFC Championship Game losses with the Steelers, but none of those hurt as much as that one."

Six weeks later, Bonds signs a record six-year, $43.75 million free-agent contract with the San Francisco Giants. The Pirates lose 87 games the next year, and haven't been .500 or better since. They've lost at least 94 games the past four seasons and over the past 16 years have lost at least 93 games seven times.

As of Tuesday, the Pirates have lost 82 games with 26 to play. The most wins the Pirates have mustered since the 1992 NLCS was 79, 12 years ago, in 1997.

At the same time, the distance between the economic powerhouses and the financially average has grown to such an untenable point that, despite a stadium less than a decade old and the small-market successes of Oakland and Minnesota, some baseball people believe only a salary cap can save teams like the Pirates.

But losing is not what beleaguers the Pirates' management and a fan base of which much is being asked. There are the twin, gnawing ideas that the organization is not trying to win (the team's payroll is $23 million, down from $57 million at the start of the season) and during their few bursts of inspiration does not know how to win (enthusiasm-sapping trades of Aramis Ramirez, Jason Bay, Xavier Nady).

"To be honest, Pittsburgh isn't really proud of the Pirates anymore," says the sheepish young woman working the counter at a sports store at the Pittsburgh airport; she declines to give her name because she fears being fired for criticizing a team whose merchandise she's ostensibly supposed to sell. "No one really cares about them because once you start to care, all they're going to do is trade away the good players.

"I can honestly tell you. I'm not the biggest baseball fan -- I like the Steelers and Penguins -- but I know the Pirates and I can't name one player on that team. Not one," she says. "But if they showed they cared, and got some players and didn't get rid of them once they got good, Pittsburgh would be back out there in a heartbeat. I have no doubt of that."

Guaranteed a losing season for the 17th straight year, blinded by the championship glow of the Steelers and the Penguins -- which both won titles last season -- the Pirates ask a perennially weather-beaten fan base to believe in the future. More directly, the Pirates are asking fans to believe in management's plan -- new principal owner Bob Nutting, team president Frank Coonelly, general manager Neal Huntington and scouting director Greg Smith are all newly installed since 2007 -- to bring them back into the light.

"I'm not here to criticize previous ownership. After all, they did some pretty impressive things, including getting that ballpark we play in built," says Coonelly, referring to the McClatchy regime that compiled a 851-1,091 record over 12 seasons. "Once the fans are convinced we've turned the corner, once we have shown tangible evidence that the plan can be executed, you'll see fans coming back to the ballpark. They're saying. 'We want to be behind you. You've given us no reason to back you. You need to show us why we should.'"

Monuments and ghosts

Before you enter the tram to the main terminal and baggage claim area at Pittsburgh's airport, a flat-screen television serves as a virtual chamber of commerce for the city. The monitor offers the city's best images -- the skyline at night, closeups of the tough, unpretentious people who comprise the lifeblood of the city -- with six words trailing the montage: "Pittsburgh: Your Past is Your Future."

Take a walk and feel it. Find the ghosts and let them envelop you in their special energy. This isn't Atlanta or Tampa, cities short on history where big league baseball has always been met with a certain indifference, regardless of the standings. Pittsburgh is not only a sports town, basking in the success of the Steelers and Penguins. It was -- and is, die-hards say -- first and foremost a baseball town, although the Pirates have never topped 2.5 million in attendance even in their best seasons.

[+] EnlargeRoberto Clemente
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesThe Roberto Clemente statue stands outside PNC Park as a reminder of both the Pirates' greatest player and their glory days.

In 1882 the Pittsburgh Alleghenys joined the American Association, in which they played for five years before joining the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs in 1887. Thirteen Pirates are in the Hall of Fame. The franchise has won the World Series five times, the last title coming 30 years ago.

The landmarks are everywhere. Along the north shore of the Allegheny, where kayakers chop through the breakers and bikers and runners line the banks, a lone signpost marks the first World Series, in 1903, between Pittsburgh and Boston.

In front of PNC Park is a formidable statue of the legendary Honus Wagner, dedicated in 1955 as an example to "the youth of America," and rededicated in 1972 "so that future Pirate fans will be reminded of Honus Wagner's contribution to baseball in Pittsburgh."

And hovering over it all, angel-like, is the specter of Roberto Clemente. In nearly each of the dusty, forgotten taverns on Duquesne Street is a rendering: a drawing, a painting or a photograph of Clemente. In the Pirates front offices, photos of Clemente stand apart. In the runway from the Pirates' clubhouse to the home dugout, a quote from Clemente hovers over each current player: "When I wear my uniform I feel I am the proudest man on Earth."

Clemente has been dead nearly 37 years, killed tragically on New Year's Eve 1972, when his DC-7 -- hastily loaded with relief supplies for earthquake victims in Nicaragua -- plunged into the Caribbean shortly after takeoff, his body never recovered. On this day, the official Pirates team store sells jerseys of only three current Pirates -- rookie center fielder Andrew McCutchen, 28-year-old rookie outfielder Garrett Jones, and catcher Ryan Doumit -- but stocks and sells more Clemente jerseys of different styles and sizes than all of them. He is the conscience of the franchise, and in part, of the city. At one game, Paul Hannah's young son is wearing a Nate McLouth jersey. McLouth, once considered a centerpiece of the Pirates' future, was traded to Atlanta two months ago. But Hannah doesn't feel betrayed.

"I bought after the trade," he says. "They were only five bucks."

Keep walking and look at everything Pittsburgh has done right. The Allegheny is spanned by the Three Sisters Bridges. Ninth Street Bridge is the Rachel Carson, Seventh Street is the Andy Warhol and Sixth Street -- which funnels directly into PNC Park and on game days is pedestrian only -- is the Roberto Clemente Bridge. Like the Pirates, the Steelers and the Penguins, the bridges -- which are all suspension bridges -- are gold: black and gold are the city's colors, based on the black and gold design of the flag of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh has followed commissioner Bud Selig's master plan of rehabilitation through stadium construction. The fans care. The city paid $216 million for PNC Park, a ballpark so nice that it is the best of the new cathedrals -- yes, better than even the beauties in San Francisco and Seattle -- in which to watch a ballgame. Baseball is still a family game in Pittsburgh, evidenced by seven levels of tickets priced under $18. They have the history and, in Clemente, a transcendent figure -- rivaled in importance beyond the diamond only by Jackie Robinson -- that gives the franchise an eternal power.

Clemente's humanitarian power drew Susan Wagner, a self-taught sculptor born and raised in Pittsburgh, to the Pirates. At the foot of the Clemente Bridge stands a majestic bronze statue of Clemente in full, passionate after-swing. It is the product of Wagner's hands and fingers and heart. At the base of the sculpture are three words: "The Great One."

"The short answer is that I entered a competition and I won. It was really difficult. I was an unknown and I was really scared," she said. "What made me do it was my feelings for Roberto Clemente and what he did for people. I didn't want to sculpt a baseball player. I wanted to sculpt him. I got chills because I wanted to do it so badly.

"My mother, Bertha, loved baseball so much. I remember when we heard the news that he had died. She was in the kitchen crying and crying. After he died, I read an article in 1977 about him and he really moved me. I didn't know anything about baseball. I never saw him play. I didn't know he was famous. Then I began to do so much research on him. They told me they wanted a 12-foot statue. I was petrified, but I didn't show it. I was in college when I first became aware of him."

When I pass my statues, I feel like I'm visiting my children. ... I listen to [the fans], to their stories, to what they say about how they were touched by Roberto [Clemente] and Willie Stargell, because they loved these men. That's Pittsburgh. We're good, hard-working, honest people.

-- Sculptor Susan Wagner

Near Clemente is Wagner's second masterpiece: a gleaming statue of Willie Stargell, the engine of the Pirates' last World Series championship, in 1979. The details of the sculpture -- the dangerous crouch and broad back, the big bat, the batting gloves dangling from his back pocket -- wet the eyes of the Pirates fans who pose before it and the one of Clemente each day.

"When I pass my statues, I feel like I'm visiting my children," Wagner said. "Lots of good memories. I do feel a huge connection with the two men. A lot of people don't know who I am. Bronze needs to be polished every six months and when I'm working on the statues, people think I'm a janitor, which is fine. But I listen to them, to their stories, to what they say about how they were touched by Roberto and Willie Stargell, because they loved these men. That's Pittsburgh. We're good, hard-working, honest people." The people, from non-to-casual baseball fans like Susan Wagner to the die-hards like Paul Hannah, seem eager for a return to glory, and yet the indictments of the Pirates' downfall -- large and small, tangible and atmospheric -- are everywhere. The most damning lies in the entrance of the Pirates' own building, the executive offices at the gorgeous PNC Park. Bordering the lobby is a sepia mural, a proud timeline of a National League flagship, from Exhibition Park to Forbes Field to Three Rivers Stadium.

Follow the wall, starting from the left until you reach the far right corner, which ends with the Pirates of today, and note the final three players who share space with Paul Waner and Honus Wagner, Ralph Kiner, Clemente and Bill Mazeroski, Bonds and Stargell:

Francisco Cordova.
Ricardo Rincon.
Jason Kendall.

The cold truth lies there on the wall, in artwork commissioned by the team. And that is the downside of the ghosts: the responsibility to live up to the history.

"Here is what has happened: They've scouted badly and developed worse," says a major league scout with deep ties to Pittsburgh. "They moved Bay and Nady, but what they haven't done is trade for players in addition to prospects. The players have to be mentally beaten down by the franchise. They thought the players they had were better than they were. They have to get better in development. They need to get their grunts in order. There is, right now, no identity to the Pirates, nothing that ties a face to the city."

With the Phillies in town, at first glance, you'd think the game was being played in Philadelphia. The Pittsburgh fans in attendance seem to be overwhelmed both vocally and in clothing, by a sea of red and white. Paul Hannah hears the scout's assessment daily in his head.

"It all starts with scouting and development," he says. "A monkey with a dart board could draft better than we have the past 15 years."

Getting on the bus

I get on "The Bus," which is to say I enter Jerome Bettis' Grille 36, owned and operated by Jerome Bettis, the former Steelers running back. Bettis' is an upscale sports bar, settled proudly between the city's two impressive sports cathedrals, the Steelers' Heinz Field and PNC Park. Outside of the Philadelphia fans in town grabbing a bite before the game, the baseball presence is nonexistent.

"The only way to tell if there's any excitement is to check the schedule," says Tiffany, the energetic bartender who exudes a sturdy and pleasant Pittsburgh attitude. She is from South Hills. "But that's how it's been. Once you start getting excited about the team, they just trade everybody. Everybody wants that team to succeed."

Josh, who works at the restaurant, bellows out, "It's the Curse of Barry Bonds!" to explain the Pirates troubles. Then he gets serious.

"They've got to give us more than just fireworks," he says. "They've got to give us a team!"

[+] EnlargeJack Wilson
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesJack Wilson dazzled Pirates fans with his glove for more than eight seasons until the shortstop was dealt to Seattle on July 31.

At first glance this year's trades gave the impression that the Pirates had quit on another season. But instead of vitriol for management's trading former batting champ Freddy Sanchez to San Francisco and shortstop Jack Wilson to Seattle within hours of each other, ironically, the fan reaction was positive because general manager Neal Huntington and owner Bob Nutting seemed to be doing what the fans have wanted for years: starting the rebuilding from scratch, in earnest.

"It looks like [Huntington] is all in," said season-ticket holder Tom Smith. "It's awfully hard to do what he did because if it doesn't work, he could not only be out of the Pirates, but out completely. I think it's the way we have to go. A lot of the older guys didn't want to be here. Eric Hinske? He couldn't wait to leave."

Yet for all the discussion about the need for good scouting and development, previous regimes have been handcuffed by ineptitude and the financial rule changes to debt service that forced teams to confront and eliminate future debt. Signings like Matt Morris, Derek Bell and Jeromy Burnitz were regrettable examples of the former, while Aramis Ramirez was let go for virtually nothing and Brian Giles was also let go but the Pirates did not subsequently retain Jason Bay due to pressure from the latter.

Historically, the Pirates have never competed heavily in the free agent market, leaving a salary cap -- long unspeakable during baseball labor negotiations -- as a potential solution in 2½ years when the current labor agreement ends.

"The dreaded salary cap that every over industry lives under and thrives by?" Coonelly said. "Our owner has come out and supported a salary cap as a collective bargaining objective. My focus is this position is solely to build a winning organization under the current economic system. Is a salary cap a rational economic model for professional sports? Of course. Would a salary cap help even the playing field particularly for markets like Pittsburgh? Of course. Would we support that as an objective? Absolutely."

A 'buzz guy'

It is August, but everyone tells me to look to the ice for optimism. What is it about the Pirates' new ownership or new plan that could elicit belief instead of cynicism? During the Phillies series, Coonelly has an important meeting with season-ticket holders whom he describes as "on the fence" for renewing for the 2010 season. The Pirates are currently third from the bottom in NL attendance, a byproduct of creative giveaway nights, fireworks displays and what Coonelly calls a "remarkable loyalty on the part of the fans given the difficult circumstances of the last 16 or 17 years."

Coonelly and the Pirates have a real-life example to follow: the Penguins. It was the Penguins who declared bankruptcy in 1998 and were inches from relocating as late as 2007. Then came the turnaround: the smart drafting of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and centers Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, "and you haven't been able to get a ticket since," says Pittsburgh native and current Milwaukee Brewers manager Ken Macha. Macha grew up in nearby Monroeville, was drafted by the Pirates and played in the organization.

[+] EnlargeAndrew McCutchen
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesWith an .832 OPS in his first 83 games, Andrew McCutchen has already proven he can play at the major league level

"Here's an example: They have great fans and a magnificent stadium," Macha said. "People will support that team. We come in and they sweep us in a doubleheader. The next day, the Pirate coverage is on page 5 of the newspaper. That's what has to change. They have to get off of page 5. To do that, you need to create the buzz. You need a 'buzz guy.'

"I can't disagree with them trading Wilson and Sanchez. They were nice players. Sanchez can hit. But they weren't what I would call 'impact players,' guys who can change a game by themselves, and by extension guys who can change a season. They may have that guy now."

"That guy," the Pirates and their fans think, is McCutchen, the 11th overall pick in the 2005 draft. McCutchen is 5-foot-11, 175 pounds and conservative coaches and scouts will naturally hesitate to classify him in the same can't-miss category as Bonds, the Pirates' last true "buzz guy." But McCutchen possesses an electricity that excites the fan base. It is a positive step.

"I love the kid," says Sam Perlozzo, the Phillies' third-base coach, who grew up a Pirates fan in Maryland and follows the franchise closely. "The key with him is going to be if he hits. There's no question about the tools. He can run with anybody. He's got a flair about him where you can see he wants to do big things. But with all young players, the deciding factor will be whether he can consistently hit pitching at the major league level. But as of right now, I love everything I see."

And it is precisely here -- when the good players realize their potential, will the Pirates pay to keep their stars, as the Penguins and Steelers have done -- where the fan's optimism begins to wane toward the cynical.

"Bottom line: Huntington and Coonelly seem to be doing their part by doing their job well," says 20-year-old Bridgeville native Jake Seiner, a junior at Boston University who was 3 years old the last time the Pirates captured the city's imagination. "The day I abandon my Pirate fanhood is the day Nutting refuses to pony up the extra cash needed to put together a contender. Ineptitude is one thing, but blatant disregard for the fan base is another, and if Nutting fails to follow through on his promise to increase payroll when the time's ready, that's exactly what he'll be doing."

Signs of life?

It is a good, hopeful three days in Pittsburgh. The Pirates take two of three from the defending world champion Phillies. Even in the loss, a 4-1, 10-inning affair in the middle game, the Pirates show life.

Allison Felton, a 21-year-old from Monroeville and a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, works as a hostess at the Sonoma Grille on Penn Avenue. With the Pirates trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth, Felton is explaining how the Pirates have lost her. "I used to go to the games for the food and the fireworks, but I'm a much bigger hockey fan now." Yet she is keeping her eye on the television, impressed that the Pirates are fighting hard against a better Phillies team. "He's going to hit a home run," Felton says of the hitter, Brandon Moss. Two swings later, Moss sends the game into extra innings with a home run.

But it is McCutchen who puts himself in the middle of the discussion with an appropriate combination of inexperience and star power. In the first game, McCutchen singles and steals second, sending a buzz throughout the sparse home crowd ("He can steal whenever he wants," a Pirates fan says). In the fifth, he walks and is subsequently erased attempting to steal.

You can see [Andrew] McCutchen has grown and improved. ... You need impact players, guys who are going be dynamic. I wouldn't put that on this kid yet. And that's only the first part. The second part is, 'will you pay them when the time comes?'

-- Phillies first-base coach Davey Lopes

With one on and two outs, and the game tied 3-3 in the top of the ninth, Philadelphia center fielder Shane Victorino sends a drive to center. McCutchen darts in and freezes, realizing his misplay as the ball sails over his head. The Phillies took the lead on the play.

In the bottom of the ninth, McCutchen wins the game with a two-run, walk-off home run off Phillies closer Brad Lidge. In the finale, McCutchen leads off the first inning with a home run. For the series, he is 5-for-12 with two home runs. The Pirates are starting to believe they have their buzz guy.

"We don't have that guy. We don't have a Crosby. We don't have a [Ben] Roethlisberger," Tom Smith says. "But McCutchen, he's got it. He's got everything."

Before the second game against the Pirates, a day after McCutchen's star turn in the opener, Phillies first-base coach Davey Lopes -- a tough, old school baseball man not easily given to hype -- thumps the end of his fungo bat into the dirt for emphasis each time he uses the phrase "impact player."

"You can see McCutchen has grown and improved since the last time we came in here," Lopes said. "You need impact players if you're going to turn this thing around. I think if you asked any general manager in this game in the position the Pirates were in, they all would have done the same thing in moving Sanchez and Wilson, because those guys were going to make a lot of money but weren't going to change the game.

"You need impact players, guys who are going be dynamic. I wouldn't put that on this kid yet. And that's only the first part. The second part is, 'will you pay them when the time comes?'"

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.