How Life Got Good Again for the Pittsburgh Pirates

Thanks to savvy investing and a few years' worth of accumulated confidence, the Bucs earned an 82nd victory this week and ensured their first winning season in two decades. 
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Pedro Alvarez has helped lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to an 82-61 record this season. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

On September 12, 1992, the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 9 to 7 in front of 22,857 fans at Veterans Stadium for their 82nd win of the season. Though the win guaranteed that the Pirates would finish the year with a winning record, the milestone passed with little notice. Pittsburgh was well on its way to a third consecutive National League East division title, after all, and would finish with 96 wins overall.

But the next season, the Pirates didn't make it to 82 wins. Or the year after that. Or the year after that. In fact, in every season from 1993 to 2012—20 consecutive years—the Pirates lost more games than they won, setting a record for futility unmatched in the history of North American professional sports. 

To put the streak in perspective, consider that, in between winning Pirates seasons, Major League Baseball added four new franchises—two of which have won the World Series. Twenty-three teams—including the Pirates themselves—have built new stadiums. In September 1992, Nolan Ryan, the now 66-year-old president of the Texas Rangers, was still an active major league player. Alex Rodriguez was in high school. Bryce Harper, the reigning National League Rookie of the Year, was not yet born.

During the 20-year streak, the Pirates stunk in every conceivable way a baseball team could. They fielded teams that could hit but couldn't pitch, and teams that could pitch but couldn't hit. There were several teams, of course, that could do neither. The Pirates struggled when their team featured veteran players, and they struggled when the team went with a youth movement. No matter what the Pirates did—and the team seemed to try everything—they could not avoid losing.

All baseball teams go through lousy stretches—some much longer than others. But 20 consecutive losing seasons is not supposed to happen. Eventually, a team accumulates enough high draft picks, makes a couple of decent free agent signings, and just gets lucky enough to put together a winning season. But this didn't happen for the Pirates. Whatever went right during these years—and some things actually did—was more than overcome by what went wrong.

The losing was one thing, but the Pirates also endured a series of misfortunes and embarrassments that made it seem that the team was just cursed. To wit:

  • In Spring Training 2002, Pirates outfielder Derek Bell—coming off a season in which he hit a woeful .173—was told that he would have to compete with other players for the starting right field job. This did not make him happy. Speaking to the media that day, Bell announced that if the Pirates didn't guarantee him a job, he would undergo “operation shutdown,” essentially refusing to contribute to the team. Bell never played in the Major Leagues again.
  • During the seventh-inning stretch of a game in Milwaukee in 2003, Randall Simon, then the Pirates first baseman, approached one of the participants in a “sausage race,” a competition where people dressed as hot dogs ran around the field, and knocked her over with a baseball bat. Simon later apologized but was still fined $2,000 by Major League Baseball.
  • In May 2004, outfielder Raul Mondesi left the club without warning to attend to a legal problem in his native Dominican Republic. When he failed to appear at a Pirates game in San Diego, Pittsburgh successfully terminated his contract, upon which Mondesi said he “felt relieved.”
  • During an argument which led to his ejection from a 2001 game, manager Lloyd McClendon removed first base from the field ... and, unsure what to do with it, took it with him back into the clubhouse. The umpires and grounds crew eventually retrieved the base and the game continued.
  • In 2006, the Pirates invited actor Michael Keaton—a Pittsburgh native—to throw out the first pitch during an early-season game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Keaton agreed, but then took the opportunity to blast management for not spending enough on player salaries.
  • Following a loss to the Los Angeles Angels in 2007, Pirates pitcher Ian Snell told reporters, “I fucking hate this,” and tacitly accused his teammates of not trying very hard.
  • Also in 2007, disgruntled Pirates fans attempted to stage a “walk-out” in which those attending a July game would simply leave their seats in the middle of play. A few hundred even left the stadium entirely.

Once one of the National League's most popular teams, the long years of losing gutted attendance at Pirates games, and the team consistently ranked near the bottom in the league in the category. Even the construction of beautiful PNC Park in 2001, immediately regarded as one of the game's best stadiums, couldn't lure the fans back.

“In a way, it was nice,” says Charlie Wilmoth, a blogger who, since 2004, has chronicled the Pirates' travails for Bucs Dugout. “The games had a relaxing atmosphere—you could go up and get good seats, avoid long lines for food, and enjoy major-league caliber baseball.”

But then, in 2007, the Pirates fired unpopular General Manager Dave Littlefield and hired Neal Huntington, who went about a systematic re-build of the organization. As Allen Barra documented in July, Huntington invested millions of dollars into the Pirates' long-neglected scouting division and placed a renewed emphasis on the amateur draft. Rather than hold onto middling veterans in an attempt to salvage a respectable record, a hallmark of the Littlefield era, Huntington traded away older players and stockpiled the Pirates farm system.

Not all of Huntington's decisions have paid dividends—“it hasn't been all sunshine and roses,” says Wilmoth—but he at least was following a strategy that had proven successful for other small-market teams. He drafted Pedro Alvarez, a highly touted third baseman, and stuck with him when Alvarez struggled early in his career. And when outfielder Andrew McCutchen emerged as one of the game's best young players in 2011, Huntington rewarded him with a 6 year, $51.5 million dollar contract that is now regarded as a bargain. In a previous era, the Pirates might have traded McCutchen—and probably never would have drafted the high-profile Alvarez in the first place. Now, both form the core of the team's lineup.

This season, it has finally come together for the Pirates. Led by a solid, balanced offense and an improved pitching staff, Pittsburgh has been at or near the top of the National League Central division since early in the season, lending hope that the team will qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 1992. The team has played so well, in fact, that bringing up the streak—the dark cloud hovering over the franchise the past two decades—almost seemed insulting. 

Monday night, in front of 33,000 fans in Arlington, Texas, the longest streak of consecutive losing seasons in professional sports history finally came to an end, as the Pirates took a 1 to 0 victory over the Rangers. No matter what else happens, either this season or next, the Pirates have clinched a winning record. The season isn't over yet—the Pirates are still locked in a pennant race in the tight National League Central—and long-suffering fans are no doubt hungry for a postseason appearance. Nevertheless, Wilmoth says, the sense of elation—and relief—at the streak's end is real.

And that's not all: The Pirates' young core of players, excellent farm system, and smart management make it likely that the team is poised for more winning seasons in the years ahead. Baseball is a fickle sport, where fortunes can turn at will. But even the most pessimistic Pirates fans have to feel good about the direction of the franchise.

In any case, Pittsburgh is now enjoying meaningful baseball in September, usually a month devoted entirely buzz about the NFL's Steelers. Now that PNC Park offers one of baseball's most electrifying ballgame experiences, does Wilmoth miss those bad old days, when anyone could walk up and get great seats at Pirates games?

“The current level of fan excitement more than makes up for it.”

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Matt Schiavenza is an associate editor at The Atlantic

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