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. 
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.

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Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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