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.