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Proud Pirates on verge of record futility

September 06, 2009|Alan Robinson | Robinson writes for the Associated Press.

PITTSBURGH — To the Pittsburgh Pirates, a happy anniversary sure beats the daily reality.

This season, big-time blowouts honored Forbes Field's opening in 1909 and the 30th reunion of the 1979 World Series-winning team. Next year, it's Bill Mazeroski and the 50th-year celebration of the Impossible Pirates who upset the mighty Yankees. In 2011, it's the 40th anniversary of Roberto Clemente's World Series coming-out party at age 36.

So much Pirates tradition. So many memories. So many stars.

Only now, so much losing.

No team in Major League Baseball or the NFL, NHL or NBA has endured 17 consecutive losing seasons -- not the Detroit Lions, not the Vancouver Canucks, not even the Clippers. Until the Pirates reached the mark last season, the only other team to suffer 16 in a row was the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies.

Where have you gone, Honus Wagner and Barry Bonds, Paul Waner, Pie Traynor and Willie Stargell? A proud franchise that won five World Series from 1909-79, five division titles from 1970-75 and put 13 players in the Hall of Fame is about to become the poster child for losing, the epitome of futility.

The Pirates don't have a magic number, they have a tragic number, and it's 17. With 79 defeats going into Friday night's play, they stand three losses from setting the record for consecutive losing seasons by a major American pro sports team.

No wonder they're so eager to live in the past.

"It hurts, it really hurts," said Jim Rooker, a Pirates player from 1973-80 and an announcer from 1981-93. "And I don't see any hope in sight. It's just not there. You can almost see another losing season [in 2010] and another and another."

In Pittsburgh, they've become -- as former Pirates pitcher Sean Burnett recently called them -- a laughingstock.

After the Steelers won the Super Bowl, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup and Pitt was the top-ranked team in college basketball this year, T-shirts were printed reading: "The City of Champions -- and the Pirates." A cigar shop advertises prices "lower than the Pirates' payroll."

It's not just that they've lost, but how the Pirates have lost. Only once since 1992 have they finished within four games of .500. They've lost 89 or more games 10 times, and are on pace to do it for an 11th.

As with most bad teams, a steady trickle of bad drafts, hires, trades and foolish signings led to a torrent of losing.

It began in 1991-92, when, instead of spending moderately to keep in-their-prime players such as Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, the Pirates chose to rebuild with prospects Kevin Young, Al Martin and Carlos Garcia. Bad move.

Owners lacking deep pockets sold to owners who could barely raise the cash to buy the team. In turn, they sold to owners with zero experience running a sports franchise. In 2003, Aramis Ramirez was given away in one of baseball's most one-sided trades of recent vintage because underfunded ownership exceeded baseball's debt-to-equity ratio.

"It's tough when you're in a small market," said former Pirates outfielder Mike Easler, a member of the 1979 team. "You can't spend like the Yankees and Mets and Dodgers. You have to make the right decisions, and when you don't . . ."

You become the Pirates.

Unlike the Steelers and Penguins, who develop players, keep them, and draft intelligently, the Pirates have looked overmatched on and off the field for years.

They wasted the No. 1 pick in the June 2002 draft on pitcher Bryan Bullington because he was affordable; he still hasn't won a game. They could have taken Prince Fielder or B.J. Upton.

They drafted John Van Benschoten, college baseball's leading home run hitter in 2001, and made him into a pitcher. A not very good one, either; his statistics for his first 20 starts were the worst in major league history.

Clemente, Stargell, Wagner? For the last 17 years, the Pirates' roster has been clogged with no-names and never-weres: Dennis Konuszewski and Matt Skrmetta, J.J. Furmaniak and J.J. Davis, Dave Wainhouse and Dave Davidson, Jonah Bayliss and Joe Boever, Brad Clontz and Brad Eldred, Josias Manzanillo, Ravelo Manzanillo and Franquelis Osoria.

Along the way, 328 players, six managers, four general managers (mostly Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield) and three owners had a hand in the Pirates losing 1,500 games -- their 82nd loss this season will be the 1,501st of the streak -- and finish an average of 221/2 games behind the division winner.

Since the Pirates lost Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS in Atlanta (thanks, Sid Bream), the Yankees have played in six World Series. The Red Sox ended an 86-year run without winning the World Series, the White Sox an 88-year drought. Bonds hit 586 home runs, and retired. Greg Maddux won 260 games, and retired. There was an October without a World Series and a November with one.

To the Pirates, every April, May, June, July, August, September and October seem the same. Terrible.

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