Chicago's unknown farm team
Pirates turn into feeder for contenders
Jack Wilson has been a Pittsburgh Pirate for going on nine years, which could be considered cruel and unusual punishment if not for the fact he's earned about $30 million in that span.
Still, from a competitive standpoint, playing for the Pirates is akin to running for president as a libertarian; you have no chance. Rooting for the Pirates is a form of torture that should be outlawed under the Geneva Convention (the Three Rivers clause?). Next time the CIA wants to break a suspect, just show them highlights of Derek Bell flailing at the plate or the numbers in Jason Kendall's now-expired contract. It's an ugly business, Pirates baseball.
Wilson came up in 2001 -- a hopeful year when the Pirates moved into PNC Park -- and has yet to play for a winning ballclub, or even one that has come close to .500. He's the face of a franchise that hasn't figured out how to win since George H.W. Bush was in office.
If Wilson doesn't get dealt this season -- he's consistently mentioned in trade rumors because of his high salary and defensive skill at shortstop -- he will be on the field come September, when the Pirates will set the record for consecutive losing seasons among major North American sports franchises -- 17 in a row. It is inevitable, and it will be quite a sobering moment for the dwindling number of true believers who call themselves Pirates fans.
In Wilson's third year in the majors, the Pirates capped their 11th consecutive losing season by trading third baseman Aramis Ramirez and starting center fielder Kenny Lofton in "the Bobby Hill deal." The Cubs also wound up getting first baseman Randall Simon from the Pirates in a separate deal. Thus, two starters and a key sub on a team that came five outs from the World Series were from Pittsburgh. A sign thanking the Pirates hung on a building on Waveland Avenue. I wore a Pirates hat and T-shirt to one of the playoff games (I wasn't working), and fans were congratulating me as if I were Dave Littlefield, the former general manager who made that one-sided deal, and now, coincidentally, works for the Cubs.
"I remember that vividly," Wilson said. "That last series, when they clinched the division, I remember that sign that said, 'Thanks for Ramirez, Randall and Lofton.' You know it's a game and a business. Playing is always fun, always enjoyable, but the business side of it kind of sucks. You lose a lot of teammates. That's the way it goes."
The Cubs have a payroll of $135 million this season, the White Sox about $96 million. The Pirates? Nearly $49 million, the third-lowest in the game. Ramirez will make $15.65 million in 2009, part of a five-year $75 million deal. He was making around $6 million when the Pirates traded him.
In truth, I often forget that Ramirez was ever a Pirate, even though I grew up a fan of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club, as some current devotees call it. I follow the Pirates with some sense of ironic detachment, given that it has been a long time since every loss stung. It's tough for me, as a 30-year-old man, to care about a team that hasn't finished with a winning record since I was in junior high. But I still maintain that a breakthrough season would shake a complacent fan base into relative pandemonium. Well, at least until Steelers training camp begins.
In the saddest example of how low expectations are for the Pirates, as opposed to the Steelers or Penguins, two years ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a multipart retrospective of the 1997 season, in which the team finished 79-83, good enough for second place in the NL Central. The "Freak Show" team had a payroll of just $9 million (!) but was in contention until the end of September. You may remember the Cubs traded Shawon Dunston to the Pirates at the trade deadline, though even Dunston's hustle on ground balls didn't lift them to the division title.
I was talking about some of this with Wilson in the visitors clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field on Sunday morning. Most of the Pirates had just arrived at the park, oddly enough in "getaway day" finery despite the fact that the team wasn't leaving its downtown hotel for another three days. In a scheduling quirk, the team has six straight games in Chicago, three against the Sox, three against the Cubs. Most married players had a troupe of family in town -- wives, kids, parents and in-laws -- to celebrate the holiday weekend and enjoy the city.
"It's a nice little trip," he said.
For Chicago's baseball teams, these are the kind of tourists you wish for. Before the Pirates arrived, the White Sox had just lost a game 20-1 and had San Diego right-hander Jake Peavy rebuff their trade advances. Things turned around quickly with two straight shutout wins. Struggling pitcher Gavin Floyd righted himself momentarily against a weak-hitting Pirates lineup and Clayton Richard, thought to be going to the Padres in the Peavy deal, struck out a career-high eight in beating the Pirates on Saturday. All that prevented a sweep was a ninth-inning Pirates rally sparked by a rare Wilson homer, giving Pittsburgh a 4-3 win.
Now the flagging Cubs, replete with .200 hitters, get the Buccos for three games at Wrigley Field. Ryan Dempster, lefty Sean Marshall and Carlos Zambrano will start for the Cubs, who have lost seven straight.
"We're playing like crap right now anyways, so it doesn't matter what they're doing," Wilson said before Sunday's game. "We haven't been swinging the bats the last couple days. We've got four games left here, so we're hoping to finish up on a good mark."
Under a new regime, the Pirates have seen some welcome changes, most notably in the pitching staff. Joe Kerrigan joined the staff as the pitching coach this season, and the improvements have been dramatic. Paul Maholm starts Monday, and Zach Duke, finally returning to rookie form, goes Wednesday. The bullpen has been a strength as well. Still, the Pirates will have to deal with a slew of Cubs hitters who will be all too ready to bludgeon some opposing pitchers.
"They're doing a great job, everything we're asking them to do," Wilson said of the pitchers. "They're giving us a chance to win. The offense hasn't picked up our side of the bargain."
The Pirates have been missing slugging catcher Ryan Doumit, who broke his right wrist April 20, and their offense is uneven at best after last season's dumping of Jason Bay and Xavier Nady. Their 16th losing season ended like those before it, a fire sale that traded veterans for prospects. What will their 17th bring?
I was hoping to talk to general manager Neal Huntington. I had a list of possible deals he could make, benefiting the Chicago teams, of course. (Nyjer Morgan would look nice in center for either team. Freddy Sanchez could play second or third for the Cubs or the Sox right now.) It's a little early to think of giving up, but if history is a judge, it won't be too long.
And why shouldn't Chicago benefit from another lost season?