Commentary

That was then, this (sigh) is now

The Pittsburgh Pirates learn the hard lessons of losing

Updated: May 27, 2009, 10:44 AM ET
By Luke Cyphers | ESPN The Magazine

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

This story apppears in the June 1 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

"Let's go home! Let's go home!"

Top of the ninth, two outs, two strikes on Atlanta's Brian McCann, and 20,755 fans can't wait to leave Pittsburgh's gorgeous PNC Park and enjoy a warm early-spring afternoon. Or so they say. But if they're in such a hurry, why are so many of them still here? The scoreboard reads Pirates 10, Braves 0. If these folks are so anxious, why did they show up in the first place? The Pirates are master ­marketers, specializing in fireworks displays and Styx concerts -- anything to keep attendance up -- but they didn't have a superspecial promo going for this game. So why did 5,000 people walk up and purchase tickets Saturday morning, when it was a perfect day to buy some pizzelle on the Strip or scull on the Allegheny or enjoy the view from atop Mount Washington?

Home? Really? The fans are reveling in this, in just a tiny bit of hope, on the outside chance that finally, after years in the wilderness, dating all the way back to Sid Bream's damnable slide that ended the 1992 NLCS and broke Pittsburgh's heart, the Pirates just might be starting to find their way back. The PNC faithful know they're on a run of 16 straight losing seasons, matching the 1933-48 Phillies for the worst streak in major professional sports team history. Last year the Bucs lost 95 games. Before that, 94, 95, 95, 89, 87, 89, 100 … And that's just this decade. Every baseball prognosticator projected the Pirates would fail to reach .500 again this season, for the 17th year in a row, thereby taking sole possession of a very dubious first place. Sure enough, after a hot (for the Bucs) 11-7 start, they dropped 12 of their next 13.

But on this day, the fans cling to the slim hope that maybe this year, or at least some year soon, will be different. Maybe these Pirates aren't condemned to repeat the past. Maybe, finally, they've learned from it.

And hey, who knows -- maybe they're right.


LESSON 1 — THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES

Neal Huntington, Pittsburgh's GM, sits in a conference room next to his PNC Park office, and all around him are signs of a work in progress. He has his bags packed for a Southern scouting trip as the Pirates ponder the fourth pick in the June draft. Unopened boxes and bare walls suggest that after 20 months on the job, he has not completely moved in. "These fans are tired of losing, and so are we," says Huntington, a 40-year-old, Doogie Howserish veteran of the Expos' and Indians' front offices. "But we're not here to have one winning season. We want to build a winning organization. And we're probably in Phase 3 of 12."

Previous Pirates regimes wasted millions on middling vets like Derek Bell, Jeromy Burnitz and Matt Morris, but as convenient as it would be to point fingers backward, Huntington refuses. "We analyze what we have to build upon. Our focus is on what we believe is the right thing for this market size, in this environment." He has staffed the front office with people from Minnesota, Cleveland, Detroit -- teams in similar-size markets that have figured out how to remain competitive.

The first rule is patience: The club won't jeopardize long-term success for one immediate winning season. "I think we indicated that last year," Huntington says. With the Pirates sniffing .500 before the trade deadline, they dealt veteran Jason Bay as the third team in the Manny Ramírez Red Sox-Dodgers swap. The move looked cheap, and Pirates fans groaned. Bay, the team's most popular star and one of its few recognizable names, was also its third-highest-paid player. But Huntington says that trade, and another in which he sent Xavier Nady to the Yankees, was necessary to build organizational depth. In total the GM landed eight prospects, four of whom are in the big leagues: third baseman Andy LaRoche, outfielder Brandon Moss and starting pitchers Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens.

The Pirates are still short on talent at the top, but Huntington won't rush his most prized young players. Power-hitting third baseman Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh's much-hyped 2008 first-round draft choice, pounded the ball in spring training, and 2005 first-rounder Andrew McCutchen has emerged as the organization's best defensive outfielder and a potential dynamic leadoff hitter. But the 22-year-old Alvarez is in Single-A ball, and McCutchen, who's also 22, is still with Triple-A Indianapolis. "Major league baseball for young players is about survival," Huntington says. "And once you're in survival mode, you may not reach your full potential, because you won't make adjustments and take a step back to go five steps forward. We're not going to bring anyone up before he's ready."

LESSON 2 — YOU NEED A PLAN

All the losing has resulted in high draft picks. But those picks haven't turned into stars or even big leaguers. John Van Benschoten, Clint Johnston and Bobby Bradley are just a few of the Pirates' first-round busts. The team avoided prospects whose asking price was too high -- especially players represented by Scott Boras. When new Pirates president Frank Coonelly came over from MLB's front office, Bucs fans feared more of the same. After all, Coonelly implemented baseball's draft slotting structure, a system designed to limit bonuses that took direct aim at Boras' big-bucks bullying. But in their first draft, the new Pirates regime selected a Boras client, Alvarez, with the No. 2 pick. After three months of heated negotiations (at one point, Boras tried to get Alvarez declared a free agent), they finally settled for $6.3 million.

The Pirates also landed two college-bound players with signability issues -- outfielder Robbie Grossman and pitcher Quinton Miller -- by drafting them lower and paying them above slot to change their minds about school. Grossman, a sixth-round pick, signed for $1 million; Miller, taken in the 20th round, got $900,000. When Huntington is shown a chart of the Pirates' bonus outlays since 2004, he smiles at the spike from $4.2 million in 2007 to $9.8 million last year. "That's actually more than we budgeted for," he says. "We had a chance at some good players."

LESSON 3 — THE REVOLUTION MUST BE JOINED

AP Images/Keith SrakocicGM Huntington sees better days ahead.

After blanking the Braves for seven innings in the 10-0 rout, Pittsburgh righthander Ian Snell credited Ryan Doumit's pitch selection. The catcher, in turn, praised the system put in place by new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. "I'll show you what's different," says Doumit. He pulls a vinyl-covered, 60-page computer printout from the top shelf of his locker. The report is filled with three-page analyses of every Braves hitter, including stats like Garret Anderson's 1-for-30 performance last year on 0-2 sliders. "With Joe, our pitcher-catcher meetings are like science class." The Pirates pitching staff posted four shutouts in the first 13 games of the season, a franchise record. (They've come back to earth since Doumit injured his wrist and shortstop Jack Wilson missed time with a finger sprain.)

The scientific method isn't limited to the mound. Huntington hired former Baseball Prospectus writer Dan Fox to acquire and analyze data on all aspects of the game, especially defense. Nothing is sacred. Centerfielder Nate McLouth won a Gold Glove in 2008, but the next-level stats showed several balls went over his head. "They've got me a hair deeper this year," McLouth says. That made a difference in the fourth inning of the 10-0 win over Atlanta, when McLouth stabbed a Jeff Francoeur liner heading for the gap and killed a rally.

The new regime is also into chemistry. Pittsburgh will never be able to afford big-name free agents, and the farm system faces years of rebuilding. So the team has tried to acquire a surplus of decent, affordable, veteran role players. It's no coincidence that Craig Monroe, with Detroit in 2005-06, and Eric Hinske, with the Rays last season, played on clubs that made dramatic turnarounds. "I walked into a clubhouse in spring training with some very young, talented players, and they all wanted to turn this thing around," Monroe said after hitting two homers against the Braves.

LESSON 4 — STUDY ABROAD

The Pirates made a splash this off-season with their signing of two pitchers from India and a shortstop from South Africa. "We need to be aggressive in emerging markets," Huntington says. "Even if guys turn out to be role players who never make it out of A-ball, the next player from that country identifies with the Pittsburgh Pirates."

But the international scouting derby is still won and lost in Latin America. For years the Pirates lost. In 2007, chairman Bob Nutting, fresh off taking majority control of the team, traveled to the Pirates' training facilities in the Dominican Republic. The lone field, miles from the players' housing, was a joke. This year the club opened a new, self-contained, amenity-filled complex. The Bucs have also made life easier for their respected Latin American scouting director, Rene Gayo. With Cleveland in the late 1990s, he turned $2 million into signing bonuses for 11 future big leaguers, including Fausto Carmona and Jhonny Peralta. Gayo knows how to find bargains, and now that Pittsburgh has nearly tripled his annual budget, to $2 million, he can pursue touted prospects, too. The Pirates recently invited several top 16-year-olds, including shortstop Miguel Angel Sano (The Mag, March 23, 2009), to work out at the new academy. "In the past, we'd have trouble seeing the high-profile players," Gayo says. "That's not happening anymore."

LESSON 5 — SURGE AHEAD BY LOOKING BACK

There was once a time when the Pirates were Pittsburgh's flagship franchise. In 1909 they opened Forbes Field, a concrete-and-brick monster that revolutionized ballpark architecture, ending an era of wooden firetraps. The Pirates won the World Series that year. They did it again in 1925, 1960, 1971 and 1979. They've produced 11 batting champions and 34 Hall of Famers. They gave baseball Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. And when the young, skinny Barry Bonds wore the gold-and-black, he was baseball's best all-around player.

That all seems like a long time ago. As the Pirates built their record of futility, the Steelers cemented their status as an iconic franchise. Sidney Crosby rejuvenated the Penguins. And with Pitt basketball now an NCAA power, the Pirates are in danger of becoming, as shortstop Wilson said recently, "the fourth team in town."

To reclaim some market share, the new brass has unearthed the Pirates' glory days. They've moved a section of the Forbes Field wall -- the part that Bill Mazeroski's 1960 World Series walk-off homer sailed over -- onto the PNC Park grounds. They've brought back the simple, elegant gold "P" classic logo. Posters of Pirates greats line the walls outside the clubhouse, and plaques with retired numbers hover above the lockers. "It might seem corny, but it's important," McLouth says. "There is a tradition here. It's a proud city that likes its sports."

Fans would love to take pride in the Pirates again. On the opening night of the Atlanta series, as the Bucs tried to finish a 3-0 win, the well-heeled denizens on the club level were glued to every late-inning pitch while at the same time glancing over at the TVs and cheering as the Penguins tied the Flyers to send their playoff game into overtime. The faithful saluted the Bucs as closer Matt Capps completed the shutout, then drank to the Pens' win and stayed in the ballpark until the bar shut down and the lights went out and security asked them to leave.

They weren't ready to go home.

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.