82. A number that means nothing to some but means everything to Pirates fans. That’s the amount of wins it takes to claim a winning record in baseball.
20. Yet another number that may mean nothing to most fans. But to Pirates fans it represents the number of years it has been since they have had a winning season, the longest streak among professional sports.
But when Pittsburgh native Neil Walker fielded the final out Monday night it meant that those years of losing were finally over. The Pirates finally could claim a winning season after enduring being the doormat for Major League Baseball for a generation.
Pirates fans have endured 2 decades of losing ever since that famous Game 6 in the 1992 National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves. Ever since Sid Breem beat Barry Bonds’ throw, the Pirates have made losing an art form. 9 times they finished at the bottom of the division. 6 times they had seasons of 95 losses or more including 2 seasons with 100 or more losses. The Pirates, who began the losing streak in historic Three Rivers Stadium, play in one of the most beautiful ballparks in America at PNC Park. Unfortunately, the attraction of PNC Park has been the only spectacle Pirates fans have seen in 20 years.
Soon after Jim Leyland left in 1996, the Pirates were purchased by a group led by Kevin McClatchy. The franchise would enter a very dark period under the McClatchy ownership. The Pirates general manager at the time of the purchase was Cam Bonifay who took over the position in 1993, the first year of the losing streak. After Bonifay was released at the end of the 2001 season, McClatchy hired Dave Littlefield to be the GM. The combined Bonifay-Littlefield era saw many questionable moves with draft picks and free agent acquisitions.
The Pirates spent many first round picks on pitchers that never panned out. The names of Kris Benson, John Van Benschoten, Daniel Moskos, Bryan Bullington, and Bobby Bradley will make any Pirates fan grumble. The Pirates missed many prospects in the draft that they could have had such as Tim Lincecum, Lance Berkman, Nomar Garciaparra, Roy Halliday, Paul Konerko, Jason Varitek, and Barry Zito. They traded away and let go many future stars such as Barry Bonds, Aramis Ramirez, Brian Giles, Jason Bay, and Freddy Sanchez. Many players such as Tim Wakefield, Adam LaRoche, Jose Bautista, Ryan Vogelsong, and Jason Schmitt went on to have All Star seasons after they left Pittsburgh (after they had mediocre years with the Pirates). And then let’s not forget the dreadful free agent signings of Raul Mondesi, Lyle Overbay, Joe Randa, Jeromy Burnitz, Matt Morris, and Derek Bell (just google Operation Shutdown). All these names listed above will give any Pirates fan indigestion. Perhaps 20 years of it.
In 2007, the Pirates’ McClatchy/Littlefield era ended. The Pirates ownership was now under Bob Nutting who hired Frank Connelly as President of the team. Soon after, Neil Huntington was hired as the new General Manager. This era started with John Russell as manager. In the 3 years Russell was manager, the Pirates went 186-299, including a 105 loss season in 2010. Russell was fired but the team gave Huntington a vote of confidence going forward by keeping him. Quietly, the Pirates were beginning to build a strong farm system and the front office believed it would soon translate onto the major league level. First round picks Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, and Pedro Alvarez were on track to be in the major leagues. Huntington just needed to find a quality manager to guide the team.
Neil Huntington hired Clint Hurdle to be the manager for the team after the 105 loss season in 2010. Hurdle made it known that he expected to win in Pittsburgh. A pessimistic fan base mostly laughed at the idea. But in 2011, Hurdle’s first year, the team started to show signs of progress. They flirted with .500 into July but the team cooled off after a devastating, controversial 19 inning loss in late July. Still, the team finished 72-90, 15 wins better than the previous year’s 105 loss team. Following 2011, the team would acquire veteran pitcher A.J. Burnett. Fans held their collective breaths hoping this would not be another dreadful acquisition.
In 2012, the team would find early success yet again. Behind MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and newcomer Burnett, the Pirates would find themselves 16 games over .500 2/3rds of the way into the season. The Pirates would lose 37 of their final 54 games finishing 79-83, one of the biggest collapses in baseball history. This collapse resulted in their 20th consecutive losing season.
Following the 2012 season, the team’s message did not waver: they were committed to win. From Neil Huntington, to Clint Hurdle, all the way down to Andrew McCutchen and A.J. Burnett, the team believed they were on the right track. The team acquired Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin in the offseason. The fan base was generally pessimistic about the moves as attendance in 2013 was less than the year before. The collapses had no doubt left a bad taste in their mouth. But soon the team earned the fans respect with their play on the field. The acquisitions of Burnett, Liriano, and Martin (as well as all-stars Grilli and Melancon) along with the home grown talent of McCutchen, Walker, Alvarez, and Marte finally translated to a competitive team at the major league level. Even the mention of the Pirates being active at the trade deadline as buyers rather than sellers will make any longtime fan smile after enduring years and years of selling.
The best thing for Pirates fans is knowing that 82 wins is not the main goal of this team. The Pirates are hoping to finish the year strong in a tough division and to make some noise in the postseason. Yes, the postseason. A place the Pirates have not been in a generation.
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