Pittsburgh Pirates: Willie to Barry to Nate
With the song "We Are Family" glaring from the speakers in Three Rivers Stadium, the Pirates defeated the Baltimore Orioles, 7-1, in Game Five of the 1979 World Series to extend the series. It would be two games later when the Pirates would go on to defeat the Orioles by winning the next two games in Baltimore.
Times were good for the Pirates, as they capped their second World Series Championship during the 70's (winning in 1971 against the Orioles). From 1969 to 1979, the Pirates were one of the best teams in baseball. They won 90 or more games six times during that span and only had one losing season (80-82 in '73)
When you are on top, there's no way to go but down. That is exactly what occurred in the mid 1980s.
The decline started with the trade of Bert Blyleven to Cleveland, after the 1980 season, with the aging Manny Sanguillen for four unproductive players.
It turned out that Willie Stargell's MVP year of '79 would be his last productive season, as he would hit only 14 home runs combined over the next three seasons before retiring after the '82 season.
After the 1983 season, the downward spiral was complete. The Pirates let Dave Parker walk and traded Mike Easler to Boston for John Tudor (who they then traded the next year for George Kendrick and a minor league player).
In 1984, the Pirates began a three year rebuilding process that would see them lose 87, 104, and 98 games during that span. During those years, players like Marvell Wynne, Sammy Khalifa, Tony Pena, Jason Thompson, and Jim Morrison would be the top players. In 1985, the Pirates home run leader was Thompson with only 12 and the RBI leader was Johnny Ray with 70.
During 1985, the Pirates would start the year making one bad move. They were not able to sign Greg Vaughn whom they drafted in Jan. of 1985. But in June, the Pirates made a draft pick that would begin their transition back to glory. They drafted Barry Bonds as the sixth pick in the first round (after BJ Surhoff, Will Clark, Bobby Witt, Barry Larkin, and Kurt Brown).
They followed the draft pick by making three trades that would complete the renaissance in Pittsburgh. First they traded Jose DeLeon to the White Sox for Bobby Bonilla. Then, they traded Pat Clements, Cecilio Guante, and Rick Rhoden to the Yankees for future Cy Young Winner Doug Drabek, Brian Fisher, and a minor league player. Lastly, the Pirates would complete their future All-Star outfield by trading Tony Pena to the Cardinals for Andy Van Slyke, Mike Dunne, and Mike LaValliere.
In 1988, the up-and-coming Pirates finished second in the NL East division with a record of 85-75. Bonilla and Van Slyke drove in 100 runs apiece and Bonds was on the brink of stardom, hitting 24 home runs and batting .283. The rotation was also rounding into form as three pitchers won a dozen or more games.
After regressing to 74 wins in 1989, the Pirates won their first of three division titles in 1990. The league finally noticed what talent was playing in Pittsburgh, as Bonds won his first MVP award and Doug Drabek won the Cy Young. With the position move of Bonilla to the outfield, the Pirates arguably had the best outfield since Fred Lynn's rookie season in Boston.
Though the Pirates won three consecutive division titles, they were not able to win the League Championship. They lost to the Reds in six games and then lost to the Braves the next two seasons in seven games.
Not only was '92 the last time that the Pirates won the division, but it was also their last winning season. Contrary to when the rise began with the Bonds draft, the fall began with Bonds leaving, via free agency, to the San Francisco Giants. After winning two MVP awards with the Pirates, money led him to the Bay Area and led to the Rome-like fall of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates were not able to replace his production, especially since Bonilla left for the Mets a year earlier.
The team that recently counted on 90 home runs from their three All-Star outfielders only managed 110 from their whole team in 1993. The Pirates won 75 games, after averaging 95 the last three years.
The rest of the decade had players like Jeff King, Jay Bell, Carlos Garcia, Al Martin, and Orlando Merced lead the team in hitting, but they were no Bonds or Bonilla. The glory days were over but no one has expected the drought to run as long as it had.
The inability to draft a star player has been the biggest cause. During the 1990s, the only No. 1 picks that made an impact in the major leagues were Jason Kendall (1992) and Kris Benson (1996). Other impact players drafted during the same time were Tony Womack and Kevin Young. These guys are not your big impact players that completely rebuild a team.
Though the Jim Leyland Pirates were built around drafted Bonds, the other stars were obtained via trades. The Pirates have not been able to make a big trade that would benefit them but, instead, made many trades that they were pressure into making because their player was coming up to free agency and would walk (Brian Giles, Aramis Ramirez, Benson and Jason Schmidt).
The final cause is salary driven. The budget has remained low due to the lack of attendance. This has handcuffed the GM from making necessary signings to compete. When they were able to sign a player, they left everyone scratching their heads and wondering why (Pat Meares).
The Pirates may be heading in the right direction with the new decade. The recent draft picks have left an aura of excitement and thoughts of what may lie ahead. Paul Maholm, Ryan Doumit, Nate McLouth, Zach Duke, Matt Capps, Nyjer Morgan, Andrew McCutchen and Tom Gorzelanny all have been drafted recently and are ready to shine. The Pirates received Andy LaRoche, Craig Hansen, Brandon Morris, Jeff Karstens, and Ross Ohlendorf in return for Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, and Damaso Marte, due to two trades in 2008.
The only factor that needs to be addressed is bringing the fans back and signing some veterans to help guide the young team back to the postseason.
Aside from the New York Yankees, the Pittsburgh Pirates are arguably the most storied franchise in baseball history. This is the reason for the recap dating back to when I was young. I'm hoping to paint a picture for the young readers who may not know how good the Pirates were.
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