If I had a private audience with the Pope of the Tigers, Jim Leyland, I’d have just one question for him.
The question wouldn’t be about his team’s bullpen, or what the deal is with that 3-9 record in extra innings. I wouldn’t ask about Nick Castellanos’ potential, or what we should expect from Bruce Rondon or why his catcher can’t hit.
The subject wouldn’t be his smoking or whether Miguel Cabrera is the best he’s ever seen or why his catcher can’t hit.
I’d have one question, and it would go like this.
“What was it like when the Pittsburgh Pirates were winners?”
Leyland ought to know. He remains the last Pirates manager to guide the Bucs to a winning record. It happened in 1992, before Bill Clinton was elected president—the first time.
The Pirates were three-time defending National League East Division champs after the 1992 season. The World Series eluded them all three years, but they were a pretty decent group of ballplayers, led by none other than Barry “Before and After” Bonds.
Leyland was a young 47 years old in the 1992 baseball season. His voice wasn’t as gravelly. Sports talk radio wasn’t nipping at his heels. From 1990-92, Leyland’s baseball year would go like this: Win the division, lose in the playoffs. That was pretty much it.
In 1993, the Bucs finished below .500, at 75-87. Pittsburgh baseball fans probably figured '93 was a bump in the road, a blip on the screen, a good old-fashioned fluke.
It turned out to be a 20-year bump/blip/fluke.
The Pirates became the Keystone Kops of baseball. They were the National League’s Washington Generals. Baseball’s version of the pre-Blake Griffin Los Angeles Clippers.
Leyland was fired after the 1996 season, on the heels of four straight losing seasons. His successor was none other than Gene Lamont, Leyland’s bench coach on the Tigers for the past eight years. Lamont lasted four years as Pirates manager, and he gave way to Lloyd McClendon, who also has been on the Tigers’ coaching staff since 2006.
Cue the spooky music.
So will the Pirates only be losers for as long as Leyland, Lamont and McClendon are together with the Tigers? Is there some sort of curse? Because we all know that sports fans love a good curse.
If the Pirates are cursed, it’s been the curse of poor drafting, questionable trades and free-agent busts.
The past 20 years of losing records have been deserved. You don’t play 162 games and call your end result an aberration, and you especially don’t lose for two decades and blame it on outside forces.
The Pirates have been losers since 1992 because they haven’t had very many good players. They haven’t had very many good players because they haven’t done a good job of beating the bushes—in this country and elsewhere—in finding them.
The few so-called stars that the Pirates have had since 1992 have all eventually bolted Pittsburgh for greener pastures—which has been just about any team you care to name—or have been traded in lopsided deals.
So it’s been 20 years of win totals in the 60s or 70s—which is appropriate, because prior to Leyland’s arrival as Pirates skipper in 1986, the last time the Pirates enjoyed real success was in the 1960s and 1970s.
Pittsburgh has seen its share of bad baseball. The Pirates teams of the 1950s were mostly dreadful. Joe Garagiola, who played on some of those horrid Pirates teams in the '50s, used to while away many minutes of dead air in his broadcasting career recalling those years, when Pittsburgh was home to the absolute worst that baseball could offer.
Then came the resurgence in the 1960s, starting with the 1960 World Series win over the mighty New York Yankees. The Pirates fielded pretty good teams throughout the decade, then continued winning in the 1970s, adding two more world championships to their total (1971 and 1979, both against Baltimore).
The well ran dry until Leyland took over and built the Pirates into a mini-dynasty from 1990-92. Actually, it was more of a National League East dynasty, but it was still pretty impressive.
The Pirates, in recent years, have teased their fans into thinking that the string of losing records may be ending.
In 2011, the Pirates were 54-49 on July 28. They trailed the first place Milwaukee Brewers by just 1.5 games in the NL Central (where the Bucs moved in the mid-1990s when baseball re-jiggered itself). August was nigh and the Pirates were in the thick of things!
You heard it all back then as giddy writers and fans had visions of the playoffs dancing in their heads. The ugly duckling was turning into a swan and all that rot.
A 10-game losing streak ensued, and just like that, the Pirates were the Pirates again. They were 54-59 and had sunk to fourth place, 10 games out. They finished 72-90, which was how they usually finished. The only difference was the 103-game tease that accompanied it.
In 2012, the Pirates did it to their faithful again.
July 28 once again was the team’s undoing.
In a spooky coincidence that only the Pittsburgh Pirates could pull off, the Bucs for the second consecutive year saw their high water mark come on July 28. For on that date in 2012, the Pirates were 58-42 and just two games behind the first place Cincinnati Reds. This was even better than 2011’s 54-49 on July 28.
Again, Pirates fans had cause to believe that the streak of losing seasons, which at this point stood at 19 years, was about to end. The 2012 Pirates had some players, most notably star center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who was being mentioned in league MVP talk.
So naturally, the Pirates stumbled and bumbled their way to a 21-41 finish (9-22 after August 29), to end up at 79-83.
The streak of losing seasons reached an even 20.
Have you looked at the standings lately? Pirates fans sure have, and you can forgive them for being as doubting as Thomas.
As I write this, the Pirates are 56-38. Someone named Jason Grilli (remember him?) was just on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, for his closing exploits and for his role in leading a terrific bullpen that calls itself The Shark Tank.
July 28 is eight days away.
Something tells me that Pirates fans will be watching the remainder of this season with one eye closed. Also appropriate, given their logo is a pirate with an eye patch.