Walking the Plank: From Storied Ball Club to Worst Franchise In Baseball

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Walking the Plank: From Storied Ball Club to Worst Franchise In Baseball
(Photo by: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Maybe I'm missing something.

Maybe I just don't get it. Maybe, because I grew up in the New York City metro area, I can't understand the plight of the small market, blue collar town.

Maybe because I grew up a Mets fan in a family full of Yankee fans, I don't know what it feels like to be a fan of a team that can not be competitive because of financial reasons.

Maybe it's me.

While it's true that I have always been, and always will be a Mets fan, I must admit that the Pittsburgh Pirates hold a special place in my heart.

I have visited the city of Pittsburgh on three separate occasions, all of which were baseball inspired road trips, twice with my father (once to Three Rivers Stadium, once to PNC Park), and one this season with my 10-year-old son to see the Pirates play our beloved Mets.

Pittsburgh is a great city. It's equal parts old and new, part big city and part blue collar small town.

It's also a terrific sports town. Small market or not, it is the home of the NHL champion Penguins and the Super Bowl Champion Steelers...and the Pirates.

The Pittsburgh Pirates were once a storied franchise. This is the same team that gave us Honus Wagner, Bill Mazeroski's home run in the 1960 World Series, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell and "The Family."

This is the same team that has won the World Series five times. This is the same team that calls the best ballpark in all of Major League Baseball home.

Unfortunately now, this is the same team that is the worst franchise in baseball (yes Nationals fans, you read that right).

It's become old hat in Pittsburgh by now. The Pirates have young, talented players, but are still unable to win. Those players stick around for three or four seasons, and then before those talented young players can become high-priced free agents, their traded for more talented, young players. All the while, the only constant is the losing.

In fact, there has been so much losing in Pittsburgh that, if the Pirates continue the way they're going this season, 2009 will be a record 17th consecutive losing season. In other words, the Pirates haven't had a winning record since Barry Bonds' throw to Mike LaValliere was off line just enough, allowing Atlanta's Sid Bream to slide under the tag and into the World Series.

That was 1992. I was 14. I'm 31 now. (In comparison, the Montreal Expos / Washington Nationals franchise has had five winning seasons and another at .500 during the same time span).

Despite all of the losing, the majority of Pirates fans have stuck by their team. When talk had begun about putting a new stadium in Pittsburgh, despite the fact that Three Rivers Stadium was not even 30 years old and the city still owed over $30 million on the facility, the new stadium was not only given a go, the majority of the bill was footed by the city and the state tax payers. The result was the beautiful PNC Park, the nicest ball park I have ever watched a game in.

While there has been plenty of quality major league players that have called Pittsburgh home recently, such as Brian Giles, Aramis Ramirez, and Jason Bay, this season was shaping up to be the best for the Pirates since Barry Bonds could still fit into a fitted ball cap.

Until Pirates management decided to go in a different directions.

It started with the trade of arguably the Bucs most popular player, Nate McLouth. The move left many baseball analysts perplexed, but now it all makes sense.

It was the beginning of the end.

A Nyjer Morgan for Lastings Milledge deal would soon follow, but it's the first move that would garner the ire of the Pirates faithful, as they would watch McLouth go to Atlanta for prospects. This despite the fact that McLouth had signed an extension in the off-season to stay in Pittsburgh at a very reasonable price.

The worst part of that trade, however, was that when the deal was made, the Pirates were in contention, only five games behind then-division leader St. Louis.

The move would cause more and more fans to give up on the team, and before long, the team would give up on them, totally cleaning house of any player making significant money.

Adam Laroche went to Boston. Tom Gorzellany went to division foe Chicago. Freddy Sanchez went to San Francisco. Ian Snell and fan favorite shortstop Jack Wilson would be shipped to Seattle. By the time the dust from the trade deadline cleared, the only player left from the Pirates 2008 opening day line-up was Ryan Doumit.

So once again, the Pirates play their version of 'Moneyball". This despite all the revenues that come with the opening of a new ball park.

This despite the fact that, as a small market team, the Pirates receive money from Major League baseball through revenue sharing, money that is meant to be put back into the team, not the pockets of ownership.

Say what you will about how terrible the Nationals have been, at least they try in the off-season. They did trade for Scott Olsen, and sign Adam Dunn for $10 million per year. The Pirates stood pat, and now they are fielding a AAA team.

Maybe Pirates principal owner Robert Nutting won't pay, but others will. The large market teams of Major League baseball will pay through revenue sharing. The city of Pittsburgh will continue to pay for the new and old stadiums for the Pirates. Most importantly, the fans will pay.

They'll pay with their money for tickets and souvenirs. They'll pay with their time, and with their loyalty. They'll pay, and pay, and keep paying, with no end in sight any time soon.

Maybe I don't get it because of my allegiance to a large market team, but I think it's time the fans stop paying. After all, they've been paying for 17 years.

If only Sid Bream had been called out.

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