October 14th, 1992. This is the date of the last meaningful game the Pittsburgh Pirates played.
Doug Drabek versus John Smoltz. Drabek had held the potent Atlanta offense to no runs through eight innings. In the ninth he loaded the bases. Later in that inning the bases were cleared—the details of this meltdown are still too fresh and maddening for a Pirates fan to recount. And the Pittsburgh Pirates lost their third NLCS in three years.
Since that season they have lost no fewer than 83 games in any year.
At the beginning of any season, there are probably anywhere between 20-25 teams that legitimately have a chance at making the playoffs. Maybe 10 of those are confident they can make a decent playoff run. Five or six of those have a real chance of advancing all the way to the World Series.
The Pirates are not one of these teams.
There are no guarantees in life except death, taxes and the Pirates not making the playoffs. In spite of several changes in ownership, front office personnel, managers, and venue (PNC Park opened in 2001), the Pirates haven't sniffed the playoffs since 1992 and have finished in the basement of the NL Central for the last five seasons.
This is tragic for a city that loves sports as much as Pittsburgh. Folks often say that Pittsburgh is too much of a football town—that even if the Pirates were good they wouldn't sell out games (like the Tampa Bay Rays). But these people forget the 1970's when Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente were as big as Terry Bradshaw and Jack Lambert.
They forget the early 1990's when Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke were heroes on par with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. This is a city that would love baseball if it were given a team to love. Hell, Pittsburghers would love baseball if they were given a team that was merely competitive.
But last year the lowly Bucs dropped a staggering 105 games, setting a franchise record for single-season futility in the 162-game era. There is no reason to believe this year will be any different.
Pirates fans have been told for the last 18 years—since the departure of Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla—that the team is "rebuilding." This is a term that Bucs fans have become quite familiar with since 1996, when Kevin McClatchy purchased the Pirates. "Rebuilding." It is a term that current owner Bob Nutting continues to use today.
But why does it take so long to rebuild? In the nearly two decades the Pirates have been "trying" to piece together a competitive roster they have let countless proven veterans and promising prospects get snatched up by teams that were willing to spend money. The Pirates are so cheap, in fact, that their 2010 payroll of $34,943,000 is only $2,353,822 more than they spent on their 1992 roster, when they spent $32,589,167 (or, roughly what Albert Pujols wants to get paid per year).
Let that sink in for a minute.
One would think that if a team can only afford to spend so little that they must be in pretty deep financial trouble. However, in financial documents released by Deadspin last August it was revealed that in 2007 the team made a profit of just over $15 million (they went 68-94 that season), and in 2008 the organization netted $14,408,249 (for a record of 67-95).
So the question becomes: if Bob Nutting and company can earn that kind of money with the worst product in the sport, what is their motivation to field a competitive team that will invariably cost them more money?
In fairness to the organization, there are signs that the Bucs brass is spending a little more than in past years—it's just not on the field. In April of 2009 the Pirates announced that they had opened a multi-million dollar training facility in the Dominican Republic in an effort to more effectively develop and scout prospects in Latin America.
The early fruits of this labor have blossomed in the person of Jose Tabata—the 22-year-old Venezuelan who hit .299 for the Pirates in his rookie campaign last year and is expected to be one of the offensive leaders of the club going forward.
But if Tabata does develop into the superstar the Pirates hope he will become, will the team be willing to pay the money to keep him? Or will they trade him away for more prospects like they did with Brian Giles, Aramis Ramirez, etc. Only time will tell, but ultimately the Pirates are going to have to dust off the checkbook for some on-field talent if they ever expect to be competitive again.
In the meantime the Pirates take the field today knowing that the only thing they will be playing for this year is to stay out of last place. Baseball Prospectus places their odds at making the playoffs at a scant 0.8%. It is sad to say, but we all know they are being generous. The Pirates making the playoffs is more unlikely than VCU's NCAA tournament run.
And it will likely be that way for a long time to come.