The Curse of Barry Bonds: 16 Years of Losing In Pittsburgh

Kyle GolikContributor IJune 26, 2009

Over the years, the word "curse" has been used on franchises that haven't been able to win it all. The first two that come to mind are the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs.

The Red Sox went from 1918 to 2004 without winning the World Series. It was said to be under the "Curse of the Bambino" when they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

The Chicago Cubs, who haven't won a world championship since 1908, has the longest championship drought in professional sports. Some say the franchised has been doomed by "The Curse of the Billy Goat," or from the Leon Durham incident or the Steve Bartman incident.

One thing has been consistent with these franchises. They have ushered in great players and winning teams.

The Chicago Cubs have won seven National League pennants, earned countless division titles, and earned a wild card berth in 1998. They have seen great players come through Wrigley as well: Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Dave Kingman, Ferguson Jenkins, Billy Williams, Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, Sammy Sosa, et al.

The Boston Red Sox, on the other hand, won four American League pennants, also won a cluster of division titles, and numerous wild cards. They had their share of legends through Fenway: Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans, Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, et al.

The Boston Red Sox would eventually break the curse in 2004, and again in 2007.

While the fans in Boston and Chicago might feel cursed because of not winning a championship, the fans, or what is left of them in Pittsburgh, have been tortured.

The fans of Boston and Chicago may have been teased and tortured with collapses in the World Series or the playoffs, but the Pirates have not even sniffed winning baseball.

The Pirates have since 1993 finished their seasons with more losses than victories. The fans have not even seen a Ted Williams develop. They may have seen a player at even half of his ability.

Consider some of these All Star representatives: Mike Williams (believe it or not, he is a two-time representative for the Buccos), Ed Sprague, Carlos Garcia, Denny Neagle, and Tony Womack.

The marginal baseball fan might say, "Who are they?" and "What position do they play?"

Like the Cubs and Red Sox fans have, you had to pinpoint a moment when the curse got started.

Red Sox fans point to Babe Ruth's departure.

I point to the departure of Barry Bonds.

The rough ending of his tenure here in Pittsburgh, his last two years, were not exactly moonlight and canoes.

Several key events led to Bonds' departure. After winning the 1990 NL MVP Award, Bonds was one of the lowest paid in the Majors and felt he deserved more. He started to question ownership and management.

When he brought that attitude to spring training in 1991, it led to a run-in with Jim Leyland. Though both say they buried the hatchet, it still left a bad taste in Bonds' mouth.

Another blow came when his best friend and teammate, Bobby Bonilla, was let go to free agency. Bonds made it clear he wanted to have Bonilla stay in Pittsburgh. When his wish was not granted, he knew it was the end.

1992 was a bittersweet end for Barry Bonds in Pittsburgh. He won his second MVP award. He helped guide the Pirates to their third consecutive National League East Division title. The Pirates would reach the National League Championship Series against playoff nemesis, the Atlanta Braves.

The Pirates and Braves would put on an epic seven game series that would end on the last at-bat and would involve Barry Bonds. It was the bottom of the ninth inning with the Pirates up 2-1. Francisco Cabrera hit a two-run single to left field. David Justice was able to score to tie the game. When Bonds fielded the ball attempting to throw out Sid Bream, the throw was off and Bream was able to score.

The Braves would go on to the World Series and face the Toronto Blue Jays. The Pirates, on the other hand, knew their run was over.

In 1993, Bonds would sign with the San Francisco Giants for a then record six year $43.5 million deal. In San Francisco, Bonds would help guide the Giants in the last great pennant chase before the Wild Card was introduced, guide the Giants to the 2002 World Series, and an epic chase to become the home run king.

The Pirates since 1993 have failed to developed any talent whatsoever, have had poor ownership, and have failed to reach .500.

Currently, the Pirates are tied with the 1933-1948 Philadelphia Phillies for the longest running consecutive losing campaigns. The Pirates seemed poised to set a new standard for failure.

The fans who still remain wonder if this is the end of the downward spiral.

It's hard to say. Pirates fans have seen many rebuilding and five-year plans. It's hard to say the team is going in the right direction.

For every good deal the Pirates have done—Denny Neagle to Atlanta for Jason Schmidt, or Brian Giles to San Diego for Jason Bay and Oliver Perez—they do a Aramis Ramirez for Bobby Hill. Ramirez has hit 187 home runs with the Cubs, Bobby Hill has 326 at bats with the Pirates.

Through the years, it's been hard to watch this team fail to even compete on a day-by-day basis. Though, there have been a few moments that we have been able to relish.

In 1993, Jim Leyland tried to engineer a turn-around in Pittsburgh. After watching the most successful teams the Pirates fielded since the 1970's, he set to rebuild and reload.

The Pirates turned to a nucleus of young players that consisted of outfielder Al Martin, former No. 1 overall pick at third base, Jeff King, second baseman Carlos Garcia, and first baseman and outfielder Orlando Merced. They were led by center fielder Andy Van Slyke and shortstop Jay Bell, who won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards that year.

The team, who had won 96 ball games in 1992, dropped to 75 in 1993, finishing 22 behind first place Philadelphia Phillies.

1994 became the start of star players exiting Pittsburgh. When Andy Van Slyke was resigned over Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, he was thought to be the cornerstone of the franchise through the rebuilding model.

Pirates brass didn't think so anymore and would let Van Slyke walk to off to Baltimore in the offseason.

While 1994 was a bittersweet season for Major League Baseball with the labor strike, a bright spot came right here in Pittsburgh during the "Mid-Summer Classic."

The 65th All Star Game was right here in Pittsburgh and would be the final All Star Game to be played at Three Rivers Stadium. During introductions, there was the booing of Barry Bonds and the standing ovation Pirates manager Jim Leyland received; it was moving and an appreciation for his managing style and how much he was beloved in this city.

In a game that was a classic, Tony Gwynn led off the 10th with a single and came around to score the game-winning run in dramatic fashion on a double by Moises Alou as the National League posted an 8-7 victory.

1996, was a year in Pirates history of a great entrances and great exits.

On Feb. 12, 1996, Kevin McClatchy and his financial partners purchase the Pirates and saved the franchise from a move out of Pittsburgh. From the end of the Allegheny Associates run of the club, to the city running the franchise, McClatchy was seen to help right the ship here in Pittsburgh.

With McClatchy in place, he was hoping to bring a winner to Pittsburgh as well as great players. During the 1996 season, the Pirates brought up rookie catcher Jason Kendall. Kendall would be one of the exciting players of the year. He would hit for high average but lacked power. His efforts earned him the Sporting News Rookie of the Year.

Also, during the season the Pirates made another trade that at first was unpopular, but would pay dividends later. Near the trading deadline, the Pirates sent ace Denny Neagle to the Atlanta Braves for Jason Schmidt. With Schmidt in the rotation, the Pirates promoted having some of the best young nuclei in baseball: Schmidt, Francisco Cordova, Jon Leiber, and Elmer Dessens.

While the future looked bright in Pittsburgh, Jim Leyland was leaving. The man who helped guide the Pirates to three NL East titles in the 1990's was going to the Florida Marlins to hopefully achieve his dream of winning the World Series.

In 1997, hope was high that the ball club could continue the momentum they started the previous season. Jim Leyland was replaced by bench coach Gene Lamont. They hope was high, but realistic expectations were low, considering the team the Pirates fielded had a payroll of $9 million.

The highlight of the year was an historic game in Major League history.

On Jul. 12, in front of a sell-out crowd at Three Rivers for a prime-time game on ESPN, the Pirates faced the Houston Astros. Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon joined for the first combined extra inning no-hitter in Major League history. The game was capped off with a walk-off three-run home run by Mark Smith.

1997 also marked the emergence of Tony Womack. The future All Star second baseman would win his first of three consecutive stolen base crowns. With Womack, Kendall, and great pitching, the Pirates were actually in contention for the NL Central crown to the last week of the season, where they were eliminated by future champion Houston Astros.

The Pirates finished 79-83, their best mark during this stretch and would finish just five back of Houston.

Hope was in the air that the Pirates could build momentum from the 1997 campaign, but injuries, poor performance, and bad personnel moves led the Pirates to poor 1998, 1999, and 2000 campaigns.

The Pirates and the fans blamed general manager Cam Bonifay for all the failures; the team removed Bonifay in 2001.

In 2001 the team opened PNC Park, hoping to build a winner; instead, it was home to a team that lost 100 games.

The David Littlefield era began with promise making smart moves to bring in Mike Williams, Brian Boehringer, Pokey Reese, and Kip Wells; the team improved by 10-and-one-half games.

While Littlefield brought in talent, he did not think he would have to endure notorious publicity in the likes of Derek Bell.

Bell, who batted .173 the previous season, was forced to compete with the job and when the media found Derek Bell, he gave us a quote that will endure forever in infamy.

"Nobody told me I was in competition. If there is competition, somebody better let me know. If there is competition, they better eliminate me out of the race and go ahead and do what they're going to do with me. I ain't never hit in spring training and I never will. If it ain't settled with me out there, then they can trade me. I ain't going out there to hurt myself in spring training battling for a job. If it is [a competition], then I'm going into 'Operation Shutdown.' Tell them exactly what I said. I haven't competed for a job since 1991."

Bell would be released that spring training.

After "Operation Shutdown," any credibility Littlefield built with Pirates fans quickly disappeared when he traded Aramis Ramirez for Bobby Hill. It is probably the worst trade in Pirates history and it was a salary dump.

Though Littlefield would trade Brian Giles for Jason Bay and Oliver Perez, one of the better trades in Pirates history, he would never escape that trade.

The Pirates in 2004 looked like a team on the rise. Jack Wilson had a career year at shortstop. He collected over 200 hits and received the Silver Slugger Award. Oliver Perez was amongst the league leaders in strike outs. Jason Bay was the star of the show by being named National League Rookie of the Year, joining Johnny Ray in 1982 as the only Pirates to be named with the award.

With all these positive moves, wins were tough to come by. In 2001, the team went 62-100. But in subsequent years, the team did improve each season to 72, 75, and 72 wins consecutively.

In 2005, it seemed like the losing would end.

Jason Bay had a statistical wonder year; batting .300 hit 30 homers, 40 doubles, stole 20 bases, 100 runs scored, and 100 RBI in a season. Zack Duke would emerge that season as a future ace, going 8-2 with a 1.82 ERA. The high water mark that season was in June when the Pirates ended after 60 games with .500. It was front page news in all local papers that maybe the Pirates turned the corner.

What happened next was the start of what has become known as when the Buccos' collapsed. The Pirates won 30 of their first 60, but would finish winning 37 of their final 92. After so much promise, the Pirates fired Lloyd McClendon; a manager who's famous for taking a base in an altercation with an umpire.

The Jim Tracy era began in 2006 and ended in 2007.

The All Star Game returned to Pittsburgh in 2006. That highlight coupled with Freddy Sanchez's run to a batting title was the only positive notes on a team that lost 95 games.

The Pirates went through some major organizational changes in 2007. Bob Nutting became the principal owner. David Littlefield was replaced by Neal Huntington whose first act was to replace all of the Pirates' scouts. Jim Tracy was removed at season's end for a new manager, John Russell.

After a break-out year in 2008, Gold Glove center fielder Nate McClouth was traded to the Atlanta Braves in 2009 for prospects. The trade was hit as a negative blow from fans starving for a winner. But the exciting play of Andrew McCutchen has made the Pirates fans forget the McClouth trade. Another step in the right direction the organization made was drafting a prominent player with a big time agent—that was Scott Boras' client, Pedro Alverez, who has marveled fans and scouts alike.

The city of Pittsburgh has seen championships come in through the Steelers and Penguins. The Pirates have a niche of fans who are dying for a championship, let alone a .500 ball club. This losing streak has pushed frustrations of fans and even players a like. The Pirates seem to have a few pieces in place, but once hopeful fans are now cynical fans, wondering whether we will see them in their prime and maybe see another winning ball club.

The ghosts of Barry Bonds still linger over this organization and die-hard fans still remember where they were when Sid slid.


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