The Pittsburgh Pirates will not have a winning record this season.
And water is still wet. The sun still rises from the east. Telemarketers still call at the dinner hour. Wile E. Coyote still hasn’t caught the Road Runner.
You know how whenever you watch a boxing match, no matter how little-known the fighters are, they always have winning records? This defies logic, because somewhere out there must be a fighter with a record of like 5-45. A tomato can with gloves.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are that tomato can.
It’s 18 in a row and counting—the Pirates’ streak of losing seasons. The last man to guide them to a ledger where the left hand column read higher than the right was none other than the Tigers’ own Jim Leyland, back in 1992.
That was about 18,000 packs of Marlboros ago.
It was also when George Bush—the first one—was president. Steve Yzerman was 27 years old and wondering if he’d ever win a Stanley Cup. VHS tapes were still all the rage. The Lions were good.
In 1992, when the Pirates sported a 96-66 record and went to their third straight NLCS, Barry Bonds was still in the Dr. Banner stage of his career, pre-Hulk. He could actually fit through a doorway without turning sideways.
Leyland had dark hair and lighter lungs. Lloyd McClendon was one of his players. Andy Van Slyke, too. The Pirates played in Three Rivers Stadium, along with the Steelers, who were still being coached by Chuck Noll.
The Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies weren’t even teams yet. The Milwaukee Brewers played in the American League. Randy Johnson was still young.
Tigers fans grouse that their team has been disappointing since 2006, when Leyland led them to the World Series in his first year in Detroit. 2006 did in fact end an 18-year streak of playoff-less baseball in Motown.
But the Pirates fan has the Tigers fan beat because at least the Tigers had two winning seasons among those 18 (1988 and 1993).
A typical Pirates season means being out of contention by Easter. And that includes the years when Easter has fallen in March.
There should be a sign outside of PNC Park: The Bucs Stop Here.
Baseball seasons can be cruel and heartbreaking, like kids on the playground or your college girlfriend.
Baseball seasons can tease and give you a come-hither look and motion for you to come upstairs, and when you get there you see skeletons of the men before you—like that Monty Python sketch with the milkmen.
The baseball season is arduous and long and has more peaks and valleys than the Dakotas.
Except in Pittsburgh.
In Pittsburgh, there never is any hope. There’s no teasing. Just mocking.
The calendar flips to February, the Pirates gather for spring training, and already the folks there are talking about the Steelers’ chances or girding up for the next Penguins playoff run.
Then comes March and the exhibition games come, and the people up north in the Steel City plead with the media down in Florida not to let them know of all the tripping over the shoelaces and the throwing to the wrong base and the striking out with the bases loaded—because there’ll be plenty of time for that between April and September.
The Pirates are usually something like 8-17 in April, and by the time the kids get out of school in June, the Games Behind First column in the standings is in the 20s and growing faster than Pinocchio’s nose at a game of liar’s poker.
At the end of the season the Pirates are always 67-95. It’s uncanny.
For 18 seasons now, the Pirates have been playing the role of the team that all the others feel they should beat. The other 15 teams in the National League have two different kinds of vacations on their schedule: the All-Star break and whenever they play the Pirates.
As is always the case with losing franchises, it’s never a case of lack of trying (unless you’re the Los Angeles Clippers). The Pirates try. But when the Pirates try, it’s like when George McGovern tried to beat Richard Nixon. Or when Chuck Wepner tried to beat Muhammad Ali.
The Pirates don’t win because they never have enough talent. Their last decent catcher was Jason Kendall, and that was eons ago. They used to have Jason Bay, if that floats your boat.
The Pirates, since 1993, have been like an expansion team stuck in the baseball version of Groundhog Day. They’re always young, inexperienced, and made up of minor leaguers. Every year. Again, uncanny.
Actually, one thing has changed. The Pirates used to finish last in the NL East. Now they finish last in the NL Central. So there’s that.
Pittsburgh hasn’t seen baseball this bad since the early 1950s, when Joe Garagiola was the Pirates catcher. Back then, the Pirates would go 50-104, and the only attraction was Ralph Kiner. Today the Pirates go 67-95, and they’d kill for someone half as good as Kiner.
With a history of 90-plus-loss seasons dotting the past 18 years, you’d think the Pirates would be using the revolving door method of hiring managers. But since Leyland’s last season in Pittsburgh in 1996, the Pirates have only had four skippers—and two of them sit in the Tigers’ dugout as coaches today: Gene Lamont and Lloyd McClendon.
It’s on the roster where there’s been the revolving door. The names change, but not the talent level. The Pirates rosters have been a Who’s Not Who of baseball.
This year the Pirates even outdid themselves in their mediocrity. They hit loss No. 82—thus guaranteeing a losing record in the 162-game schedule—last week, which is a new record for them in terms of promptness. They typically don’t lose their 82nd game until about a week or so later than that.
As I write this, the Pirates are 43-84. They’re on pace to lose about 107 games—even more Piratian than usual. Their roster, as usual, is filled with 20-somethings who are household names—they’re only known in their own household.
But the Pirates have one thing going for them. They have a player who has the best name in baseball: outfielder Lastings Milledge.
Just call him Last for short. Seems appropriate.