Friday, September 21, 2012

The Poor, Poor Pirates

I became a baseball fan in the late 1980s and so fairly early on in my experience with the game, I saw some very good Pittsburgh Pirate teams. In 1990, 1991, and 1992 they won the National League East division crown and played for the right to advance to the World Series. When you're a kid, it doesn't take much to get you to temporarily jump on a bandwagon (or to decide you hate a team with every fiber of your being... Hello, Yankees!) and in the early 90s while I certainly didn't consider myself a fan, I was certainly Pro-Pirates.

I vividly remember watching Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS (my mom thought I was already asleep but I'd turned the TV on and was watching with the volume turned down), Pittsburgh took a lead into the 9th inning, only to blow the lead and lost the game on Francisco Cabrera's single to left field that scored Sid Bream. Following that season, Pittsburgh let Barry Bonds, who'd won two of the last three N.L. MVP awards, leave as a free agent. Things would not be the same.

In 1993 Bonds won the MVP again, but for San Francisco, who won 103 games. Meanwhile, the Pirates went just 75-87, winning 21 fewer games than they had the year before. In 1994 the losing continued, and for almost twenty years now, it's never really stopped. It's slowed occasionally, but not once since 1992 have the Pirates finished with a winning record, or even a .500 record, entering 2012 it'd been 19 straight losing season in Steel City.

In 9 of those 19 seasons the Pirates finished in last place in their division, including 4 seasons in a row between 2007 and 2010. They haven't finished better than 4th in the N.L. Central since 1999 and 3 times they've finished with the very worst record in all of baseball. It's been ugly stuff.

Last year, things seemed like perhaps they were going to be a little different. In late June the Pirates started playing good baseball and winning a lot of games. They dragged their record over .500 and on July 19th they not only had a 51-44 record, they were in 1st place in the Central! But on July 29th they began a 10-game losing streak, dropping them back below .500. They wound up going just 21-46 after that July 19th high-water mark, finishing 24 games out of 1st place and with a 19th consecutive losing season.

In late May of this season, the Pirates were plodding along at 20-24, not bad, but not good. They then won 6 of their next 7 though, climbing above .500. No one in the Central was playing very well and by the end of play on July 5th, Pittsburgh had a 46-36 record, the highest above .500 they'd been in ages, and they were sitting on a 2-game lead in the division. The Reds began to play really well and took over 1st place, but the Pirates continued to win more than they lost and got all the way to 16 games over .500. On August 8th they were 63-47, in control of one of the two wildcard spots with over two-thirds of the season in the books. A winning record was all but secured and they had a very real chance to make the playoffs.

When August 22nd began, the Pirates were still sitting in one of those wildcard spots, but their loss that night dropped them out of that position, though they were still 10 games over .500. Things have only gotten worse, Pittsburgh recently lost 7 games in a row (including 3 games at home against the Cubs, who've been horrible this year), finishing off whatever playoff hopes they may have had and putting their winning season in jeopardy.

Last night a late 7-5 lead over the Brewers went up in flames, turning into a 9-7 loss, and dropping the Pirates 2012 record to 74-75. What had been the feel-good baseball story of the year, twenty years of suffering along the Allegheny River seemed ready to end, has turned into another sad chapter in the team's recent history.

There are still 13 games left, so of course it wouldn't take much for the Pirates to bounce back, go 8-5 the rest of the way, and get the monkey off their back. They even have games against the lowly Astros and Mets during the next week, aiding their cause. But going back to August 9th, Pittsburgh has gone just 11-28, which ties them (with the Indians) for the worst record in all of baseball over that time. I'm not overly optimistic about a late turnaround.

It's not over yet, but it looks like the curse of Barry Bonds is going to live on for another year.


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