A Lesson in Futility: Why Are the Pirates So Bad, So Often?

by Ian Kollar

The Pittsburgh Pirates recently checked themselves into the book of baseball infamy by losing to the Chicago Cubs over Labor Day weekend. The 4-2 loss Monday catapulted them into the record books by confirming what was inevitable since opening day: the 17th consecutive losing season by the franchise.  

That’s right. There are high school juniors right now that weren’t alive to see Pittsburgh enjoy a winning season. We’ve been through a pair of two-term presidents and a newly-elected one, and still, no luck.

The Pirates celebrated, by the way, by surrendering eight consecutive hits to begin Tuesday’s game en route to – what else? – a 9-4 loss.

So what gives? How can one single sports franchise (aside from the Los Angeles Clippers, naturally) be so bad for so long? I believe I have an explanation.

Barry Bonds did it.

That’s right; I’m dragging his name through the mud with this. Might as well, considering any publicity is good publicity for a pariah of his stature. Look at it this way: the Cubs have the goat and Steve Bartman, the Red Sox had the Curse of the Bambino. Why can’t the Pirates have the Curse of the Flaxseed Phony?

Barry was the heart and soul of the last successful Pirates team, all the way back in 1992. I was five by the way (slaughtering all credibility I might have had with my claim). That season, Barry hit .311 with 34 home runs and 103 RBI as the Pirates captured their third straight National League East title. Yes, they were even in a different division the last time they had a winning season. Anyway, Barry and his merry band of Pirates marched through the playoffs to the NL Championship Series, where they faced the Atlanta Braves. One late throw by Bonds from left field and the Pirates were denied a trip to the World Series.

According to books like Game of Shadows and Love Me, Hate Me, as well as a plethora of other sources, contract negations for the free agent Bonds broke down the offseason and he headed west, inking a then-record deal with the San Francisco Giants. The rest, as they say, is (convoluted) history.

Consider this: since Bonds snubbed Pittsburgh and went to San Francisco, there have been four expansion teams added to the Major Leagues – the Colorado Rockies (1993), Florida Marlins (’93) and Arizona Diamondbacks (’98) in the National League and the Tampa Bay Rays (’98) in the American League. Four more teams.

As of last season, when Tampa reached its apex, all four teams had made World Series appearances. That’s right, not just the playoffs, the Fall Classic.

And two of them won. Hell, the Marlins have won it twice. In the past 17 years, the three NL teams have made four World Series appearances, won three times, and qualified for the playoffs a combined seven times. The Pirates? None for all of the above.

You figure it out. Barry Bonds seems like a good scapegoat for these kind of things, no?

All kidding aside, something’s gotta be wrong with the Pirates. Shoddy ownership and poor managerial decisions? Possibly. Lack of big-name free agent signings? Sure, maybe. Just plain ol’ bad luck? Yeah, alright. But a majority of disenchanted fans – them and the media folk alike – have their own idea.

Tuesday night I headed to the restaurant next door to my workplace to get a bite to eat. As I walked in, the large center table featured a lively sports discussion between what looked like some extended family members. On one side of the table, Yankees fans. On the other, a pair of diehard Pirates fans. The conversation sounded something like this:

“Well, we can’t just buy guys like you bought C.C. Sabathia, Burnett and Teixiera,” the one Pirate fan pouted.

“That’s not our problem,” a male Yankees fan said, clearly counting himself among the front office management. “We want to compete.”

“But we can’t!” The other Pirates fan, a 40-something female, semi-shouted. “We’re not rich , we don’t have any money to spend on the best players every damn offseason like you!”

“Then have a fundraiser or something,” the Yank coolly replied. And with that, I picked up my order and walked out the door with an idea for a story.

Erik Kuselias, a frequent guest host on the Mike and Mike in the Morning radio show, had his usual spot on Labor Day morning. As the show was previewing the Pirates historic (and once again, inevitable) loss, he and co-host, former Minnesota Viking Robert Smith, discussed the dire need for a salary cap in Major League Baseball. He pointed out the Pirates as a prime reason; much like the helpless Pirates fans at the restaurant, he agreed that Pittsburgh just can’t afford a team like big markets in L.A., Chicago, New York, Boston and Philadelphia can. Five of the Pirates’ opening day starters are now on different teams. Pitchers have been shuffled in and out, as well, as Pittsburgh begins its annual “sell high for prospects, harvest prospects, sell prospects high before contracts expire, rinse, repeat” tradition.

He brought this fact into play too, which supports his theory: if the playoffs began today, six of the eight teams – the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Angles, Phillies and Dodgers – would be in the top 10 highest paid teams. Only the Rockies and the Cardinals (my favorite to win it all, by the way. Book it!) have payrolls outside of the top 10, and the Cardinals are within the next five. The New York Mets, injuries aside, would’ve likely been a seventh, either winning out the NL East or clinching the Wild Card.

Kuselias then suggested a salary floor instead of a cap, too, explaining that the previous year’s highest-salaried team, let’s say the Yankees at $180 million, set the bar for the next offseason. The “floor” would be 50 percent of that figure, so $90 million, for all teams to at least reach. It’d give them flexibility, yes, but we’re not playing MLB 09: The Show here. This is real money. It has to come from somewhere, and I don’t think our society – particularly the one with a rooted interest in baseball – is ready for a plan that involves “sharing” the wealth.

I have a sinking feeling that none of this will change soon. It pains me so, mostly because of my proud high school baseball coach. He’s been a lifelong Pirates fan, watched them capture two World Series in the 70s, and grew up dreaming of playing for them, with the legendary Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Dave Parker. Nine National League pennants – none since 1979 – and five World Series titles. It has been a dormant franchise in every sense of the word. So now, with 2009’s season winding down, the Pirates can just collectively sigh and hope for next year as they coast to last place again. But I suppose it can’t be as sufferable as the Cubs, who’ve teased fans for decades before flaming out, right? Or the Yankees, who if they do not make the World Series are considered failures? If only…