It’s been a long time coming, but the Pittsburgh Pirates are losers no more.
Tuesday night’s victory in Milwaukee’s Miller Park, which had been a house of horror for the Pirates until this season, was the club’s 81st of the season. That means, for the first time since 1992, the Pirates will not have more losses than wins.
Let that sink in: 1992. Back then, according to thepeoplehistory.com, gas cost $1.05 a gallon; Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was running for president; AT&T released a video telephone for $1,499; and the Pirates, led by a wiry, 27-year-old outfielder named Barry Bonds, won the National League East Division.
Most of us know how that ended. Former Pirate Sid Bream slid home ahead of Bonds’ throw with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, sending Atlanta to the World Series and Pittsburgh into a tailspin of historic proportions.
The Pirates were miserable for the next two decades, piling up losing season after losing season. First-round draft picks such as Chad Hermansen, Kris Benson and Bryan Bullington couldn’t change their fortunes. Neither could free-agent signings like Derek Bell, Raul Mondesi and Ed Sprague. They lost Bonds via free agency and dealt away talented players Aramis Ramirez and Jose Bautista. Meanwhile, they traded for young prospects who never lived up to the potential they were supposed to bring with them to Pittsburgh.
The team, with considerable help from the taxpayers of western Pennsylvania, opened PNC Park in 2001. The beautiful riverfront diamond quickly became one of baseball’s crown jewels. It attracted kudos, fans and more bad baseball.
Attendance remained among the worst in the majors for much of the first 10 seasons. Fans started to come back in 2011, as the team was six games above the .500 mark in late July, but an 18-38 finish left the Pirates with a 72-90 record.
The 2012 season was even more tempting, as the team was 60-44 on Aug. 1, but another awful finish resulted in a 79-83 record.
Many Pirates fans have lived with the same fear this season, even as Pittsburgh had the best record in the National League Central – and at times all of baseball – throughout much of the season. We kept waiting for a collapse, fretting that every bad outing was the beginning of the end.
Now, fans can start dreaming about a Pirates postseason – something that younger fans have never seen. A division title is far from a certainty – the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are nipping at the Pirates’ heels – but with five NL teams making the playoffs, a postseason spot is almost assured.
We congratulate the Pirates and their fans. It’s been a long, difficult road to this point. Owner Bob Nutting, team President Frank Coonelly and General Manager Neal Huntington have taken plenty of criticism over the years – much of it well-deserved – but the franchise’s management deserves praise for finding a winning formula.
The team already had an established All-Star in Andrew McCutchen and the league’s leading home-run hitter in Pedro Alvarez, but the offense was still a concern, so Huntington went out and got former American League MVP Justin Morneau and All-Star outfielder Marlon Byrd without mortgaging the team’s future. Both will be free agents at the end of the season and put the team over budget, according to Huntington, but after 20 years, the Pirates are ready to win now.
Whether or not they can win their first division title in two decades or make their first World Series appearance since 1979 remains to be seen. For now, we’ll just sit back and enjoy the fact that they’re in the middle of a pennant race, playing winning baseball and re-energizing the fan base in western Pennsylvania.