The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Sports

August 30, 2013

Pirates quietly approaching end of long stretch of futility

PITTSBURGH — There was no champagne on ice. No celebratory pats on the back. No great sigh of relief. Maybe a postgame cigarette by Jim Leyland, but then again, the Marlboro reds have always been at the ready tucked inside the manager’s desk, win or lose.

To be honest, Sept. 12, 1992, was just another game in just another pennant race for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

They rallied from a four-run deficit over the final three innings to escape a particularly hostile Veterans Stadium with a 9-7 win over the Philadelphia Phillies. A decidedly svelte Barry Bonds doubled and scored twice. Super-sized catcher Mike LaValliere drove in a pair of runs. Shortstop Jay Bell went 3 for 5 with a triple in the ninth off Philadelphia closer Mitch Williams. Stan Belinda recovered from a blown save to pick up the victory.

Pittsburgh improved to 82-59 after 3 hours and 41 minutes of typically persistent and pragmatic baseball, to open up a four-game lead over the Montreal Expos on its way to a third straight NL East title.

Ask Bell if there’s anything about that sunny day in Philadelphia that stands out, the longtime big leaguer turned Pirates hitting coach just shakes his head.

“I have no idea,” he says with laugh.

Perhaps because victory No. 82 never used to be a big deal for a franchise whose history is littered with World Series titles and Hall of Famers, a random mile marker the players caught a glimpse off of while looking farther down the road to the ultimate destination.

More than two decades later, 1992 remains the last time the first number in Pittsburgh’s win/loss column ended up greater than the second, a record for futility – the longest in North American professional sports – that is simply known as “The Streak.”

One that mercifully is in its death throes as the calendar flips to September.

Barring a historic collapse, the Pirates will snap a 20-year siege of misery sometime in the next four weeks. It will be a day of liberation for a team that spent a generation as a laughable afterthought in a place that bills itself “The City of Champions.”

The irony, Bell points out, is that just like that forgettable day at the Vet, the victory that officially puts The Streak to rest will be no big deal. Perhaps that’s because Pittsburgh isn’t wheezing to mediocrity but racing past it with the same blurring speed All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen uses while legging out a double.

Entering Labor Day weekend, baseball’s longest running comedy of errors is in the midst of a playoff race. The Pirates enter the final month of the season in the midst of a three-way race for the NL Central title.

Suddenly, ending The Streak hardly seems like the point.

“I think that what they want is they want a championship season they had in ’79 and back in ’60. That’s what they’re focusing on,” Bell said. “If you told us we were going to finish with 83 wins, I don’t think anybody would be satisfied.”

In the clubhouse, that might be true. Outside of it, however, shedding the cumbersome onus of history won’t pass unnoticed. It can’t, not after so many fruitless summers enduring a particularly harsh version of “Groundhog Day.”

The moment the Pirates climb to 82 and whatever, former Pittsburgh pitcher turned television analyst Steve Blass will do what he can to drink in the moment, both literally and figuratively.

“If the last out is a fly ball, you’ll hear a cork pop on the air because it gets rid of something,” he said. “It puts it behind us.”

Something that has overshadowed the town that for so long stood for excellence. Long before the Steelers were capturing Super Bowls or the Penguins were lifting Stanley Cups, the Pirates were a fixture in October. Between 1960 and 1992, Pittsburgh posted 21 winning seasons, captured three World Series and made the playoffs 10 times.

The last 20 years have turned that success into folklore and largely forgotten history to those who didn’t live through it.

Manny Sanguillen has spent most of that time trying to keep the legend alive. The effervescent catcher spent a dozen seasons behind the plate in Pittsburgh as the backstop of a team that won 90 games with regularity.

These days, the 69-year-old serves as an ambassador/teacher, spending home games at PNC Park standing outside his eponymous barbeque stand, posing for pictures with those old enough to remember the good old days and providing perspective for those that do not.

“I tell them about (Roberto) Clemente and (Willie) Stargell and how we always expected to win,” Sanguillen said in his still thick Panamanian accent. “We used to think, ‘City of Pittsburgh, we will protect you. We will win for you.’ ”

It’s a sense of ownership that resonates with second baseman Neil Walker. The kid from the northern suburbs was all of 7 years old when the Pirates lost to Atlanta in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. The memories of those early-’90s teams are vague at best. He understands this group is help providing new ones to kids who stashed their baseball jerseys in the back of the closet the second football season started.

Still, Walker downplays the significance of 82. He doesn’t play the game to be average. Neither do the guys who suit up next to him every day. Not anymore anyway after the franchise jettisoned the old model that seemed to consider winning an afterthought to making a profit while doing little to put a competitive product on the field.

“In the past, we didn’t have that all-in mentality,” Walker said. “I think this year it’s better than I’ve ever seen it.”

The culture shift started when the Pirates hired eternally optimistic manager Clint Hurdle and charged him with changing the makeup in what at times was a toxic clubhouse. The rise of homegrown talent like Walker, McCutchen, promising outfielder Starling Marte and ace-in-waiting Gerrit Cole have their former manager believing his old team is more than a one-season wonder.

“This is the real deal,” Leyland said.

And for once, he’s not just being polite. More than 15 years after his departure, the always gruff, ever quotable baseball lifer spends a portion of his offseason in Pittsburgh. Watching the revolving door in his old office hasn’t been easy. The turnstile has stopped. So has the notion of the Pirates as some sort of purgatory.

“I give them a lot of credit, because there was a period there where they were drafting high, but they were drafting signable players,” he said. “Now they are drafting for talent, and that shows the players that they are serious about building something.”

Something built to last. The last five months have provided sweet redemption for people like Blass and former pitcher Bob Walk, who for years were deemed as nothing more than apologists for shortsighted management that seemed to have no interest in winning.

“It is something that would kind of grate on you,” said Walk, who won 82 games for Pittsburgh from 1984-93. “I never felt like I was being blamed personally, but I felt like I was defending the organization. We were the butt of a lot of jokes for a long time around here, and thankfully that’s gone away.”

At long last, the term “Pirates Pride” no longer seems like an oxymoron even as the scars of the long trip back from the fringe remain fresh.

Check Twitter after every loss and there is a vocal portion of the fan base touting the start of the Streak-extending freefalls that marred 2011 and 2012, when promising springs turned into soul-crushing falls.

Not this time. At some point soon, The Streak will officially become a thing of the past. Blass doesn’t view it as the end of one era, but the beginning of another – one that might feature three series victories this postseason.

“Getting 82, that’s Step 1,” Blass said. “I hope it’s the first of four steps we take.”

Besides, Pittsburgh is the “City of Champions.”

Sorry, “City of 82 wins” just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

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