Pirates not affected by 'the streak'
Players refuse to be distracted by team's losing history
ATLANTA -- They are numbers that are all too familiar to all.
1992: One inning at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium that marked the beginning of a franchise's turn in the other direction.
.500: The elusive mark for ...
15: That many years.
With 161 games remaining until the close of the 2008 season, the Pirates will be trailed by the prospect of infamy for the next six months. Only one other team in professional sports -- the Philadelphia Phillies from 1933 to 1948 -- has ever endured 16 consecutive losing seasons. The Pirates are on that brink.
It's inevitable that the national media will talk about it. It's the type of story the public eats up.
But the bigger question is: Are the players playing with it in mind?
"We told them it's not their responsibility," manager John Russell said. "If we start worrying about 15 years of whatever, then we're not going to focus on what we need to do now."
So, in short, the answer is no.
It will be a story regurgitated by the media if the Pirates struggle out of the gate. It's expected to be a point of frustration among fans if the season goes on and it looks as though the ending will be the same as the 15 that came before it.
But inside the Pirates clubhouse, the goal, players said this spring, is to keep that potential distraction out of mind. And the prodding to do so has started from up at the top.
"The weight of the last 15 years, [Pirates management doesn't] want us to feel like it's ours to carry, which is good," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "They said, 'I don't care if you've been here six or seven years.' This started way before any of us. Let's start over."
Russell emphasized, too, not to expect the potential of being the team that broke the streak to be used as motivation inside his clubhouse.
"Absolutely not," he said. "We have a job to do. I've never thought, as a manager, that picking a losing game is going to help us win."
Russell, general manager Neal Huntington and president Frank Coonelly spent the spring instilling a "new season, new start" outlook in the team. There have been no guarantees that the competitive state of the team will change immediately. But there have been promises for the future.
The new regime could have come in, built a ball club to be successful in the short-term and subsequently have been lauded for being the ones responsible for ending the streak. That, however, was not their goal.
The new regime stepped into a situation in which they inherited mediocrity and fan frustration. They have combated these by encouraging patience and asking not to be defined by short-term success -- or lack thereof. And they've told the players to let go of the burden of trying to be the team that turns it all around.
The emphasis is for this team to play for itself -- not for those in the past.
"We've had a 15-year stretch that we cannot dwell on," owner Bob Nutting said. "But for most of its history, the Pittsburgh Pirates has been a tremendous respected franchise, with players who were proud to wear the uniform. It did have a culture of success."
Said Coonelly: "We're moving forward. As I told the players, they don't own the last 15 years of losing baseball in Pittsburgh, and they shouldn't be defined by it. What they will own is what they do in 2008 and in the future. We're not worried about the skepticism. We've got a plan."
That plan, Coonelly will tell you, is to follow whatever the final number of consecutive losing seasons becomes with consecutive winning campaigns. That's why, he said, "the streak" wasn't the motivating factor in the construction of this year's team.
The plan is also not accepting a .500 season as being a successful one.
"We're not settling for 82 [wins]," Huntington said.
Doing so, he added, would be continuing to settle for mediocrity.
Players, however adamant they are about not focusing on that tantalizing .500 mark, are well aware that the public will continue to point to it. They know the media will continue to make a story out of it.
LaRoche admitted that a year ago, as the season progressed and the loss total crept toward 83, the pressure increased not to let it happen again. But he said that a concerted effort has been made around the clubhouse to ensure that is not the case moving forward.
"Yeah, you thought about it," he said. "It got down to the last two months on the season and you think, 'Man, we're on pace.' I think [management] know[s] that. I think they sense that. And I think that's why there is a big push this spring to forget about it."
Forget about it. Don't own it. Don't be defined by it. And don't fall victim to it. Those have been the reverberating messages.
"I know that there is going to be at least one point this season with the Pirates where people say, 'Here they go again,' " utilityman Doug Mientkiewicz said. "How we respond from that will determine if this team looks at it as 'here we go again' or we turn the page and say, 'We're not settling for this anymore.'
"Guys have worked extremely hard this Spring Training to change this outlook of the franchise," he added. "We know it's an uphill battle, but guys are tired of feeling sorry for themselves in here."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.