Pirates look forward with hope, optimism
Club believes in success after 17th straight losing season
PITTSBURGH -- In an odd sort of way, maybe there is some semblance of relief in all this. Relief in not having to hear the questions about the streak, about creating history, about achieving ignominy, about having to relive Sid Bream's slide, Operation Shutdown and the Aramis Ramirez trade.
Maybe there is some relief in simply being able to move on.
That's certainly the hope now that the Pirates hold the infamous record of being the first franchise in American professional sports history to finish with a losing record in 17 consecutive seasons. Pittsburgh secured the team's latest losing season with a 4-2 loss to the Cubs on Monday afternoon, officially passing the 1933-48 Phillies. That Philadelphia team finished below .500 for 16 straight years before finishing 81-73 in 1949.
As the season went on, it became obvious that it was no longer if a once-prideful Pirates organization was going to own such dubious distinction, but simply when it would become official. And now that it is, the organization is ready to move beyond it.
"We're tacking the last two years on," said general manager Neal Huntington, who inherited years one through 15 when he assumed his post in September 2007. "We're cognizant of it. We've tried to insulate our scouts, our player development staff, our Major League staff from it because it shouldn't impact how they do their jobs. And truthfully, it shouldn't impact how we do our jobs.
"Our focus is to bring enough talent onto the field and into the farm system that we can turn this losing streak and have it be something that we look back on and talk about how we grew beyond it but did it the right way. While [word of the streak] is in the air and it's an element of our jobs, it's not something that we've thought about, truthfully, ever, unless we're asked about it."
Now, there is still no escaping the fact that this streak will continue to define the current state of the organization, at least externally, until a season of winning baseball is played. Frankly put, an entire generation of Pittsburghers have now gone off to college without their hometown team piecing together an 82-win season.
Just ask Neil Walker, the Pirates' first-round pick in 2004 and a Pittsburgh-area native, who has just hazy memories of the Pirates' participation in the 1992 National League Championship Series.
"I just remember the sheer excitement about what was going on in the early '90s," Walker said. "I do know that as a fan, as you got older, you could just tell that the life was sucked out as a Pirate fan. It was the same type of atmosphere [as Steelers and Penguins have now] when there was winning baseball here. That's just something that helped push me forward to wanting to help this team win."
In these last 15 years, the Pirates have averaged 71 wins a season, not including the totals from the two strike-shortened seasons. The team has played under five managers, another interim manager and four GMs. While accumulating 1,501 losses, the Pirates' closest venture toward 82 wins came in 1997, when the team fell three victories short. The worst season came in 2001, when the club finished 62-100.
"Setting a Major League mark for losing hurts, and it hits particularly hard for us because everyone in this organization is extraordinarily proud to be a part of a franchise that has such a long and rich history of winning," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said. "While we are all now also associated with this regrettable mark, the last 15 or 16 years have never been our focus. Our focus and motivation from Day 1 has been to build a club that can compete for and win championships."
The Pirates' current management team has emphasized from Day 1 that the desire to snap this streak has not dictated decision-making. Winning 82 isn't the objective. Converting this losing culture to a winning one is the underlying motivation.
"I can't speak for what happened before, but we decided we needed to move forward," manager John Russell said. "Trying to win for one year, that's not our goal. We're not just going to try and make a quick fix."
In fact, what the Pirates don't want to do is emulate that Phillies team that previously held this record streak. Just before losing for 16 straight seasons, Philadelphia finished two games over .500 in 1932 to snap what had been a 14-year losing streak up to that point. In other words, Philadelphia had only one winning season in a span of 31 years.
"Eighty-two wins isn't a bad thing, unless it's your end goal. Then it's your enemy," Huntington said. "Eighty-two wins may be a step in the process, but we're not going to be satisfied when we get to 82 wins. It means that we have to work that much harder to get beyond it."
So how far away is this club from at least taking that first step of getting to 82 and then sustaining winning well beyond it? Is that something that can even be fairly assessed or estimated?
"We will return to winning baseball again when we have both the talent and the aptitude of a winning organization," Coonelly said. "With the talent here and coming soon, there is no reason that we cannot have a similarly rapid turnaround if everyone in the organization is committed to excellence and believes in one another."
Under both Coonelly and Huntington, there has been a concerted effort to right the decision-making that had erred so off course since the foundation of a division-winning 1992 club was disbanded. The 15 years that followed were defined by numerous missteps.
Money was unwisely spent on signing veteran free agents well past their prime. Poor Draft decisions hindered the club from benefiting from such a yearly advantageous position in the Draft pecking order. Latin America was largely ignored as a talent hotbed. Payroll had to be slashed because of poor business decisions. The long-term picture was often ignored.
"While everyone within the Pirates organization is tied to the streak, the fact is that the last two years have been nothing like those of recent past," said Pirates owner Bob Nutting, who moved into the position of the franchise's Chairman of the Board in January 2007. "We have built a strong foundation by investing in our core operations, while aggressively acquiring and developing impact talent. This has put us in a position to not only break this cycle of finishing below .500 soon, but to begin a new cycle in which we can consistently compete."
In other words, there's been a desire to move on from the past by taking its lessons. And on the surface level, at least, there has been a cognizant attempt by the current management team to go about building this club in a different way than before.
"We study not only what went wrong here but the lessons that can be learned from other teams' failures and successes," Coonelly said. "One thing that stands out when you look at history is that teams have been successful when they have truly committed to a long-term plan while teams have typically failed when they have diverted from such a long-term vision and attempted to make short-term fixes."
There has been an attempt to ensure a long-term commitment. Latin America is being ignored no more, with the organization's new Dominican complex being a tangible indication of that. The Draft has been prioritized, with the Pirates' spending in each of the last two years ranking in the top five. Exorbitant contracts to free agents have been replaced by an infusion of talent into the Minor League system.
The shift in philosophy, the change in strategy is evident.
"In the past, you didn't know really what the plan was," said former shortstop Jack Wilson, who spent nearly nine years of this losing streak in Pittsburgh before being traded to the Mariners in July. "In Spring Training, we were always positive. We were just never able to get there to the point where we could get to the [All-Star] break and be competitive.
"I will say that Neal and Frank care about winning baseball in Pittsburgh," Wilson continued. "They had to make some tough decisions. At least they have a plan. It wasn't just, 'We're going to try and do a little bit of this and a little bit of that.' They had to make some tough, unpopular moves, and they did. We'll see what happens. But my eyes will definitely always be watching."
Management has picked its models -- Tampa Bay, Colorado, Minnesota, Cleveland, you name it -- to follow. And now, all that is missing is the same result. For each of those teams, there was a season where things just finally clicked. The young talent matured together. Success -- playoff success, that is -- followed.
"We have a lot of the traits of those teams -- a good, deep starting rotation, good young players who are coming into their own, good young players who are ready to come to the Major Leagues, a great teaching staff," Huntington said. "Those are things that we control. As we look at the surprise teams in the last 10-15 years, we have a lot of those elements."
The Pirates have another 26 games to wade through this season. And then, for the 18th straight year, the club will descend upon Bradenton, Fla., next February with the hope that a winning season in Pittsburgh is to follow.
"We really believe in what we're doing," Russell said. "We're looking forward to going into next year and continuing to build. I think everything we've done to this point shows that we are headed in the right direction.
"We made a decision that we needed to move forward, and in doing that, we needed to build our system. And to do that we had to make some tough trades. There's a very bright future on the horizon. I think everybody involved with it sees a light at the end of this tunnel."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.