Pirates plumb the depths

The last time the Pittsburgh Pirates won more games then they lost was in 1992. On the eve of the new MLB season, Sean McAdam looks at American sport's most futile franchise.

In the past 10 years, Pittsburgh has been the home of the Super Bowl champions (the Pittsburgh Steelers), Stanley Cup champions (the Pittsburgh Penguins) and one very, very bad baseball team - the once proud Pittsburgh Pirates.

From 1960 until 1992, the Pirates won three World Series and qualified for the play-offs 10 times. But those great years have faded into a distant memory. Not since 1992 have the Pirates managed a season in which they have won more games than they have lost. Their 17 consecutive losing seasons, in fact, set a record for North American professional sports teams. Where once the Pirates were known for stars such Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker and Barry Bonds, know they are mostly known for their penury and futility.

Since the Pirates last won more games than they lost, 14 of the other 15 teams in the National League have qualified for the play-offs. Five have won the World Series, and five others have reached the World Series and lost to American League teams. The lone exception when it comes to reaching the play-offs was the Montreal/Washington franchise, and they were in first place in 1994 when the strike halted play.

When even the Chicago Cubs, baseball's loveable losers, have made multiple play-off visits in that span, you know the Pirates have been laughably, reliably and unwaveringly bad. "Setting a major league mark for losing hurts," the Pirates' president, Frank Coonelly, said last September, "and it hits particularly hard for us because everyone in this organisation is extraordinarily proud to be a part of a franchise that has such a long and rich history of winning."

To put the Pirates' recent history into perspective, consider this: two franchises which did not exist in 1992 - the Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks - have since won titles and a third - the Colorado Rockies - reached the World Series. The Bucs, as the Pirates are known, have had six different managers since 1992, including five in the past decade. They've had four general managers, three ownership changes and a new ballpark.

The results, however, have been consistent: more losses than wins. One could assemble an All-Star team of the players the Pirates have traded away. Picture an outfield of Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Brian Giles, with an infield boasting Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Jose Bautista and Adam LaRoche. All of these players were with the Pirates at some time in the first decade of this century. Each was traded away - ostensibly, for financial reasons.

Almost without exception, the trades backfired. New prospects didn't pan out, the fan base grew more dispirited and the losses continued to pile up. Not even the construction of PNC Park, widely acknowledged as one the best of the new ballparks with a gorgeous view of downtown Pittsburgh, has been enough to reverse the team's fortunes. Not surprisingly, the club's poor play has impacted box office business. After drawing 2.4 million fans in 2001, the inaugural season of PNC Park, attendance has been in a free-fall. After the first four seasons of the new ballpark, the Pirates have ranked either last or next-to-last in National League attendance.

The drop-off in fan support has, just as predictably, resulted in meagre payrolls - or is it the other way around? For now, ownership and the fans seem entwined in a pathetic stand-off. Fans don't show up to watch the team, so ownership doesn't spend money to get better, so the team doesn't improve and the fans don't continue to support a poor product. While some suggest the Pirates are victims of baseball's economic structure and can't be expected to contend without benefit of a salary cap, that argument is, at best, specious.

True, the Steelers and Penguins - winners both - compete in leagues which have salary caps. And, sure, the Pirates would benefit somewhat if other teams in large markets were limited in their spending. But other baseball franchises in similarly small markets have survived and even prospered under the same constraints. Take the Minnesota Twins. Like the Pirates, they play in a relatively small media market. Like the Pirates, they compete in a division that includes a team from Chicago with far more resources.

Unlike the Pirates, however, the Twins have scouted, drafted and developed wisely, creating a steady flow of homegrown talent so that even when they've been unable to retain a star player (Torii Hunter) or been forced by financial circumstances to deal one away (Johan Santana), they've had younger - and less expensive - prospects to replace them. Less than a decade ago the Twins were a candidate for contraction as baseball fretted about the future of some small-market franchises. Since then, the Twins have won their division five times in the last nine seasons. Only once since 2001 have the Twins registered a losing season.

What's the critical difference between the two franchises? In a word: management. Wishing for a salary cap isn't going to make the Pirates more competitive. For one thing, baseball is unlikely to ever adopt one; even the most militant owners have given up hope that the powerful Players Association would agree to it. And even if a cap were to be introduced, it would probably carry with it the mandate for a floor - ie minimum payroll figure - to match the ceiling. It's highly doubtful the Bucs could generate the kind of revenue to match the required minimum payroll figure. As it is, the Pirates figure to have the lowest payroll in the game in 2010 - around US$35 million (Dh129m), about a third of the average MLB payroll.

You can date the Pirates' woes to the months following the team's last winning season, when Bonds left to sign a mega-deal with the San Francisco Giants. Bonds went on to win five more Most Valuable Player awards, five more Gold Gloves and become the game's all-time home run champion, however suspiciously. The Pirates? They became increasingly irrelevant, thanks to a series of blunders. While Bonds left town, the Pirates awarded big contracts to veterans on the downside of their careers such as Derek Bell, Kevin Young and Joe Randa.

They made a series of ill-advised trades, including sending the promising starting pitcher Chris Young to San Diego in exchange for a journeyman reliever, Matt Herges. They dealt off third baseman Aramis Ramirez to division rival Chicago, where he now haunts them for 16 games per season. They released versatile pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who went on to help the Red Sox win a World Series and has pitched no fewer than 200 innings in each of last five seasons with Boston and Cincinnati.

Unwise as those deals were, perhaps the biggest blunder was a trade the Pirates somehow rejected, saying "no thanks" to a proposed swap of pitcher Kris Benson for a future MVP, Ryan Howard. Then, there were the poor draft picks. The ownership and management teams that made those mistakes are gone now, but there's scant evidence that the direction of the franchise has changed for the better. Despite this, Coonelly, who prior to becoming president worked in the league commissioner's office, made some startling statements about the team's roster as 2010 spring training got under way.

"This is the group that's going to turn this franchise around," he said. "For the first time since I've been with the organisation, I really believe that. "We are in no way, shape or form willing to sacrifice 2010. In fact, that was one of the points that I made to the players today: 'Don't let people tell you that the Pirates have a great future, but it's not today.' Today is our future. 2010 is the beginning of the next dynasty of the Pirates for me."

Are there reasons for optimism in Pittsburgh for the new season, which starts tomorrow? Some. General manager Neal Huntington, entering his fourth season, has overhauled the roster. By the end of last year, just five players who were on the Pirates' major league roster when Huntington took over remained. The Pirates have been more aggressive in signing draft picks, committing a total of $18.7m over the last two drafts, more than any other team.

Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the second overall selection in 2008, is rated as the eighth best prospect in the game by the respected trade magazine Baseball America. Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates young centre fielder, was one of the top rookies in the game last season. Right fielder Garrett Jones hit 21 homers while playing in almost exactly half the games. "I believe in what we have," McCutchen said. "I really think what we have now is going to be strong. I believe all around that you're going to see a difference. I believe it's a team that's going to surprise some people. We have the pieces to the puzzle. We just have to put them together."

There are no easy fixes in baseball. Building a contender requires investment, good management, proficient scouting and a sound business plan. Coonelly may have grossly overstated things when he spoke of a dynasty, but there's evidence that the Pirates are finally beginning to refloat their sinking ship. sports@thenational.ae