By TYLER KEPNER
The New York Times
July 21, 2011
Joel Hanrahan(notes) #52 of the Pittsburgh Pirates points to his teammate Andrew McCutchen(notes) #22 after making a catch on a warning track in the ninth inning against the Cincinnati Reds during the game on July 19, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — For 18 years, baseball teams have known where to shop for help in the pennant race. The Pittsburgh Pirates have finished each of those seasons with a losing record, and by July, things are usually so hopeless that they trade veterans to contenders. The last two World Series winners have each included two players acquired from Pittsburgh for prospects.
“You’re happy for them individually, because that’s why every one of us does this,” said Neal Huntington, the Pirates’ general manager. “You love to win.”
But now it is the Pirates (51-45), of all teams, who are winning again, tied for the lead in the National League Central after Wednesday afternoon’s 3-1 loss to Cincinnati. It is the latest they have led their division since winning it in 1992.
The subsequent streak of losing seasons is a record for the four major professional sports in the United States. It has bruised a proud city that has claimed two Super Bowls and a Stanley Cup since the Pirates’ last winning season.
“Times before that I’ve been here, it’s been hard to go out to dinner,” said Joel Hanrahan, the Pirates’ closer, who joined the team during the 2009 season. “You didn’t really want to go out because you didn’t want to have somebody come up and go, ‘Why don’t you ever win?’ Now, you can go out in town and not feel embarrassed. They’ll clear off the table for you real quick.”
The Pirates’ opening day payroll, around $45 million, was the lowest in the National League. The owner, Bob Nutting, has authorized Huntington to add salary before the July 31 trading deadline, and the team needs offensive help, ranking 13th among 16 N.L. teams in runs scored.
But the Pirates must act carefully, Nutting said, to avoid the mistakes of the recent past. Spending lavishly for a short-term solution might not be the best use of money.
“You can’t let an emotional decision turn into a bad decision,” Nutting said. “The Matt Morris trade is a good example.”
Nutting, who is also the chief executive of Ogden Newspapers Inc., was in his first season running the Pirates when the team acquired Morris from the San Francisco Giants in July 2007. The Pirates were in last place, and Morris was owed $13.5 million. But he had a decent track record as a starting pitcher, and the Pirates hoped he would give them a dependable, if decidedly average, arm through 2008.
Nutting called it a good-hearted move, but it proved to be a colossal waste of money. Morris made just 16 starts the rest of his career, winning three, with a 7.04 earned run average. The deal reinforced the image that the Pirates could not build efficiently, forever desperate for a quick fix.
Within two months of the Morris debacle, Nutting fired General Manager Dave Littlefield and replaced him with Huntington, an assistant with the Cleveland Indians. He also hired a team president, Frank Coonelly, the general counsel of labor in the commissioner’s office. They cut payroll from the major league roster, hired more scouts and plowed money into player development.
“We understand that you’re frustrated, and we understand you have no patience any longer,” Coonelly said, explaining the team’s message to fans. “But we have to ask for more patience, because we can’t give you what you really want. What you really want is not a team that wins 81 or 82 games. What you really want is a team that is fitting of the city of champions. And that’s going to take some time.”
The Pirates have spent more than $30 million in the draft the last three seasons, more than any other team, and the trend will likely continue as they negotiate with this year’s top picks, Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell. Last summer, the team spent $11.3 million on three teenage pitchers: Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie from the draft, and Luis Heredia from Mexico. The Pirates ranked fifth in the majors last season in bonuses for international players, at $5 million.
Andrew McCutchen(notes) #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates makes a sliding catch on a fly ball off the bat of Clint Barmes(notes) #12 of the Houston Astros in the eighth inning at Minute Maid Park on July 17, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
The curious part of this season’s renaissance is that the Pirates have done it without some of the players most central to the rebuilding plan. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen was an All-Star, but third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the No. 2 overall pick in 2008, is toiling in the minors.
“We really haven’t had a lot of guys you look at and go, ‘He’s playing out of his mind,’ ” Huntington said. “We have a lot of guys who are playing well, but we’ve also had a lot of adversity.”
Injuries have forced the Pirates to use seven catchers. Reliever Evan Meek, the team’s only All-Star in 2010, and the No. 3 starter Ross Ohlendorf are out with shoulder injuries. Shortstop Ronny Cedeno (concussion) and left fielder Jose Tabata (quadriceps) are also hurt.
Yet the team’s defense has improved markedly, despite two errors on Wednesday, and a pitching staff that ranks last in the league in strikeouts can confidently challenge hitters to put the ball in play. Like the Minnesota Twins in the American League, the Pirates’ rotation has no ace, but rarely beats itself with walks. The staff earned run average, 3.34, ranks fifth in the league.
“We’ve got to be aggressive in the zone — the bottom of the zone, preferably,” said the pitching coach, Ray Searage. “We know what we have. I’m not trying to make a Maddux, a Smoltz or those guys. They know who they are, and they’re happy in their skin.”
Searage replaced Joe Kerrigan as pitching coach last August, with the Pirates on their way to 105 losses, their most since 1952. The team fired Manager John Russell after the season, and focused on Clint Hurdle, a strong communicator who had guided Colorado to the 2007 World Series. For Hurdle, the Texas Rangers’ hitting coach last season, it was a two-way interview. He asked the top executives about the direction of the organization. He spent hours with the scouting director and the farm director. And then he bought in.
“To me, the greatest coaching opportunity in all of sport is here,” Hurdle said. “Show me an N.B.A. team with the history that this one’s had the last 18 seasons. Show me an N.F.L. team, show me an N.H.L. team. The skepticism, it’s all been earned. The angst of the fans, it’s real. If this was a marriage, there wouldn’t have been a separation. There would have been a divorce a long time ago.”
The team and the town are stuck with each other, thanks largely to the charming PNC Park, the jewel along the Allegheny River that has never hosted a national Sunday night telecast in its 11 seasons. Yet the Pirates have a rich history, with five championships between 1909 and 1979, and Hurdle has studied it.
Hurdle requested framed photographs of all the managers who have led the Pirates to a championship on the wall above the couch in his office. That is Hurdle’s goal, as he told the players in spring training.
“When he addressed the team for the first time,” second baseman Neil Walker said, “guys were looking around like, ‘Uh, this is kind of the same team we had last year — let’s be honest, hopefully we’ll continue to improve, but. ...’ And he squashed that right off the bat. He said, ‘We’re not looking back.’ ”
Few know the background as acutely as Walker, a Pittsburgh native who was 7 when the Pirates lost Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series after leading until the final pitch. Walker said all of his old friends like the Steelers and the Penguins, but many gave up the Pirates to root for contenders.
The vision of playoff baseball in Pittsburgh has seemed absurd for so long, but now there is hope. Walker laughed when asked how his city would respond.
“I just keep thinking about what it’s like on Sundays here in the fall, when the Cleveland Browns come to town,” he said. “In this general area of the North Shore, downtown, we have 60,000 fans going to Heinz Field. Minus that by 20,000 and put them in this ballpark — I can’t even imagine. Pittsburgh fans are so passionate, and I’m one of them. It’s addicting.”
Neil Walker(notes) #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a two run single against the Chicago Cubs in the third inning during the game on July 8, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Sales of T-shirts and jerseys are up about 40 percent, Coonelly said, and television ratings are rising. Attendance, which sagged to under 20,000 per game the last three seasons, is averaging 23,631, its highest point since the first year at PNC Park.
Nutting, who grew up a Pirates fan in nearby Wheeling, W.Va., said the losing streak did not alienate a generation. Pittsburgh sports fans are never apathetic.
“I have nothing but respect for the fans who stuck with us, but also for the fans who said, ‘I love the Pirates, and I’m too angry to come to root,’ ” Nutting said. “I think every one of those people did it out of passion for baseball. I don’t think people ever lost interest. They cared, and you’re seeing that today.”