With victory in Milwaukee, Pirates end two decades of futility

MILWAUKEE -- With one word, Andrew McCutchen summarized the feelings of his organization and dismissed two decades of woeful Pirates history.


The question wasn't even complete yet and already he knew the answer. Nope, Mr. McCutchen doesn't care that the Pirates' next win will be their 82nd of 2013, securing a winning season for the first time since 1992. They moved one step closer to that long-elusive goal Tuesday night with victory No. 81 -- assured of a record of at least .500 for the first time in two decades -- defeating the Milwaukee Brewers, 4-3, at Miller Park.

In a surprising season in which they are jostling with the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in their division and had the best record in Major League baseball at the end of July, they are losers no more, but not quite yet winners.

Most -- but not all -- players and members of the organization no longer care about compiling a winning season. Some say they're past that. Some say it distracts from the immediate task at hand. Some say mediocrity is not the goal.

"I think that if we were any other organization, you probably wouldn't [care] and the question probably wouldn't even be asked," Neil Walker said. "The fact that 82 wins is such a big number in this city because of obvious reasons, it holds a lot more weight."

Mr. McCutchen made his major league debut June 4, 2009, giving him the most playing time on the active roster of anyone in the organization. (Jeff Karstens made his Pirates debut in 2008, but has not pitched this season due to injury.) Mr. McCutchen said fretting about winning 82 games, or a playoff berth for that matter, distracts from the most important focal point: winning that night's game.

"You're putting pressure on yourself when you do that," he said. "Thinking about playoffs, wild cards, teams winning and losing. You're putting added pressure on yourself that you don't need to put on yourself. You can't control what other teams do."

Mr. Walker debuted not long after Mr. McCutchen (Sept. 1, 2009). Mr. Walker, you might have heard, is from around these parts, so he understands the significance of the losing streak outside the prism of this current team.

"If you're asking me, as a fan, as a growing-up fan ... that number has some significance, yes," he said. "To the other 24 guys, I don't think it holds that much weight."

In 1992, the Pirates won 96 games, finished first in the National League East and lost to the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series. Since that time, they have not won more than 79 games in a season until now. Their 82nd win in a 162-game season would ensure that even if they lost every single game the rest of the way, they would finish with a .506 winning percentage and end the streak. That's not enough for the current crew.

"The ring is the goal," said hitting coach Jay Bell, a shortstop on the 1992 Pirates and owner of a World Series ring. "That's the prize. As you go through the course of a season, that's what you're looking to obtain all year long. Getting over .500 is not the goal by any means."

That streak, by the way, remains the longest in the history of North American professional sports. The Philadelphia Phillies held the previous Major League Baseball record with 16 consecutive losing seasons from 1933-48.

The NHL's Vancouver Canucks (1976-91) and the NBA's Kansas City/Sacramento Kings (1983-98) each lost for 15 consecutive years. The NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished below .500 for 14 consecutive seasons (1983-96).

Despite the implications, few members of the organization perceive ending the streak as a worthy achievement.

"Never been a goal," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said. "Not counting down the days for that, counting the days that we can hoist the National League Central flag at PNC Park."

The previous time the Pirates had a winning season, Mr. Coonelly was practicing law in Washington, D.C., and advising Major League Baseball during negotiations that eventually resulted in the strike-shortened 1994 season. He joined the Pirates in 2007 and witnesses the transformation daily, especially among the fans.

"This year they're in their seats earlier, they're locked in for the first pitch, so they're getting to the ballpark earlier because they see something special happening," he said.

Mr. Coonelly spoke recently in the visitors dugout at Petco Park in San Diego. Behind him, some of the Pirates displayed no sense of urgency. Instead they laughed at a reenactment of first-base coach Rick Sofield's tumble down the steps the previous night and a chalk outline of his body on the dugout floor.

Few people spend as much time around the team as clubhouse manager Scott Bonnett. "Bones" to players and colleagues, he was a 20-year-old batboy in Cincinnati when the Reds won the 1990 World Series. He joined the Pirates before the 2000 season, so he has seen his share of winning and losing clubhouses.

"In years past, you heard ... they're keeping track of how many games over [.500]," Mr. Bonnett said. "This year, you haven't heard it."

Mr. Bonnett credited manager Clint Hurdle's positive demeanor and the addition of catcher Russell Martin with improving the on-field product and the cohesion of the clubhouse, which in a sport such as baseball, with such a large individual component, is not always necessary for a successful team.

"This year they've been there, done that, and somehow they all are rooting for each other and you don't see that often," Mr. Bonnett said. "Everybody's hanging out with everybody, everybody's having fun with each other."

His view of breaking the streak echoed others in the franchise: "A couple years ago .500 meant a lot. Now, I don't want .500. I want pennants. Championships."

An 82nd win remains important in the sense that they have to win an 82nd game before they can win, say, a 94th game, and the last thing the Pirates want to do is see a one-game wild-card loss wash away their greatest season since Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek. They want the division.

"That's 162 days of hard work and then you go play one game, and if you don't play good that day then you head to the house," Mr. Hurdle said. "That's going to be a hard pill to swallow every year for a couple teams."

He often reminds people that his current team has not lost for 20 seasons. He's in year three. Mr. Coonelly is in year six, Mr. McCutchen and Mr. Walker in year five, Mr. Bell in year one. "Our vision will be to win the division," he said. "It won't be to win more games than we lose."

As pervasive as the lack of thought given to 82 is, it is not all-encompassing. Charlie Morton joined the Pirates in the trade that cleared a spot for the team to call up Mr. McCutchen. Mr. Morton made his Pirates debut six days after Mr. McCutchen did. Mr. Morton cares.

"It's been 20 years of losing," he said. "It does matter to put a winning team out there for a lot of people and for the city. That's not our goal but it's the byproduct of having a good team.

"Say [the Pirates] never went to the playoffs, but won 82 games every year. There wouldn't be that shadow kind of following the city around. I describe it as kind of like a relief."

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Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published September 4, 2013 4:00 AM


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