Losing has lost its luster

Pirates could tie Phillies' record if they fail to break .500 this season for 16th year in a row

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As a youngster, when his transistor radio delivered unforgettable thrills such as Harvey Haddix's lost perfect game or Bill Mazeroski's historic home run, Alan Perer anticipated the start of a new baseball season with hopes and dream as alive as the new growth of spring.

Even during the last 15 losing seasons, with the Pirates' misfortunes converting the Jolly Roger into a Frowny Face, Mr. Perer has steadfastly remained loyal as a season ticket holder. But no more. The Pirates may have a new front office, a new manager, new scouts and a new food section that offers fans all you can eat, but Mr. Perer has had all he can stomach.

"I've had enough," said Mr. Perer, whose law firm of Swensen, Perer & Kontos failed to renew its four season tickets at PNC Park this year. "We think it's unfair for Pirates management to receive support year after year for a team that is mediocre and has no realistic chance of competing for a championship.

"They'll still attract crowds, and they'll still make money without us, but what are they giving the baseball fans of Pittsburgh? The only way to show our displeasure was to stop buying tickets."

That said, in his letter to the team, Mr. Perer said he would happily return if things improved.

"It's up to them," he said. "I've had it. Enough already."

So it's come to this. In major league cities across the land, baseball fans transition from the dead of winter to the hope of spring by thinking this could be the year. The phrase has a darker meaning in Pittsburgh, where this could be the year the Pirates tie the Philadelphia Phillies in baseball ignominy if they fail to achieve the modest goal of winning more games than they lose.

That would mean 16 straight losing seasons, something the Phillies accomplished between 1933 and 1948. Joining the Phillies would place them in select company and would mark a shameful sort of competitive imbalance in the Keystone State. Even though they did make the playoffs, the Phillies last year became the first major professional sports franchise to surpass 10,000 losses.

"We Will" has gone to the scrap heap of outworn slogans. What's next? "You Gotta Bereave"? This would be a not so sweet 16 and a bad twist on the old pirate lyrics: "Sixteen men on a dead man's chest, yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum."

For its part, the new management team isn't dwelling on the past. All the talk has been about changing the culture in the clubhouse and the culture of skepticism in the stands.

"We're committed to being a first-class organization, from the new leadership team to the new coaching staff to the tools we're giving them to succeed," owner Bob Nutting said at the outset of training camp. "And now, really, the responsibility, the accountability, is shifting onto the field. It's time for everyone to perform."

Hey, anybody can have a bad decade and a half. And through the bleak chill of winter, anticipation for a new beginning could be found in the boot prints in the snow at the cyclone fence above the PNC Park bullpen. Somebody still cares.

But the grim, harsh truth is that the streak of 15 straight losing seasons is the longest current stretch of futility in major professional sports as the Pirates open the season tomorrow night in Atlanta. Given that the current edition looks a lot like the team that lost 94 games and got the general manager and manager fired, history beckons, but it's not the kind of history anyone wants to make. Odds published last week list them at 200-to-1 to win the World Series; only Kansas City and the Washington Nationals are longer long-shots.

To put this in perspective, the Phillies endured 14 straight losing seasons beginning in 1918, then had a hiccup in 1932 when they won more games than they lost, before going another 16 straight seasons of losing, losing and more losing. It is part of Philadelphia sports lore that the old Baker Bowl was adorned with a giant soap ad that said "The Phillies Use Lifebuoy" -- accompanied by this addendum from an acerbic patron: "And They Still Stink." Well, winning is the best deodorant.

But Phillies fans won't easily cede their status. "The Biggest Loser" is more than a TV show about shedding pounds.

During their streak, the Phillies averaged 41.7 games under .500, with a "best" of 16 under and a worst of a staggering 68 under. Over the past 15 seasons, the Pirates have averaged 18.5 games under .500, with a best of four under and a worst of 38.

"The Pirates could lose every game for the next two seasons and still be less under .500 than the Phillies were in those 16 years," said Clem Comly, a member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research.

The Pennsylvania teams share a common link through pitcher Hugh Mulcahy. While he was 0-0 in two starts for the Pirates in 1947, he spent his career in Philadelphia during the bad streak and was 45-89. He was on the wrong end of so many scores that his nickname at baseball-reference.com is "Losing Pitcher." The sponsor of his page wrote: "There are bad pitchers, and there are unlucky pitchers, and then there are men who are neither. They were just cursed to pitch on horrendous Philadelphia teams, the poor souls."

When the Pirates' streak began in 1993, Bud Selig was in his first full year as commissioner. His biggest concern back then was Cincinnati owner Marge Schott, who was fined and banned for making ethnic and racial slurs. Despite the taint of the Steroid Age, Mr. Selig recently received a three-year contract extension and his last announced salary was $14 million a year.

Baseball has never been more popular nationally, and it's apparently recession-proof. Overall attendance records have been smashed in each of the last four seasons. Alex Rodriquez of the Yankees is paid $27.7 million a season, and the average salary is a shade less than $3 million a year. Pete Rose may still be banned, Barry Bonds faces perjury charges and the Roger Clemens saga begs the question of whether you could field a better fantasy team from the Mitchell Report or the witness list at congressional hearings. No matter that if the traditional ERA and RBI have been joined by HGH in the sport's ABCs, fans can't get enough.

During the streak, Pirates fans have endured trials that would have tested the patience of the biblical Job, from free agents like Derek "Operation Shutdown" Bell to Raul Mondesi. This is a franchise that had a bobblehead giveaway in 2003 of all-time loser Charlie Brown and once raised ticket prices after a 100-loss season. The Onion, in an online lampoon, ran this headline in the All-Star season: "PNC Park Threatens To Leave Unless Better Team Is Built."

For the home opener on April 7, the River City Inn bought a block of 40 tickets for its annual outing. But no in-season trips are scheduled.

"There isn't any interest beyond opening day," said Harry Patterson. "I'll be the first person to get back on the bandwagon if they do something. It's taken some doing, but they've beaten the enthusiasm out of us."

Nevertheless, some faint ember of hope remains in the spirit of hidden vigorish, a phrase used by the late Bob Prince to explain the law of averages, that the more you lose the closer you are to winning.

Even though he thinks the 16th losing season will happen, Mike Emeigh hasn't given up, as long as management backs up its talk with action and the team drafts smarter.

"It's really, really hard to explain the connection to baseball. But I have a baseball signed by the 1960 Pirates that was given to me by my uncle and sits above my computer. It brings back memories of what it was like growing up," said Mr. Emeigh, a native of Dormont who lives in Raleigh, N.C. "This won't last forever. There are reasons to look forward."

Let's Go Bucs.

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com


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