Pirates unmoved by record 17th losing season

Lee's two blasts carry Cubs, 4-2, bring long-anticipated 82nd loss

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On the fateful fall night in 1992 when Sid Bream made his desperate dash home in Atlanta, so many of those who followed the Pirates had to be fretting: Given Major League Baseball's increasingly imbalanced economics, would this be the franchise's last chance?

They had no idea.

With the final out yesterday afternoon at PNC Park -- a Lastings Milledge flyout that ended a 4-2 flattening by the Chicago Cubs -- the once-proud Pittsburgh Baseball Club recorded its annually anticipated 82nd loss and clinched a 17th consecutive losing season, the longest such streak in the history of North America's four major professional sports. There had been a tie at 16 with the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies.

Amid the steady drizzle, slight chill and an unhealthy representation of Cubs blue among the sparse gathering of 14,673, the setting seemed sublime.

Inside the streak

"We can't worry about it. It is what it is," Pirates manager John Russell said of the streak. "Unfortunately, we're not happy with where we are in terms of wins and losses, and we've got a lot of work to do. But we believe in what we're doing. We've developed some very good young players, and we're looking forward to continuing to build. Unfortunately, we can't do anything about the 17 years."

About half the active roster is new to Pittsburgh this season, which might explain several players yesterday being unaware of the streak being extended, including losing pitcher Daniel McCutchen.

"The guys in here, all we can account for is the past three or four years at the most," veteran closer Matt Capps said. "But it's not acceptable to any of us, and I don't think it's acceptable to management or the coaching staff, either."

It took 317 players, from Jermaine Allensworth to Kevin Young, but this is how bad it has gotten over these 17 years ...

• In the loss column: The cumulative record is 1,158-1,501, a .436 winning percentage. The best came with the 79-83 edition in 1997, the "Freak Show" group embraced by the fan base because it contended with a $9 million payroll. The worst was 62-100 in 2001, though the current 54-82 group still can challenge that.

• In the standings: The Pirates finished last nine times -- and currently are last again in the Central Division -- and three other times next-to-last. Highest finish was second in 1997. They have spent a total of 79 days in first place -- an average of 11 days a year -- with 32 of those coming in 1997.

• On the calendar: The latest in any year that the Pirates topped .500 was Aug. 26, 1997, when they were 67-66. In this decade alone, the latest date was May 29, 2004. The current team was 12-11 on May 2, then never topped .500 again. Other than 1997, no team has been in first place later than April 25.

• Compared to their peers: In the same span, the Steelers and Penguins have combined for 23 playoff appearances in 32 possible seasons. The Steelers have won two Super Bowls, competed in another and reached seven AFC championship games. The Penguins have won one Stanley Cup, competed in another final and reached four Eastern Conference finals.

• Across the scope of sports: The NHL's Vancouver Canucks of 1976-91 and NBA's Kansas City/Sacramento Kings of 1983-98 each had streaks of 15 years. The NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 1983-96 went 14. The longest current streak in sports -- other than the Pirates' -- belongs to the Baltimore Orioles, who are one loss away from a 12th losing season.

Through it all, there were salary-slashing trades from Jason Schmidt to Jason Bay, Derek Bell's "Operation Shutdown," Bottled-Water Gate, the Matt Morris and Matt Wieters fiascos, Randall Simon questioned by police for clubbing a human sausage, John Van Benschoten and Ryan Vogelsong getting chance after chance, Sean Burnett calling the Pirates a "laughingstock" while playing for the only team with a worse record, a 17-2 rout at Wrigley Field last month in which the Cubs led by two touchdowns after two innings and, just in the past week, New York Yankees bench player Eric Hinske telling a Canadian newspaper he "hated it in Pittsburgh" before he had asked to be traded earlier this summer.

The same Pittsburgh that seems just fine by Ben Roethlisberger and Sidney Crosby.

17 Seasons of Futility
In 1992, the Pittsburgh Pirates -- managed by Jim Leyland -- finished in first place in the National League East with a 96-66 record. They lost the National League Championship Series to Atlanta in seven games. Since then, they've had a losing record every season.

200954-82+John Russell6/6++
200867-95John Russell6/6
200768-94Jim Tracy6/6
200667-95Jim Tracy5/6
200567-95Lloyd McClendon
and Pete Mackinin6/6
200472-89Lloyd McClendon5/6
200375-87Lloyd McClendon4/6
200272-89Lloyd McClendon4/6
200162-100Lloyd McClendon6/6
200069-93Gene Lamont5/6
199978-83Gene Lamont3/6
199869-93+++Gene Lamont6/6
199779-83Gene Lamont2/5
199673-89Jim Leyland5/5
199558-86Jim Leyland5/5
199453-61Jim Leyland3/5
199375-87Jim Leyland5/7
199296-66Jim Leyland1/6
+ Record as of Sept. 8, 2009
++ Current place in standings as of Sept. 8, 2009
+++ Also had one tie in 1998 season

To be sure, it has been about more than baseball's economics.

And now, what is left of the Pirates' fan base -- there is a reason those Strip vendors are selling endless rows of those "The City of Champions. And the Pirates" T-shirts -- now frets over is this: When will it end?

The management team that owner Bob Nutting installed -- president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington -- soon after taking control of the franchise in January 2007 has made a priority of infusing its depleted minor league system with talent, culling prospects in most trades. Some have accused ownership of making those trades out of frugality -- a charge that cannot be dismissed until future players are signed rather than sent away -- but Nutting and those under him are adamant that this plan provides the best path to return the Pirates to legitimate contention rather than simply ending the streak.

"Obviously, I am disappointed," Nutting said. "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. 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."

Nutting expressed confidence in those he hired.

"I have a tremendous amount of faith in our people and the process. I remain absolutely committed to seeing the evolution of the Pirates through. Our fans deserve it, everyone associated with the organization deserves it, and I expect it."

Coonelly strongly suggested the streak could have been over by now with a short-sighted approach.

"If we had brought in a few veterans, we would hope that we could have broken it, sure," he said. "But we're obviously not focused on the 82nd loss. It's been clear through our conduct that we haven't allowed this streak -- which we don't like and nobody's proud of -- to dictate how we build this club. We're looking to win a championship, and we are so much closer to that today than we were a year or two ago."

That remains to be fully seen, of course.

The Pirates have significantly upgraded their system, with a genuinely elite prospect in third baseman Pedro Alvarez -- 27 home runs, 95 RBIs in his just-completed professional debut at Class A and AA -- on the way probably next year, as well as Class AAA pitcher Brad Lincoln and outfielder Jose Tabata and several others at lower levels.

In Pittsburgh, there are two promising rookies in outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones, as well as much improved pitching and defense. But the offense has been mostly awful in the aftermath of the many trades in June and July, and the losses of middle-infield mainstays Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez have no visible replacements.

Executives around baseball have praised the Pirates' plan, but there is much to be proven in terms of player evaluation: The July 2008 trade in which outfielder Xavier Nady and reliever Damaso Marte were sent to the Yankees for Tabata and three pitchers -- Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Daniel McCutchen -- has been a steal. But the three-way trade later that month that sent Jason Bay to the Boston Red Sox -- and brought third baseman Andy LaRoche, outfielder Brandon Moss, injured reliever Craig Hansen and soured pitching prospect Bryan Morris -- has been the opposite.

Huntington long has answered all questions about the streak, but he has stressed to his employees that it should be ignored.

"The people who work for the Pirates shouldn't focus one ounce of energy on the losing streak," Huntington said. "Our focus isn't on getting to 82 wins one time to get this monkey off our backs. To win 82 with a group of players on the down side of their prime or leaving through free agency with nothing coming behind them in the farm system ... OK, we break the streak, but we put ourselves in a position to start another one."

Could ending the streak next year be a target?

"If it's a step in the natural progression, if it's the right players who have a chance to be part of what we're doing going forward, that's great. But we're not going to pop champagne bottles when we get to 82 wins."

In what, remarkably, was the only historically significant game the Pirates have played at PNC Park since its 2001 opening, Chicago's Derrek Lee homered off the first two pitches he saw from Daniel McCutchen to spot the Cubs a 3-0 lead. The typically meager offense mustered just two hits, and the final 14 batters in a row were retired.

About an hour after Milledge's flyout at 2:57 p.m., the Pirates also were formally eliminated from winning the division, as the first-place St. Louis Cardinals won their 82nd game.

Few likely realized that, either.

Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog . Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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