Ugly 11-6 defeat to Giants clinches landmark 16th losing season
September 8, 2008 8:00 AM
Pirates' Nate McLouth, left, has his right hand checked by trainer Brad Henderson after being hit by a pitch yesterday.
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
SAN FRANCISCO -- Perhaps it was painfully appropriate.
With an excruciating, error-filled, erratic 11-6 loss to the San Francisco Giants on an otherwise golden Bay-side afternoon at AT&T Park, the 122-year-old Pittsburgh Baseball Club, the once-proud franchise of five World Series championships and Roberto Clemente and Honus Wagner, achieved an ignominious place in sporting history by clinching a 16th consecutive losing season.
That ties the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies for the longest such streak in Major League Baseball, and it exceeds that of any NFL, NHL or NBA team. Another losing season in 2009, and the Pirates' streak will stand alone in all of the major professional ranks.
"Nobody's happy with the record. Nobody's happy with losing," manager John Russell said in a quiet clubhouse after this 82nd loss saw a five-run lead flip into a five-run deficit in the same inning. "But the work we're putting in, the things we're doing ... we see a lot of progress. It's not equating to wins right now, but we'll continue. And it's going to be a lot of fun someday. I know the city of Pittsburgh is dying for a winner, and we're going to do everything we can to make that happen."
Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 8:05 p.m., Minute Maid Park.
TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (6-10, 5.59) vs. RHP Alberto Arias (0-0, 2.63).
Key matchup: With Carlos Lee and Ty Wigginton out with injuries, Houston's most threatening bat might be Hunter Pence, 16 for 34 over his current nine-game hitting streak.
Of note: Since the Pirates swept three in Houston July 21-23, the Astros have gone 30-12. Their 32-16 record since the All-Star break is second-best in Major League Baseball, behind the Tampa Bay Rays.
The most recent date on which the Pirates officially were winners was Oct. 4, 1992, when they finished 96-66 with Barry Bonds, Doug Drabek, Andy Van Slyke and other luminaries before embarking on a playoff run that would end with Francisco Cabrera's dagger of a ninth-inning single that sent the Atlanta Braves to the Series instead.
That name, Cabrera, as well as the image of Sid Bream sliding safely into home, still conjure agonizing memories for Pittsburghers, many of whom remember where they were when it happened and, in some cases, how hard they cried. And part of what made it that way was a widely held view that, given baseball's increasingly imbalanced economics at the time, the Pirates never would have another chance.
Little did they know how miserable it would get ...
• In the loss column: The cumulative record during these 16 years is 1,097-1,406, a .438 winning percentage. The best record came with the 79-83 edition in 1997, the "Freak Show" group embraced by the fan base because it contended -- in a weak division -- with a $9 million payroll. The worst was 62-100 in 2001, the ominous christening of PNC Park.
• In the standings: The Pirates finished last in their division eight times -- and currently are last again in the Central -- and three other times next-to-last. Highest finish was second in 1997.
• On the calendar: The latest date 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, when they were 23-22, and the latest date for .500 was June 11, 2005, when they were 30-30. The current team was 7-7 on April 15, then failed in six subsequent cracks at .500 and never saw it again.
• Compared to their peers: In the same span, the Steelers won one Super Bowl, competed in another, reached six AFC championship games and won seven division titles. The Penguins competed in one Stanley Cup final, reached three conference finals and won five division titles.
• 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 will reach 11 with four more losses.
And this is to say nothing of Operation Shutdown, Bottled Water-Gate, the Rule 5 draft fiasco, the Matt Wieters draft fiasco, the Pedro Alvarez draft fiasco, Brant Brown playing center field, the raising of ticket prices after losing 100 games and, always topping the list of maddening events during the streak, the dumping of Aramis Ramirez.
No one associated with the Pirates has been through more of it than Jack Wilson, in his eighth year as their shortstop.
"It's unfortunate ... again," Wilson said. "The No. 1 that I think about is that our city has outstanding fans and deserves a winning team. We're probably lucky that the Steelers and Penguins have played so well all this time."
He laughed at that.
"But I also think this organization is headed in the right direction, and we all hope this doesn't reach into next year."
Bob Nutting, who became the Pirates' controlling owner early last year, hired president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington late that summer with a mandate of overhauling the organization top to bottom. Coonelly and Huntington immediately made clear their priority was building up a dilapidated minor league system, even if that came at the expense of the major league roster.
The most prominent examples of that put into action, of course, came with the July trades of Xavier Nady and Jason Bay for eight prospects, moves that coincided with the current team falling off precipitously.
16 and countingThe Pirates' 16 consecutive losing seasons, by record and place in the division:YearRecordPlace199375-875th199453-613rd199558-865th199673-895th199779-832nd199869-935th199978-833rd200069-935th200162-1006th200272-894th200375-874th200472-895th200567-956th200667-955th200768-946th200860-826th
"No one wants to tie or break records for futility, but we need to do the things necessary to build a foundation of winning players who can win championships without regard for where the organization has been under different leadership teams," Coonelly said from Pittsburgh after the game. "We cannot make decisions because they might help us win 82 games next year. What is important is that we will continue to build our foundation. If we do that, we certainly can put ourselves in a position where we no longer need to answer questions about futility streaks."
"I know fans are frustrated with the losing, with the number of years it's been going on," Huntington said. "And, candidly, the simplest approach on our end probably would have been to just try to break the streak, to focus on that. But the last thing we'd want to see happen is what came about with that Philly streak."
Those 1933-48 Phillies also had 14 consecutive losing seasons in 1918-31, with a single blip -- two games above .500 in 1932 -- to interrupt what would have been a streak of 31.
"You'd hate to win just one year, only to see it go on and on because you didn't do what needed to be done to address things right," Huntington continued. "Look, we all hate losing. Nobody here should be satisfied with what we've done this year, and I don't care how well they played individually. As a collective, it wasn't good enough. And it's not just the players. It's everybody who works for the Pittsburgh Pirates."
Yesterday surely was one occasion all concerned would want to forget, if only for the game itself.
The Pirates had dashed to a 5-0 lead through the top of the fourth inning, and Jeff Karstens had no-hit the Giants, owners of the majors' weakest offense. But trouble took root immediately in the bottom half when Randy Winn's roller up the line resulted in Karstens throwing the ball off Winn's shoulder for an error.
"Should have just let it roll foul," Karstens said.
What followed was stunning, even by the standards of these 16 years: The next six batters got hits, including a three-run double by Pablo Sandoval that knocked center fielder Nate McLouth out of the game. McLouth made a futile diving attempt, and the ball bounced up into his sunglasses with enough force to cause a six-stitch gash above his left eyebrow.
Russell pulled Karstens after Eugenio Velez's looping liner to right field, one that should have been caught by Steve Pearce, caromed off his glove for another. That made for eight batters up, none retired.
T.J. Beam followed, and he gave up three more hits and a sacrifice fly that put the Giants ahead, 10-5.
"To go from no hits to nine hits and 10 runs ... just one of those days," Russell said.
It was the first time since Aug. 19, 2003 -- not all that long ago, predictably -- that the Pirates gave up 10 in an inning. And it came, as several players pointed out, with just one ball -- Sandoval's -- struck particularly hard.
"I thought it was just me," Karstens said. "Then, the same thing happened to T.J."
The teams combined for four errors and several other misplays, two official wild pitches and three others to the backstop, five hit batsmen, and it all took a numbing three hours, 20 minutes to complete.
First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, the Pirates' emotional leader, offered a viewpoint that might well resonate with many of the team's followers.
"It's tired," he said. "I've only been here six months, and I'm already sick of hearing about the future. I know it's important, but you've got to play well now. It's frustrating. It is. We're just going to have to keep plugging along, figure out who can play and who can't. And everyone has to understand it's a privilege to be here. It's not given away. Give me 25 guys who fight. Give me that over talent. ... Let's win now."