Minutes after the Pirates had clinched their record-breaking 17th consecutive losing season, general manager Neal Huntington dealt the old at-least-we're-not-the-Phillies card from the bottom of the historical deck.
Well played sir.
Just about every hope in every Pirates-lovin' heart everywhere is contingent on little else than Huntington's personnel aptitude keeping 17 losing seasons from becoming 19 or 20 in a row (18 you can book), but for the moment, especially this moment, pointing the finger 300 miles to the east is perhaps as deft a rhetorical stroke as is available.
What Huntington was saying, even if he had some of the particulars wrong, was that sure, the Pirates haven't won since Joe Paterno first reached retirement age, but 17 losing seasons in a row is nothing, really. Have you considered Philadelphia?
Let me quote to you again from the pages of Joe Queenan's achingly delicious memoir "Closing Time," specifically the passage that best reveals the ancient soul of the Phillies' fan.
"True, down at the stadium, we could at least take in (a) few innings of the game, even though the Phillies, a Chaplinesque aggregation of bozos, invalids, and poltroons, always lost. Two years after I began working for Len, the hometown heroes dropped twenty-three games in a row, a record that will never be broken, and if it is, only by the Phillies. One year earlier, manager Eddie Sawyer quit after the first game of the season, declaring, 'I'm forty-nine years old and I want to live to be fifty.' In light of these facts, Len's attitude confused me. I could understand why he would close the store in the middle of a boiling hot summer day. But why he would close up just so we could drive over and see the Phillies is beyond me. He hated the sons of bitches."
The Phillies just happen to be World Series champions at the moment, quite true, and have been twice since last the Pirates could be so identified, but to equate consistent, historical, malignant, torturous baseball hopelessness with the Pirates rather than their Philadelphia counterparts is a straight-up between-the-legs fan error.
Seventeen consecutive losing seasons?
As Stanley Motts, Dustin Hoffman's character in the acidic 1997 film "Wag The Dog," leaped to remind everyone after still another political catastrophe, "This is NOTHING!"
From 1918 through 1948, the Phillies had one winning season, 1932, in which they went 78-76. That's 30 losing seasons in 31 years. In the first stretch, 1918-31, they lost 100 games five times. In the second, which is the record-setting 16-year slide the Pirates just eclipsed, the Phillies lost 100 games seven more times. In their own 17-year depravity, the Pirates have only lost 100 in a season once, although they have a wicked shot at a second in regress.
Were there a baseball miracle lurking, one that would bring the Pirates a winning season next year, they would then have to lose constantly until 2024 to equal Philadelphia's futility from that period alone. But in Philadelphia, the fun was just beginning.
The Phillies went 81-73 in 1949, the year that snapped the 16-year streak, then won the pennant in 1950 but lost the World Series to the Yankees in four games, setting a horrifying tone for Philadelphia postseason baseball that, with the exception of 1980 and 2008, would inspire another series of films.
Saw, Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV and Saw V.
There were no winning seasons from 1954 until '62, but '61 always occupied its own little sewer in the collective memory, and not just because it was the first summer that I started paying attention via snowy black-and-white TV and a transistor radio hidden under my pillow on school nights. In that 154-game season, the Phillies lost 107 times, and, as Queenan noted above, 23 games in a row.
Three years later, they were in first place by 61/2 games with 12 games left and promptly lost 10 in a row and the pennant. My father, a highly afflicted Phillies fan, was rumored to have offed himself as a result by running a hose from the tailpipe of his '59 Bel-Air into the passenger compartment. This was preposterous, of course. The Bel-Air wouldn't start, and I'm not sure we owned a hose at the time.
Two years ago, the Phillies lost their 10,000th game, which no organization outside the Washington Generals can possibly claim.
The Pirates, for all their extended misery, went into their game against the Chicago Cubs last night as a winning organization 183 games above .500 since the early 1880s. The Phillies, one year younger by birth record, went into their game last night 1,134 games under .500.
The 2009 Phillies, who I had begun to think might be the best Phillies team ever, recently lost two of three to the 17-consecutive-losing-seasons Pirates.
And on it goes.
But really, 17 in a row?
This is nothing.
Gene Collier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .