'97 Pirates had some fun with run for division title
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Pirates third baseman Joe Randa is congratulated by Midre Cummings after Randa's first-inning two-run home run against St. Louis at Three Rivers Stadium in June 1997.
It's true that the Pirates have gone 14 consecutive seasons -- and counting -- without winning. They have, however, contended during that tiresome span.
Think back to 1997.
Only 10 years ago.
"I remember it just like yesterday," second baseman Tony Womack said.
With good reason.
That rag-tag bunch not only produced the most wins of any Pirates team since 1992, but that $9 million club also provided fans a riveting run that almost resulted in a highly improbable division championship.
It was the summer of Pokey and Hootie & The Blowfish and Mark Smith and Frankie and Ricky and the no-hitter and Cookie and Liebs and the Freak Show and The Joker and KY and Sveumer and the guy from LA ("as in Lower Alabama," Turner Ward would explain) and magic.
And, ultimately, some heartbreak.
That wildly over achieving group finally faded four days from the finish line, but what a zany, 79-win ride it had.
"The Pirates haven't had anything like that since," first baseman Kevin Young said. "Any other season, you finish four games under .500, who cares? But that season? Wow! Every game felt like a playoff atmosphere. It was pretty special."
"It almost could have been a movie," third baseman Joe Randa said. "It was kind of a misfit group that started believing in each other, guys coming together and gaining each other's trust."
"To me, that whole team fit right in with the Pittsburgh fans," colorful outfielder Ward said. "It was a bunch of blue-collar, scrappy guys that just went out and played hard every day. Those fans really appreciated that.
"For some reason, those guys just kind of molded together. It was a good feeling."
"There was a lot of team unity and a lot of fun," hometown pitcher Chris Peters said. "There were guys not caring about too much other than playing baseball and having fun. It was a good bunch of guys having fun.
"I haven't seen that at all since then -- with any team."
Thing was, before that season began, there was absolutely no reason to think that team would be anything like that. Or anything at all.
"We were picked to finish last and lose 130 games," Womack said.
The dismantling process that gave rise to those dire predictions began about midway through the 1996 season.
New owner Kevin McClatchy, whose ownership group took over in February that year, revealed to general manager Cam Bonifay and manager Jim Leyland that the payroll would be slashed drastically.
It would go from about $21 million in '96 to that ridiculously low $9 million figure in '97.
Four years removed from their run of three consecutive division championships, the Pirates would retrench. They would take money from payroll and spend it on strengthening the amateur draft, increasing their presence in Latin America and improving the minor-league option.
They would retool the major-league roster with young players who weren't eligible for salary arbitration and hope for the best until they could get a new stadium. That new edifice would help produce enough revenue that the payroll could go back to competitive levels.
"We were going to [trade] the veteran players and set up a plan where we could build over a number of years to try to produce a winner in Pittsburgh," Bonifay said. "We just wanted to take the payroll all the way down and rebuild, so that's what he did."
Denny Neagle, already arbitration-eligible and due to become a free agent after '97, went first. On Aug. 28, the Pirates sent him to Atlanta for right-hander Jason Schmidt, first baseman Ron Wright and outfielder Corey Painter.
Two days later, third baseman Charlie Hayes went to the New York Yankees for pitcher Chris Corn. The next day, outfielder Dave Clark went to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Carl South.
Those were just warm-up trades for the blockbusters to come in November and December.
On Nov. 14, the Pirates dealt second baseman Carlos Garcia, outfielder Orlando Merced and left-handed reliever Dan Plesac to Toronto for six players. The most notable of those six were right-hander Jose Silva, then-catcher Craig Wilson and infielder Abraham Nunez.
A month later on Dec. 13, the Pirates finished the fire sale by trading shortstop Jay Bell and third baseman Jeff King to Kansas City for three Jeffs and a Joe.
The three Jeffs -- Wallace, Granger and Martin -- were all pitchers with little or no major-league shelf life.
But the Joe -- as in Randa -- played a significant role in the wildly unexpected success the '97 Pirates had.
"Joe was really shook up about being traded," said Gene Lamont, who would manage the Pirates from 1997-2000. "I brought him into my office [in spring training] and talked to him. I told him, 'You're going to be my third baseman. You're going to play every day and we're counting on you to do good for us.'
"He did a great job. He probably was our best pure hitter. He got a lot of big hits against good pitchers."
Lamont, who had been the Pirates' third-base coach, became manager after Leyland decided he didn't want to have to wait perhaps years to have another chance at winning a World Series.
He and the Pirates worked out a resolution to his contract, and he left to manage the Florida Marlins.
As it turned out, Leyland made a good move.
His Marlins, flush with cash and new players, including former Pirates Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou, John Cangelosi and John Wehner, cashed in a wild-card ticket and won the '97 World Series.
"Realistically, I thought if we won 70 games it would be a heck of a year, to be honest with you," Bonifay said. "I think everybody in the back of their mind was thinking, 'Well, let's just don't lose 100.' "
The Pirates fell far short of 130 losses. Fell short of 100 losses, for that matter.
They took their $9 million payroll and battled the Houston Astros for 251/2 weeks before reality overtook them.
"What's the big deal?" Leyland said a few weeks ago when asked about the '97 Pirates. "I left them a powerhouse."
Leyland, obviously, was kidding.
The Pirates were not.
"We had nothing to lose," Womack said. "It was a win-win situation for us. If we lose, we were supposed to. If we don't lose, we shock the world."
In the end, they came implausibly close to doing just that.
A look at some of the high points and low points of the 1997 season.
Most games over .500: 4 (19-15 May 9)
Most games under .500: 7, twice (36-43 June 29, 71-78 Sept. 14)
Largest lead: 11/2 games, twice (June 1, June 7)
Largest deficit: 61/2 games (Aug. 12)
Longest winning streak: 7 (June 30-July 6)
Longest losing streak: 6 (June 17-22)
Days in first place (including tied): 32
Longest run in first place (including tied): 12 days (June 5-18)
Last day over .500: Aug. 26 (67-66)
Last day at .500: Aug. 30 (68-68)
First Published July 8, 2007 11:18 pm