Baseball 2009: The march begins to 17?
ST. LOUIS -- Anyone complaining about the Pirates' seemingly eternal losing streak, stand in line behind Jack Wilson.
From Peoria to Potomac to Pittsburgh, the franchise's most tenured player has known nothing but losing in 11 professional seasons, all of the teams that employed him in that span for the majority of a summer finishing up below .500. And there is a large difference between watching it and living it.
"Story of my life," he said the other day. "Have to go all the way back to ju-co.
That would be Oxnard Junior College in California.
"Now, that was a good team. Been a long time."
• Game: Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 4:15 p.m. today, Busch Stadium.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (9-9, 3.71 ERA last year) vs. RHP Adam Wainwright (11-3, 3.20).
• Key matchup: The Pirates have batted .314 against Wainwright through his career, including Freddy Sanchez going 7 for 16.
• Of note: Jack Wilson will make his eighth opening-day start at shortstop, matching Jay Bell's run in 1989-96. Honus Wagner made 10 at the position.
The Post-Gazette's four-day preview of the Pirates and Major League Baseball• Friday: Five reasons to believe in Pirates ... or not
• Saturday: A bat worth waiting for
• Sunday: Seven minutes that changed the franchise
• Today: The march begins in St. Louis ... to a record 17th losing season?
It certainly has for the Pirates, whose 16 losing seasons began after Francisco Cabrera's fateful single buried their World Series hopes in 1992, and whose streak will become a professional sports record if 2009 turns out no different. For the moment, they are tied with the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies. No NFL, NHL or NBA team can rival that.
This afternoon at Busch Stadium, though, this 123rd edition of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club has its first chance to do something about it when Paul Maholm takes the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals for the season opener at 4:10 p.m.
The question is this: Will anyone use the streak as motivation?
"Yes and no," manager John Russell answered. "Are we responsible completely for that streak? No, of course not. But we're the Pirates. And, honestly, I think it's helping the attitude in the clubhouse to have this, actually. We're not going to bring it in here and talk about it, but enough other people -- like media -- will ask. We understand what we want to accomplish, how we all want to improve. And yes, we want to be the team that turns things around here."
That was the popular -- though not universal -- sentiment in the clubhouse, some of whom readily acknowledge that the streak could become a distraction if it should gain national attention over the summer.
"It's pretty scary to think about what could happen," catcher Ryan Doumit said. "I'll tell you what: I don't want to be part of the team that breaks the record. I don't want to be remembered for something bad. But it's been a long time for the fans and for the city, and it stinks that it's come to this, and I understand people will focus on it."
Even though most of the current group -- and current management -- has had little to do with it?
"To me, it's easy to say we weren't here for all 16. But we wear the same uniforms as those other teams. We're Pirates."
His eyes lit up.
"And we're going to be the Pirates who change it."
"I'm sick of it," center fielder Nate McLouth said. "It's understandable that people are going to talk about it, though. It's really the city that's felt it, much more than us as players. They're the ones who have been coming out all these years to support us. I can't even imagine what it would be like to support a losing team that long."
Others view the streak from the opposite stance.
"It's not motivating to me to be the team that ends it," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "It's a new year. We have high expectations. I couldn't care less about the last 16 years. I mean, no offense to the fans of Pittsburgh. It's unfortunate that this has rolled over like this. But we're not going to get down about the streak."
He pointed instead to a loftier goal than 82 victories, even though the team last year won only 67 and has had precious little change in the roster.
"We've got to do everything we can to play games in September that count," LaRoche said, "not to put an end to some streak."
"It's the last thing I'll be thinking about when I pitch against the Cardinals, I can tell you that," closer Matt Capps said. "To me, I just don't think you can think about losing and expect to be successful. That word 'can't' enters your mind, and you're in trouble."
Some see it both ways.
"It's going to be there until we get rid of it," Maholm said. "I'm expecting that, when September comes, we're going to put this all behind us. Things are different here now. We have a different attitude. We're doing extra work. This wasn't your normal spring training."
This much seems universal: Even those who would welcome ending the streak do not find 82 victories to be the goal. At least not unless it is on the way to something greater.
That starts at the top.
"I will be very happy the day that national stories about the Pirates don't always have to add 'comma, having lost for 16 seasons; to the sentence," team president Frank Coonelly said. "I want for our city not to have the team described in that light. From our perspective, though, we've got to follow the process and build this team the right way. We're not going to allow the recent history of this organization to affect our judgment."
"We understand the fans' pain, but 82 wins is not our goal," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We're not going to be satisfied by getting that monkey off our back. If it's a step in the process, so be it. But it's not an end result for us."
And if the end result is losing again?
"We'll blame it all on Jack," Maholm said.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Apr. 7, 2009) The Pirates record last season was 67-95. Their record for 2008 was incorrect in a graphic accompanying this article as originally published Apr. 6, 2009.
First Published April 6, 2009 12:00 am