Monday, September 29, 2008
Pirates' losing run reaches the record book
PITTSBURGH -- Nobody loses like the Pittsburgh Pirates do.
At least the Los Angeles Clippers reach the playoffs every decade or so. The Arizona Cardinals, the NFL's most consistent losers, may be on the upswing. In the NHL, it's not uncommon for a last-place team one season to go deep into the playoffs the next.
For the Pirates, it must seem as if life stands still. They haven't been a winner since Barry Bonds was a slender 28-year-old with more steals than home runs and Chuck Noll was one year removed from coaching the Steelers.
They play in a jewel of a ballpark, PNC Park, but the Pirates -- again -- were about as bad as it gets. Just like they've been since 1992.
They ended a record-tying 16th consecutive losing season Sunday and, with one more such season, will stand alone as the longest-running losers in major American professional team sports.
The Pirates equaled the record set by the 1933-48 Phillies, but no NBA, NHL or NFL team has had a string of losing seasons so long. The Washington Generals, long-running foils to the Harlem Globetrotters, may be the only comparable losers.
"None of us like the fact we've lost more games than we've won. None of us will accept that," first-year general manager Neal Huntington said. "None of us feel good about where we finished."
At least they're consistent. The Pirates' records the last four seasons were 67-95 in 2005, 2006 and 2008 and 68-94 in 2007.
Here's how bad they were this season: For the first time in baseball's modern era, the Pirates didn't have a 10-game winner. The last time that happened, in 1890, the franchise was only four seasons old and was known as the Alleghenys.
In the last 15 months, the Pirates have changed their primary owner, president, general manager, manager, coaching staff and, according to ownership, the culture of the franchise. What they still lack are hitting, pitching, power, bullpen and bench depth and minor league talent.
Primary owner Bob Nutting, team president Frank Coonelly, Huntington and first-year manager John Russell knew they were inheriting a mess a year ago, but they probably never realized it was this bad.
"It's always tough to end the season with 90-some losses, but you have to look at the whole picture and I think they are trying to do it the right way," first baseman Adam LaRoche said.
The Pirates had an outside chance of ending their run of sub-.500 seasons (they were 48-54 on July 24) before they traded their two best hitters, outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady.
Then they lost a remarkable 41 of their last 60.
"We were better at the time I decimated the roster with the trades," Huntington said.
A major worry going into the offseason is that none of the players who came over in the Bay and Nady trades did much.
LaRoche was awful (.152 average, nine errors). Left fielder Brandon Moss (.222) needs knee surgery and may not be ready for spring training. Jeff Karstens (2-6) pitched 7 2-3 perfect innings at Arizona on Aug. 6, then never won again. Ross Ohlendorf (0-3, 6.35) looked uncomfortable as a starter.
"There have been Hall of Famers, All-Stars that struggled in their initial taste and really didn't come on until they were 24 or 25," Huntington said. "Despite the fact we haven't seen it (in the new prospects), we still believe it's there."
The problem with trading affordably priced and productive players such as Bay and Nady is the prospects acquired frequently never have careers as good as the players traded. The Pirates may spend the next two or three seasons trying to regain the power lost when Bay and Nady were dealt.
There were some positives: center fielder Nate McLouth (.276, 26 homers, 94 RBIs) became an All-Star after winning the last unsettled starting job during spring training and catcher Ryan Doumit (.318) finally became an everyday player.
Doug Mientkiewicz was a valuable bench player, Freddy Sanchez hit nearly .350 during the second half and Jack Wilson, in perhaps his final Pirates season, hit when he wasn't hurt. The problem was he was hurt for 2½ months.
"We've got some pieces, we just have to plug in some holes," Sanchez said.
The rotation, expected to be the club's strength, was downright bad, and first-year pitching coach Jeff Andrews paid the price by being fired Monday.
Paul Maholm became the staff ace by default with a 9-9 record and 3.71 ERA. Ian Snell won his first two decisions, then went 5-12. Tom Gorzelanny, a 14-game winner last season, flopped so badly while going 6-9 with a 6.66 ERA that he was demoted to Triple-A.
The bullpen, except for closer Matt Capps and left-hander John Grabow, was an April-to-September mess and badly missed right-hander Salomon Torres, who was dealt to Milwaukee for little in return.
Russell was praised by his players for his steadfastness and even-keel makeup but, because of his low-key personality and refusal to argue even glaringly errant calls, was almost invisible to the fans.
Coonelly and Huntington signaled a change of direction when the Pirates spent a club record of nearly $10 million during the June draft. But a protracted dispute with No. 2 overall pick Pedro Alvarez didn't end until last week, costing him his first season of pro ball.
At least the Pirates will go into 2009 with a magic number: trying to avoid a record 17th losing season in a row.
AP Sports Writer Bernie Wilson in San Diego contributed to this report.