The Road to 17 is a look at each losing season that the Pirates have had since their last playoff appearance in 1992. The object is not to wallow in the misery of the Pirates, but instead remember just what it is that makes us Pirate fans in the first place. Every team has their great moments, the Pirates' are just fewer and further between. Today, we hit the fifteenth stop on the Road to 17: 2007
If you are not a Pirate fan or are uncertain what being a Pirate fan might be like, let me tell you that without a doubt, my happiest memory as Pirate fan in the last decade was hearing that Dave Littlefield was fired. It might be petty, it might be sad, but it's true.
In preparation for this post, I've been looking back at 2007 and I'm now starting to honestly wonder if Dave Littlefield was trying to get fired. He opened up the year with a bang, finally completing the Adam LaRoche/Mike Gonzalez trade that had been rumored for months. The problem was that Brent Lillibridge was the second player involved from the Pirates and it was completely unnecessary to involve him in the trade when the Braves were enamored with Chris Duffy at the time. The Pirates entered 2007 with three prospects: Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, and Brent Lillibridge. Before January even ended, they were down to two.
Shortly after the LaRoche trade, they unveiled the red uniforms. I'd prefer we never speak of these crimes against humanity ever, ever again. We weren't even to Piratefest yet, and it was clear this was going to be a bad year.
And so of course, amid all of those things, the Pirates opened the year up with a dramatic sweep in Houston, with Xavier Nady hitting a game-tying home run in the ninth and Jason Bay hitting the winner in the tenth, then Nady coming up huge again by knocking in the go-head run in the eighth of game two. They won another one-run game to finish off Houston and even got a win in Cincy to roll into Pittsburgh for the home opener at 4-2. Of course, the Pirates responded by dropping four straight at home to the Cardinals and Giants, mostly in freezing weather before tiny crowds. That includes the second home game of the year; a 3-2 12 inning loss to the Cardinals that the Pirates carried a 2-0 lead into the ninth inning in front of about 12,000 fans, the lowest attendance I've ever seen for a fireworks night. Still, the Pirates mostly hung around .500 for April, aided by another sweep of Houston at home, and finished the month 12-12.
I remember there being some serious debate on WHYGAVS after April over whether or not the Pirates were any good and of course, we quickly found out they weren't. The two best offensive players on the team that saw any considerable amount of playing time were Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit (who both had a 110 OPS+) and they only combined for about 600 at-bats while Chris Duffy (.249/.313/.357) and Ronny Paulino (.263/.314/.389) split the season with those two (though to be fair, Doumit did get hurt again in August). Doumit even spent time in AAA because, I dunno, he told Jim Tracy he was stupid or something.
Really, the 2008 offense was all about let downs. Freddy Sanchez's average dropped 40 points, Paulino tanked after hitting .310 his rookie year, LaRoche never really got going until June, Jason Bay battled a knee injury and didn't even have an average OPS. At the time, any one of us probably would've said, "It's just another one of those years, you know?" The problem shortly became that it wasn't "just" one of "those years." Somehow, Dave Littlefield set out to make it worse.
The Pirates entered June with the fourth pick in the draft. Everyone knew David Price was going first to the Devil Rays and most people considered Matt Wieters to be the best hitter in the draft. The Pirates seemed particularly interested in high school third baseman Josh Vitters, but the Cubs were also interested and they had the pick in front of them. So who would the Pirates take? Matt LaPorta or Beau Mills, two awesome college hitters? Rick Porcello, the best high school arm in the draft? Jason Heyward, a good high school outfielder? Wieters? Nope. Danny Moskos, a pitcher from Clemson who spent most of his career as ... a reliever? He pitched in the College World Series the day after the Pirates picked him and I watched the game. He wasn't terribly impressive and at the time, I thought that we must've picked him in the hopes that we could rush him to the majors as a reliever. Charlie has said time and time again that Littlefield ran the team like an expansion team and he's right.
The bad draft pick then lead to the walkout. We can sit around all day and debate whether or not the walkout was effective, whether more people should've left the park instead of just leaving their seats, whether people should've picketed instead of buying tickets, etc., but what I can say for the walkout is this: people noticed it. It got mentioned on most major sports news sites, MJD gave it some extra attention when he was still at FanHouse, and I was even interviewed on Fox Sports Radio that night. Maybe Bob Nutting is just playing to the crowd when he says fan outrage is part of the reason that Littlefield eventually got fired, but the truth is that even if the walkout wasn't that noticeable in the park or there weren't that many people that left the park entirely, it got the team a slew of bad press and that's what ownership eventually notices.
And even being mad enough to walk out of the ballpark, none of us saw what was coming next. The 2007 trade deadline was one of my last days living in Western Pennsylvania, so I spent it like I spent mostly every other day that summer: sitting on the couch, blogging and watching TV. Most of the day went by with no Pirate news, which was pretty much what we expected. The deadline passed at 4:00 and around 4:30, I left for Pittsburgh with my dad for my last Pirate game before my move to NC. We got to the park and were greeted with a scoreboard message: "PIRATES TRADE OF RAJAI DAVIS TO SF GIANTS FOR P MATT MORRIS." I thought it was a joke. I texted a friend to try and find how much of Morris's deal we picked up and the answer came: "All of it." All of it? But ... but ... why? Why would we do that?
Who's to say what the final straw was? Bob Nutting, in his first year as the real owner in 2007, was upset by a lot of things that happened. He was clearly perturbed by the lack of presence in the Dominican, he wasn't happy with the draft or the resulting walk out, he wasn't happy with the Morris trade, does it matter what the final straw was? Littlefield was finally fired in early September and for me, personally, it felt like a giant weight was lifted off of my chest. At the time, having just moved and started grad school, I was actually starting to kick around the idea of folding up WHYGAVS. Why keep writing about something that was never going to get better? But as soon as Littlefield was gone, it felt like things changed. "Well, if we make some good trades and start scouting Latin America and spend some money in the draft, maybe things will head in the right direction!"
The start to 2007 was just as bad as any year we've had in this streak, but the end of it just might be what ensures that this road eventually ends.