Good morning. It is September 3rd 2013.
With last night's win, the Pirates are 80-57 Since 1992, the Pirates failed to win 80 games in the following seasons*: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
There is another way to write that list up. It could be written like this: 1993-2012. It's fitting that the final years on the countdown are 1997 and 2012, because there are not two more memorable years that the Pirates have had during their 20 year losing streak.
The 1997 season was, of course, The Freak Show. As previously discussed, the Pirates jettisoned their entire post-Bonds core of talent over the end of the 1996 season and the following winter. The 1997 Pirates were supposed to be a lousy baseball team that would lose a bunch of games in the interest of laying a foundation for the 2001 Pirates, who would usher in a new era of Pirate baseball at PNC Park. The Pirates starting lineup on Opening Day of 1997 was: Tony Womack, Jermaine Allensworth, Al Martin, Mark Johnson, Kevin Elster, Jason Kendall, Jose Guillen, Joe Randa, and Jon Lieber. Kendall was an exciting young player coming off of a great rookie season. Guillen was 21 years old and had been skipped straight from the Carolina League (Advanced-A) to Pittsburgh, which created a bunch of buzz. Martin was a decent outfielder starting to enter his prime. That was pretty much it.
To be frank, the 1997 Pirates were not very good. The thing is, they weren't nearly as terrible as they were supposed to be, and that was good enough to stay in contention in the NL Central in 1997. The Pirates never got more than four games over .500 (they were 19-15 in early May), but after falling 3 1/2 games out of first place in late April, they managed to hang within a game or two of the Astros for the rest of May, June, and most of July. At the All-Star Break they were 43-43, but that was good enough for first place. They hosted the Astros in a four-game set after the break and promptly lost the first two games, then moved back into a first place tie with Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon's combined ten-inning no-hitter that ended on a walk-off Mark Smith home run. On July 18th, the Pirates fell out of first place and never got back. They battled back after they dropped six games out of first in late July, but they never got closer than the 1 1/2 game deficit hat the Shawon Dunston game earned them.
The 1997 team was fun, though. It was only five years removed from 1992 (which felt like a long time back then, to be honest), and it seemed like even though the Pirates weren't really all that great, they were at least laying some kind of foundation with Kendall, Guillen, Randa, Lieber, Cordova, Esteban Loaiza, and Jason Schmidt. Because the team had promising guys like that and easy-to-root-for castoffs like Smith and Kevin Polcovich and Turner Ward, they were easy to cheer for. If you were a Pirate fan in 1997, you don't just remember the no-hitter and the Dunston game. You remember the sweep of the White Sox and Jon Lieber's complete game, that saw him face down Frank Thomas and Albert Belle in the 9th inning with a 3-1 lead and live to tell about it. You remember Rich Loiselle (Rich Loiselle!) striking out Barry Bonds with two on, two outs, and a three-run lead in the top of the ninth inning. Everything about 1997 felt like it was building towards something good, even if in the end the Pirates only won 79 games and finished in second place.
Now compare that to 2012. In 2011, the Pirates were much more like the '97 team; they hung around for a long time with a team that probably shouldn't have, but it felt like they were laying groundwork for the future for most of the season. The only real difference is that the 2011 team had an ugly collapse at the end of the year. The 2012 Pirates spent May, June, and July convincing you that they were a different team than the 2011 club. That they were a team that could finish .500 and contend until the end, and that even if they didn't finish with a playoff spot you'd end the year feeling much the same way that you did at the end of 1997.
The Pirates beat the Diamondbacks on August 8th, 2012, to go 63-47. They finished 16-36. They fell apart so completely that it was more or less impossible to see a bright side. In all of my years as a Pirate fan I've watched a lot of dumb, stupid, terrible baseball, but absolutely nothing was as hard to watch as the end of 2012. I still don't really like talking about it.
After 1997, it seemed like the Pirates had a bright future ahead of them. In 1998 they came crashing back to Earth and never recovered. After 2012, well, if a team that's 63-47 can't even finish above .500, you start wondering if it's ever going to happen. In 2013, well, that's a chapter that's still not completely written.
There are zero seasons left to cross off of this list. This is the first Pittsburgh Pirate team since 1992 to move across the 80 win barrier. This team did it on Labor Day with 25 games left on the schedule. This season is not over yet. There is work left to be done.
Another great Freak Show year moment: The July 4 comeback in St. Louis. I believe the Cardinals LF at the time -- Ray Lankford, if I recall correctly -- botched a routine flyout in the latter innings.
Last year was terrible. I went to the game in Milwaukee where Corey Hart hit a walk off home run on September 1st. I sat there and watched as the Brewers fans cheered as he ran around the bases. After they all left, I went outside and had a beer before the long 3 hour drive home. I just felt like the wheels had come completely off by that point. I knew that unless they really turned it around, that they wouldn't go to the playoffs and a winning season was pretty much out of the question as well.
The no hitter was one of my favorite Pirate moments growing up. My parents had guests over that night and I tried to make everyone listen to the game. I got away with having the radio on for about 10 minutes before I had to sneak away to listen in my room. Amazing game. Amazing season that year.
Ah, the Freak Show. I remember it well. $9 million payroll, I think it was? Lot of fuss about it being the first time (I might be misremembering this part) that a single player made more than an entire team, too, I believe. I chuckle now thinking about how shamelessly the front office trumpeted the playoff drive, even though it only happened because the division was so bad (the phrase "NL Comedy Central" sticks in my mind), with radio commercials talking about the "Bucs' pennant drive."
@TWNDAI as for the NL Central back then, you know the old saying--if you want to be pretty, have ugly friends.
Actually, the Freak Show might have been my favorite season, more than any of the seasons where the Pirates won something. I remember bolting out of my chair and jumping around like a madman when Lanny Frattare anounced the Pirates had been given permission to print playoff tickets. The whole year, or at least till the very end, was like one long Christmas present. Very much like this year.
@TomBrenholts I don't even know what to say to that. Division or bust!