ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In 1993, Jerry Seinfeld famously said, “but I don’t want to be a pirate.”
Since 1992, the same phrase has been uttered by many Pittsburgh baseball players.
But not this year.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are the story of the season so far in Major League Baseball.
The Bucs finished last season with a record of 57-105, the worst in baseball. It was the 18th straight season the Pirates finished with a losing record, extending the longest such streak in the history of North America’s four major professional sports.
The last time the Pirates had a winning season was 1992, when Barry Bonds still had a normal-sized head.
Pittsburgh advanced to the NLCS in that year behind the offensive exploits of Bonds and Andy Van Slyke and the pitching of Doug Drabek and Tim Wakefield.
But Pittsburgh lost the 1992 NLCS to Atlanta in seven games in dramatic fashion. In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7, with Atlanta down 2–1 and the bases loaded, the Braves’ Francisco Cabrera hit a two-run single to left that scored David Justice and Sid Bream. As it turned out, when Bream slid across home plate, he wiped out the hopes of Pirates’ fans for the next 18 years.
Following the collapse against the Braves, Barry Bonds and his pop-gun arm bolted to San Francisco, where he ballooned into the most prolific — and controversial — home-run hitter of all time.
And the Pirates wallowed in misery.
Pittsburgh hasn’t won more than 68 games in a year since 2004 and bottomed out with last year’s 57 wins, the fewest in any of its 18 consecutive losing seasons.
Not even the most optimistic Pirate fan could have seen this turnaround.
But manager Clint Hurlde has done a miraculous job in his first season with the Pirates — who opened the season as a 350-1 shot to win the World Series.
Saturday’s 9-1 loss to St. Louis was the third straight defeat for the Pirates, but they’re still 51-47 and just one game out of first place. As of Saturday, Bodog had the Pirates at 35-1 to win the World Series.
Despite only adding a few minor pieces (Kevin Correia, Lyle Overbay) to last season’s team, the Pirates and their $45 million payroll slipped into and out of a first place in the NL Central this week — the latest in the season they’d been in first place since 1997.
With a pitching staff full of who’s-thats, the Pirates have found success. Correia has 11 wins and made the All-Star team. Fellow All-Star Joel Hanrahan has 28 saves. Jeff Karstens’ ERA of 2.28 is the second lowest in the National League. Paul Maholm, ex-Isotope James McDonald and Charlie Morton each have made at least nine quality starts.
Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker form a nice core to build around, but they need help. The Pirates rank 25th in MLB with 378 runs scored; that’s six fewer than the cellar-dwelling Astros.
The Bucs are money this season, and now everyone wants to be a Pirate, except maybe for GM Neil Huntington.
With the trade deadline looming next week, Huntington is faced with the arduous decision of making a serious run at the playoffs by selling the farm to rent a superstar slugger, or standing pat and allowing his young team to continue to develop together.
Huntington owes it to the long-suffering Pittsburgh baseball fans to do whatever he can to add a player or two who can push the Pirates from feel-good story to serious contender. But, he also owes it to the players to stick with this rebuilding plan that seems to have arrived a year or two early.
Don’t get me wrong; Huntington must be brimming with pride that these players have bought him another few years to see the rebuild all the way through. But he has a decision to make.
So, here’s what he should do: add a quality, low-priced bat (Geovany Soto or Carlos Pena of the Cubs perhaps) and let the kids play.
Who knows, they might keep surprising us all.
— This article appeared on page D3 of the Albuquerque Journal