The Times West Virginian

Sports

September 11, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: A look back at 20 years of Bucs’ failures

MORGANTOWN — Thursday is the day we have waited 20 years for, the day the Pittsburgh Pirates return home a winning team.

Not since Barry Bonds threw slightly up the first-base line and Sid Bream slid under catcher Mike Lavalliere’s tag at the plate, costing the Pirates their chance at playing in a World Series, has the team won more games than it lost.

Two decades, 7,300 days of losing, so much losing that you seriously wondered if it would ever change.

When it started off it was in the most inglorious manner, Doug Drabek taking his Cy Young Award and signing for four years with Houston and Barry Bonds leaving for a six-year deal in San Fransisco during which his greatest contribution to the new stadium would be to notice that while there were plaques rimming the ball park honoring retired Pirate players, there was none to honor Jackie Robinson, whose number was retired throughout baseball.

Nothing was right.

But then how could there be? Was this not the Pirates, a team that would lose 100 games the same year their new stadium PNC Park was opened, topped only by Willie Stargell dying on the day it opened?

A couple years later they put the All-Star game in PNC Park. One Pirate started that game, and don’t look for him in the Pirates Hall of Fame. It was Jason Bay. Hey, losing doesn’t come cheaply, not when you give a shortstop like Pat Meares $15 million and make Kevin Young your richest player ever at the time you signed him ... and, yes, that includes Stargell and Clemente.

See, everything was destined to go wrong.

Tim Wakefield had come out of nowhere with his knuckleball to lead the Pirates to the playoffs, only to mysteriously lose it and get clobbered back to the minors, where he would rediscover himself in Boston to become one of the great knuckleball pitchers of all time.

You might say the Pirates didn’t have much luck with the few good players they landed during those losing years. The image of Jason Kendall laying writhing in the dirt with a shattered ankle still remains fresh, almost as fresh as the $60 million contract he signed once it was healed.

Things just kept happening over and over, things that didn’t happen to other teams, things other teams wouldn’t allow to happen.

Where do you begin with this?

Maybe with former second baseman Jose Lind being arrested for driving while “extremely inebriated.”

Also extremely naked from the waist down.

Then there was the card game that seemed straight out of Wyatt Earp, pitcher Marc Wilkins breaking pitcher Jeff Tabaka’s jaw.

And Al Martin, you might remember him pleading guilty to domestic violence in what was said to be a bigamy case.

More fun than that was outfielder Derek Bell’s “Operation Shutdown” that had him shipped out of town, literally, on his own boat.

The evening news was led for a week by the Randall Simon sausage episode in Milwaukee when he thought it might be fun to bop one of the Brewers’ racing sausages with a baseball bat.

That got him arrested.

And then there was outfielder Raul Mondesi going AWOL, something the Pirates’ fans had done a whole lot earlier.

Needless to say, you lose for two decades, and you make a few mistakes.

Where does this begin?

With hiring Cam Bonifay as general manager? Maybe David Littlefield?

Or Jim Tracy and John Russell as managers?

Whatever someone had to be around to try and sell us Chad Hermanson as a potential superstar draftee who hit .195 for his career, or gave Pirates’ fans Mike Kingery, at 35, as a regular centerfielder or Kevin Polcovich as a .189-hitting shortstop.

And wouldn’t you trade pitcher Jon Leiber, who would win 20 games, for centerfielder Brant Brown, who might have lost that many?

Or maybe you liked Littlefield drafting pitcher Bryan Bullington No. 1 in the draft ahead of B.J. Upton or Scott Kazmir, then making you feel really good by saying, “We feel comfortable projecting (Bullington) as a No. 3 starter.”

But the all-time symbol of the frustration and failure, a symbol that now can be forgotten, is manager Lloyd McClendon making off down the dugout steps with third base.

Today, when the Pirates steal third base, it’s Starling Marte or Andrew McCutchen, and they put it back.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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