- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

In the history of professional baseball, only five franchises have won more World Series than the Pittsburgh Pirates. Only six have won more games. Only eight own better all-time winning percentages.

But good luck finding any baseball-loving teenager in America who knows that because all they know is that the Pirates have been losers.

For 16 consecutive seasons (including this one), the Pirates have failed to reach the .500 mark, a string of futility matched only once before in the annals of professional sports - by the Philadelphia Phillies from 1933 to 1948. And with little reason to believe things will get much better in 2009, they’re all but certain to stand alone at the bottom by this time next year.

How did it happen? How did the storied franchise of Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell become the laughingstock of baseball and the American sporting world?

Flash back to the night of Oct. 14, 1992, and Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, when an unknown backup catcher named Francisco Cabrera singled with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth and a gimpy Sid Bream beat Barry Bonds’ throw to the plate to send the Atlanta Braves to the World Series.

At that crushing moment, the Pirates and their fans knew it would be a long time before they would find themselves in such a position again. Bonds, staff ace Doug Drabek and others were about to leave via free agency, and the lopsided economic nature of the sport suggested small-market Pittsburgh wouldn’t be able to compete with wealthier franchises.

Little did they realize just how long the drought would be. The Pirates haven’t played a legitimately meaningful game since that night 16 years ago. Oh, there was a spirited little run in the weak NL Central in 1997, but even that team finished 78-83, and the roster made up of a bunch of castoffs sported an entire payroll of $9 million.

Otherwise, it has been a miserable and embarrassing era along the Allegheny River. Good players like Brian Giles, Aramis Ramirez and Jason Bay have come and gone, shipped away to contenders in exchange for prospects, many who never amounted to anything.

Bad contracts have been handed out to the likes of Pat Meares, Jeromy Burnitz and Derek “Operation Shutdown” Bell. An endless array of first-round draft picks have sustained major injuries and never realized their potential. Managers and general managers have been hired and fired. Owners have bought and then sold the team. The best new ballpark in America has been saddled with a perennial loser.

And long-suffering fans wonder whether the Pirates ever will figure things out and follow in the footsteps of fellow cellar-dwellers like the Rays, Tigers, Indians and Rockies and - at least for a period - turn into contenders.

There were small signs of encouragement this year, between a new management group that is emphasizing player development, an influx of top prospect talent through the trades of Bay, Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte and the excitement generated from drafting Vanderbilt slugger Pedro Alvarez with the No. 2 overall pick in June.

And yet the Pirates still find a way to botch it. Super agent Scott Boras is seeking to nullify Alvarez’s $6 million deal because it was agreed to minutes after Major League Baseball‘s midnight deadline last month, the team has tanked since the trade of Bay and fans again are ready to mutiny.

The only thing the Pirates have left is their storied history, the championships they won with Wagner in 1909, Pie Traynor in 1925, Bill Mazeroski in 1960, Clemente in 1971 and Stargell in 1979.

But an entire generation of kids in Pittsburgh is going to have to trust its elders that it’s all true. Because nothing that has transpired over the last 16 years suggests the Pirates ever have been anything but the majors’ biggest losers. And there is little evidence to suggest that stigma is going to disappear in the near future.

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