The man on the pregame show declares, "It's a great night for baseball." And he is right. It's in the mid-70s on this June evening, not even a little bit humid, and a low-slung sun splashes against the exposed steel beams of Pittsburgh's boundlessly charming PNC Park. Behind the outfield walls, boats zip up and down the Allegheny River. The Roberto Clemente Bridge, connecting the downtown to the ballpark, is closed to traffic to accommodate fans walking to the game from work. The price of a decent seat is cheaper than a movie ticket; for $5 you can get a pint of Iron City at the stadium brewpub; a kid's hot dog will set you back $1.50. When folks get all rhapsodic and lyrical about baseball—its pastoral appeal, how quintessentially American it is, the sport's ability to unite communities and generations—well, here's a convincing tableau.
But then, while The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again, a curious selection, blares from the P.A., the Pirates take the field and the game starts. Pittsburgh is hosting the Cubs, not exactly a National League powerhouse, but it doesn't much matter. The visitors take an early lead on a home run by Xavier Nady, a first baseman who, like many solid players on other teams, once played for Pittsburgh. In the field the Pirates misplay balls. At the plate they whiff early and often. Pittsburgh's first scoring opportunity is nullified when outfielder Lastings Milledge heedlessly tries to stretch a double into a triple and makes the final out of the inning at third base. The crowd of 11,334, less than a third of the park's capacity, is either too conditioned to bad baseball or simply too small to express much outrage.
It was, in other words, shaping up as a typical Pirates game. It's not just that the Pirates are bad: 30--52 through Sunday, losers of 21 of their last 30 games, the National League's worst offensive team (as measured by runs per game) and the second-worst pitching team in the majors (as measured by team ERA). It's that their badness is chronic. The team's last winning season came when George Bush was president. George H.W. Bush. The 17—soon to be 18—straight seasons with a sub-.500 record represents the longest losing streak in the history of major North American team sports. If baseball had soccer-style relegation, the Pirates would surely be in Triple A. Then again, given the no-names on their roster, their scant payroll of $35 million and their attempts to veil bad baseball with racing pierogi mascots, relentless giveaways (Commemorative Ceramic Stein Night!) and enough fireworks to blast a mine, games at PNC Park have the distinct echoes of the minor leagues.
Competition, by definition, yields losers as well as winners. Every league has bottom dwellers and sad-sack teams—if not for nearly two decades running. But what makes the state of the Pirates both sad and compelling is the team's history. This is an iconic franchise, a member of the National League since 1887 that since joining has won more than half its games, something longtime rival franchises such as the Phillies and the Braves can't claim. Pittsburgh has won the World Series five times—as many as the Giants; only one less than the Dodgers—and has been the base of operations for players on the order of Ralph Kiner, Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and a lithe, graceful Barry Bonds. "Luckily," says Manny Sanguillen, a former Pirates catcher, now the proprietor of a PNC Park barbecue concession, "people are still remembering the good times."
Lately the franchise tends to avoid outright irrelevance with unintentional comedy. In 2003 the Pirates made news when first baseman Randall Simon was arrested and fined $432 for swatting a Brewers sausage mascot with a bat during one of the encased-meat races at Miller Park. Two years ago the team was sufficiently desperate for pitching that it signed a pair of Indian cricket bowlers and reality TV contestants to contracts. Last month the club fired and rehired Andrew Kurtz, a 24-year-old who wore a dumpling costume in the aforementioned seventh-inning pierogi races, for railing on his Facebook page against recent contract extensions given to general manager Neal Huntington and manager John Russell.
Other locals have joined the ridicule. One T-shirt depicts an image of the Super Bowl trophy (Steelers) and the Stanley Cup (Penguins) and reads: PITTSBURGH, CITY OF CHAMPIONS ... AND THE PIRATES. It has gotten so bad that the Amazing Kreskin recently volunteered his "intuitive skills" to help the team. Really. "It's funny, but it's not," says Richard Pappa, 50, the CEO of a Pittsburgh tech company and lifelong fan. "This is a baseball town crying to be heard, but all we get is losing. You think about where this team used to be and just ask: What happened?"
It's a good question, but the incident report is complex. There hasn't been one seminal event or single colossal error that has sunk the Pirates' ship. Rather—fitting for a city situated at the convergence of three rivers—a confluence of factors has created this singular awfulness. Bad trades. Bad picks. Bad signings. Bad finances. Alone, none is insurmountable. But taken together, they create a death spiral for a faltering small-market team.
Talk with fans about the team's struggles and most will pinpoint the exact moment the downfall began. In Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS the Pirates were leading the Braves, a few outs from the World Series. In the ninth the Braves put together a few clutch hits and cut the Pirates' lead to 2--1. With two outs and the bases loaded, an Atlanta pinch hitter, Francisco Cabrera, smacked a single to leftfield. Sid Bream was the runner on second; in addition to being a former Pirate, he may have been the slowest man in baseball. No matter. He lumbered past the windmilling arms of the third base coach and narrowly beat the throw home by Bonds. Atlanta won the series. A few weeks later Bonds, who that year was named NL MVP for the second time in three seasons, left Pittsburgh as a free agent. Staff ace Doug Drabek, a former Cy Young Award winner, did the same. The Pirates haven't had a winning season since.
Over the next several years player salaries grew dramatically across baseball. Situated in a city with a relatively small metro population, an economic base transitioning from manufacturing to services and a limited market for local television and radio rights, the Pirates had a hard time generating revenue to stay competitive. Time and again, a prospect would show promise, only to be traded away because the team was unwilling or unable to offer a big contract when he became eligible for arbitration or free agency. The Pirates' regrettable trades over the two decades are too numerous to catalog here, but an illustrative example was the 2003 deal-cum-salary-dump that sent third baseman Aramis Ramirez, then a budding star, and veteran outfielder Kenny Lofton to the Cubs for infielders Bobby Hill and Jose Hernandez and minor league pitcher Matt Bruback. Hill and Hernandez provided few highlights in their brief tenures in Pittsburgh; Bruback never pitched in the majors. Ramirez, meanwhile, has been a two-time All-Star and knocked in 100 runs four times for Chicago.
When the team entered the free-agent market, the results were often shaky: Raul Mondesi, Derek Bell, Jeromy Burnitz and Pat Meares are among a litany of players, signed past their primes, who were productive elsewhere but fizzled in Pittsburgh. By virtue of its lousy record, the team has long held high picks in the annual amateur draft but has failed to capitalize with a consistency that is almost freakish. In '02, for instance, the Bucs used the first selection to take pitcher Bryan Bullington instead of B.J. Upton, Prince Fielder, Cole Hamels, Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher or Jeff Francoeur. Bullington never won a game for Pittsburgh. Those six players that the Pirates passed on? Three have combined for four All-Star Game appearances.