Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Reasons to Believe? Part 1- A History Lesson

The Pittsburgh Pirates.

The team lately is synonymous with failure. With losing. With below mediocrity. What most casual baseball fans dont know, other than their record 17 straight (and counting) losing seasons, is their long and storied history that is sadly over shadowed by their generation of poor play.

From their founding as one of the first Major League Baseball teams in 1890, to playing in the first World Series in 1903 against the Red Sox (losing the Best of 9 series 5-3) to winning their first in 1909 behind Honus Wagner (aka, the Baseball Card Guy).

While known for his baseball card being the most expensive in history (an anti-tobacco advocate, he ordered the cards be removed when he found his card was put in packets of American Tobacco Company cigarettes so kids did not buy them for his card), he was also a Hall of Fame short stop, being inducted into the first Hall of Fame class in 1936. His career .327 batting average and 3,415 hits in the dead ball era made him a stand out performer.

The Pirates would also win the 1925 World Series over the Washington Senators and then lose the 1927 World Series to the Murder's Row New York Yankees, all exploits due to the big help of future Hall of Fame Waner Brothers, Paul (left) and Lloyd (right).

Things were stale for a while, with the only notable headlines being the ownership of the team by Bing Crosby and their appearance in the original Angels in the Outfield. On the field, the only bright spot was future Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner who led the league in home runs for seven straight years (1946-1952).

Things slowly began to turn when they hired former Dodgers GM Branch Ricky as their GM. Under Branch Ricky the Pirates began to acquire such talent as Dick Groat, Vern Law, Elroy Face, and Bob Friend. Not to mention two Hall of Famers you've probably heard of:

Bill Mazeroski

And Roberto Clemente

These players would be the nucleus of the team that would go on to win the most lopsided World Series in history. In the 1960 World Series, the Yankees outscored the Pirates 55-27 in the series, winning their three games 16-3, 10-0, and 12-0. However, it was one run that mattered in the end:

The first ever Game Seven walk off home run, off of the bat of defensive whiz Mazeroski, sailed over Yogi Berra's head to send the Pirates to a 10-9 game win and a 4-3 series victory over the dreaded Yankees.

Eleven years later only two players remained from the last World Series winning team, Mazeroski and Clemente, but were now joined by yet another future Hall of Famer in Willie "Pops" Stargell.

On top of beating the Baltimore Orioles in seven games to win their 4th World Series, in 1971 the Pirates were also the first team to field an all African American starting line up during a game on September 1st of that season.

Tragedy struck after the 1972 season as Clemente passed away in a plane crash on his way to provide relief to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. His death in December came just a few months after his last regular season hit, which just happened to be his 3000th in his career.

In 1979, the Pirates and Orioles once again faced off in the Fall Classic. The "We Are Family" team, lead by Stargell and Dave Parker, won the franchises fifth World Series, once again in seven games, topping the Orioles 4-1 in the final game of the series.

Another dry spell came to pass before the Pirates again returned to dominance behind the talented managerial hand of Jim Leyland. Leading a team with the likes of Bobby Bonilla, Andy van Slyke, Mike LaValliere, Jay Bell, Jose Lind, and Sid Bream, as well as a bullpen with the likes of Doug Drebek, John Smiley, and Stan Belinda.

Oh yeah, let's not forget someone else you've probably heard of:

Look how small he was...

These Pirates contended at the highest level, winning the Division three years in a row (1990, 1991, and 1992) but losing in the NLCS three straight times, never making the World Series. Perhaps the most memorable being from a familiar name...

The moment that started the end of my childhood...

After that, the team was disbanded for monetary reasons. It's a tune that continues to ring true for all Pirates fans. 1993 started the string of losing seasons. The loss of players like Bonds, Bonilla, and more was too much for the Pirates to overcome. It was time to rebuild. And rebuild they tried.

Sadly, upper management would prove to be far too incompetent to do this job correctly. 1997's "Freak Show" team proved a glimmer of hope, finishing second in the NL Central with a 79-83 record and with only a $9 million payroll but they came back to Earth the next year with a 69-93 final tally.

Since then, it's been pretty dim. But is there reason to believe that things may be turning around? We'll examine that in Part 2.

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