Hope Springs Eternal For Pittsburgh Pirates

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Rising star Andrew McCutchen ready to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to their first winning season since 1992. But will he do it this year? (AP)
Rising star Andrew McCutchen looks ready to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to their first winning season since 1992. But will he do it this year? (AP)

By Ron Schachter

The Pirates are no strangers to baseball success, from their first World Series championship back in 1909, the heyday of Pirates' immortal Honus Wagner, to their last title in 1979, led by Hall of Famer Willie Stargell.

80-year-old former Bucs' manager Bill Virdon still coaches the outfielders during spring training. As a Pirates player, he was on the way to the on-deck circle when teammate Bill Mazeroski stunned the New York Yankees with his famous walk-off home run to clinch the 1960 World Series. The Pirates' more recent losing ways, including last year's 70-92 record, are harder for Virdon to swallow.

“Well, it’s no fun," he said. "It’s tough to live with. But it’s part of the game and when you have a bad year, you’ve got to build on it and go from there and that’s what we hope to be doing now."

What happens if you have 19 bad years?

“We hope we don’t have 20," Virdon said, laughing. "We’re planning on having a winning year this year.”

Long-suffering Pirates fans, meanwhile, have grown hoarse from the rallying call of "wait 'til next year." Does 26-year-old Mike Shaeffer even remember when a young Barry Bonds led Pittsburgh to the post-season in the early 1990s?

“Vaguely," he said. "I was seven. I remember [Andy] Van Slyke and Bonds being here, and [Bobby] Bonilla, and all those guys.”

Shaeffer also offered a succinct explanation of why the Pirates haven't been winners since then.

“A lot of bad decisions. A lot of bad luck too,” he said.

“You know every spring brings eternal optimism, but it gets tougher and tougher each year,” said Tony Crewkowski, a retired school superintendent.

Along with their 19-season losing streak, the Pirates have earned the reputation as baseball's most notorious tightwads. Their 2011 payroll, at $45 million, was the National League's cheapest despite the fact that the Pirates enjoy steady revenue from their showpiece stadium, PNC Park, and tens of millions of dollars more from Major League Baseball's revenue sharing program and national television contract.

Crewkowski thinks the Pirates could do business differently.

“I think most people feel that we could field a better team than what we’ve been fielding if ownership were willing to pay more for some free agents, that type of think of thing," he said. "They’re doing a good job of developing young players and doing a good job in the draft, but we never go after the top names in free agency.”

In recent years, Pittsburgh routinely traded their best players, including star batters Freddy Sanchez, Jason Bay, and Nate McLouth, rather than pay their escalating salaries.

But there are signs of a Pirates revival, thanks to a bevy of young batters, a steady staff of starters, and a plethora of top draft picks in the minor leagues. Last year the Pirates played winning baseball for the first four months of the season. They even jockeyed for first place in the National League Central Division before sinking after the All-Star break when several starting pitchers got injured. Along the way, the Pirates brought fans back to PNC Park.

“If this team can consistently get better and be in a position where you could compete for something, they will show up in droves," said former Pirates pitcher Kent Tekulve, who now serves as the team's TV analyst. "I can’t remember how many sellouts we had in the first four months when we were playing so well last year. And that just hadn’t happened in the past because all those people who were waiting finally had what they wanted. They finally had something to get excited about, and they did all show up.”

Last season's first-half success left a lasting impression on All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who led the team with 23 home runs and 89 runs batted in.

“Everything worked," he said. "From the beginning to the end, from offense to defense, we all had it clicking for us. Even if the offense wasn’t as well, the pitching would step up up. They would pitch well and they would take care of it for us. We had each other’s back. We’ve just got to continue doing that and we’ll have a good season.”

Earlier this month, the Pirates showed they had McCutchen's back, signing him to a six-year, $51.5 million contract extension. Last summer they also extended the contract of fellow outfielder and rising star Jose Tabata. Even the once-traded Nate McLouth is back from his three-season exile in Atlanta.

“It was exciting to watch from the outside, watching them play so well for the first four months of the season," said McLouth. "I know that we’ve got an even better team this year and the motto around here as been 'to finish.' And if we can do that we’ll be fine.”

Pittsburgh opens the regular season at home on April 5 against the Philadelphia Phillies.

This segment aired on March 17, 2012.


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