The Pittsburgh Pirates have not had a losing season since 2012.
Also, the lox. Plunder the lox.
On the long list of facsinating athletes who have worn the black and gold of a Pittsburgh franchise, Dock Ellis has to be near the top. Classically ahead of his time, Ellis’ antics – which included intentional beanballs, hair curlers, and the famous no-hitter on LSD – overshadowed a remarkable career and perhaps even more remakable life. Ellis is the subject of a new “Dockumentary” which looks every bit worth seeing based on this remarkable trailer.
Pittsburgh fans: If you’re unfamiliar with Ellis, stop what you’re doing and carve out 20 minutes to read this tremendous profile of Ellis, written by Patrick Hruby for ESPN’s Outside the Lines.
Or you can pick up the oddly brilliant baseball memoir, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball.
The Penguins are on cruise control once again. And still, mostly, dominating.
The Steelers played their most complete game of the season tonight and throttled the Bengals for their most impressive win since…well, who can even remember? At 6-8 and all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, the once-mighty Steelers have fallen on hard times, and they’re only one week removed from rock bottom.
*Originally published 12/10/13*
No other NFL opponents bring out the best in each other quite like the we’d-love-you-if-you-were-us doppelgangers from Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The Ravens and Steelers, so similar yet so distinct, have developed an organic rivalry that seems sturdier than all the rest. Made in the USA and built to last: Years from now, when the talking heads have long declared this rivalry to be dead, over and yesterday’s news, the Steelers and Ravens will still be staging masterful theater that, more often than not, leaves you wanting more. Bring it on.
Here’s a look back at the state the rivalry on the eve of their most recent playoff tilt, one that Bill Simmons recently called “The Last Great Hard-Hitting Game before the Concussion Awareness era kicked in.” Troy Polamalu’s late pick-six and Ryan Clark’s bone-chilling hit on Willis McGahee (pictured above) are forever embedded in any all-time Steeler playoff highlight reel.
Attention sports fans throughout the western PA region: there is a third sports team in Pittsburgh. Sure, they may not be a playoff team like the Pirates, or a talent-rich powerhouse like the Penguins. They may not sell as much merchandise anymore, and sure, they haven’t won a game – not even a preseason game – in over nine months. And even that was against the Browns, so it shouldn’t really count. But the true Steelers fans don’t just jump on the bandwagon for the Super Bowls. We are fans during the dark ages too, and the dark ages most certainly have arrived.
The Steelers are 0-4 this season, easily their worst start since 1968. That’s one year B.C. (Before Chuck). This weekend, our eyes were spared the pain of watching the self-proclaimed worst team in the league, as they were mercifully on a bye week. How did they spend their time off? Only here will you find the answers.
Embattled quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spent the weekend nursing various maladies, including a sprained finger, a sore shoulder, tightness in his knee, and a bruised ego. In an awkward moment, he ventured out to a local watering hole and ran into offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who was halfheartedly drawing up new plays on his bar napkins.
Cornerback Ike Taylor spent the weekend like he does every weekend in the offseason: furiously working out in his backyard. His comment on the team’s 0-4 start: “Swag’ll be back y’all. Swag’ll be back.” Also, Football Outsiders recently discovered that when he wears pink gloves in October, his DIPG (dropped interceptions per game) is only 1.4 – well below his career average of 3.2.
Safety Troy Polamalu, enjoying a healthy season (so far) for the first time in years, spent Sunday watching the Pirates at PNC Park. When asked about the current role reversal between this town’s baseball and football teams, he summed it up perfectly: “Zen teaches us that once we can open up to the inevitability of our demise, we can begin to transform that situation and lighten up about it. This is what the Pirates did, and we can learn from them.”
Speaking of the Pirates, they needed to bring on some additional employees to help manage the overflow playoff crowds. Luckily, they were able to hire Steelers tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams to serve as turnstiles at the ballpark’s ticket gates, so all customers could pass through smoothly and quickly.
Running back Jonathan Dwyer was spotted at the Ponderosa in Harmarville last night. Several witnesses claimed that he stayed for “longer that two hours,” and was “frequently surrounded by dessert plates.” At least one patron noted that he was sitting in Casey Hampton’s old booth.
Meanwhile, running backs Felix Jones and Isaac Redmond were slated to run in a charity relay race, as part of a four-man team. But neither could hold the baton for more than a few yards without stumbling, and were promptly disqualified.
Former Steeler and current NBC analyst Hines Ward spent the weekend continuing to train for the upcoming Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. He reiterated one of his favorite new talking points on air last week: That the Steelers haven’t made the playoffs, or finished above .500, since they unceremoniously released him nineteen months ago.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was his typical low-key self during the break, retreating to his Shadyside home for some rest and relaxation. When asked for his thoughts about the team’s recent trip to London, he offered up a classic Tomlinism: “In terms of personnel, there were plenty of guys who I would have preferred remain overseas, but obviously that’s beyond my control in the matter.”
Long-snapper Greg Warren continued his Sisyphean quest to get recognized as a real member of the team. This year, he scheduled yet another autograph session, this time at the opulent Renaissance Hotel Pittsburgh, complete with free Iron City beer and giveaway tickets for all the remaining home games. In a bit of unfortunate timing, the event is to begin promptly at 3:07 p.m. on Monday afternoon.
Former Steelers running back Franco Harris was in the news again, this time offering up a spirited defense of jailed former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. “I mean, come on, one of his associates quite obviously planted that gun and destroyed the home surveillance tapes. This man is clearly innocent, why doesn’t anyone see this?”
The media also caught up with team President Art Rooney II while he was on the golf course. When asked to comment on the team’s new losing ways, he said, “We need to get back to the basics of Steeler football; you know, running the ball, zone blitzing, and slowly alienating our franchise quarterback.”
Speaking of which, we end, as always, with former Steelers quarterback and current FOX analyst Terry Bradshaw, who chimed in over the weekend with his always unique thoughts, this time on the team’s recent struggles: “Oh-and-four? Gosh dang, I’ll tell ya what, man…these guys are a disgrace to that uniform. Black and gold means one thing, and that’s winning. And for all you who have been harpin’ for years that Big Ben is the best quarterback in franchise history, well, I got three words for y’all – Check. The. Rings.”
Admit it: You didn’t picture it this way. You always thought it would be some forgettable 3rd or 4th place Pirates team, playing out another string of meaningless September games, a team who somehow feasted on a weak late-season schedule, who somehow became just above-average enough to eek out that elusive 82nd win. And there comes the win we’ve spent a generation waiting for, in front of a lukewarm half-capacity crowd at PNC Park, against a similar downtrodden club, and it makes you not celebrate but cringe. And the string-pullers would milk the moment for all it’s worth, with bobbleheads and fireworks and more empty promises to spend more money, build the system, blah blah blah. And soon after, it would be over, just another wasted season that happened to dip above the .500 mark.
This is how you’ve been trained to think, as a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team who once went 20 straight years without a winning season. You always wondered how much further the Pirates could fall, how much worse things could get. When rock bottom arrived, we always knew they could somehow sink lower. Players slip in and out of Pirates’ jersey over the years, but the fans were there every spring, hoping that this would be the year they would be proud to wear that black and gold hat, ready to finally push that boulder up the hill, only to see the Pirates tumble back down to 4th or 5th place by the end.
This scene was not to be. It would in fact be the opposite: the Pirates would knock down number 82 in the thick of an intense playoff race. They would remind everyone that this is only their first goal. 82 would be one of their defining moments, but in the best way possible. It is the cocktail hour for whatever happens beyond. That may be a wild card, a division championship, a deep postseason run. It may be sustained success. It may simply be a chance to be great. To see a team like this, with almost limitless possibilities, with young talent and all-stars and a future worth pondering – well, that’s all you’ve ever wanted.
Twenty years is a long time to wait for anything. You’ve spent nearly a lifetime, or maybe your whole life, wondering when – or if – the Pirates would ever field a winning team, and whether it could have possibly been worth the wait. Now you have your answer.
Neal Huntington has turned the sad-sack Pirates into a formidable contender with a bright future. So why is he still not appreciated?
When the Pittsburgh Pirates make a baseball transaction, it’s never viewed as being primarily about baseball. Financial motives are often suspected as the driving force. Rumors have swirled nearly all season long that former first-overall pick Gerrit Cole will be briefly sent back to the minors, only so the Pirates can save an indefinite amount of money at some unknown future date. This delaying of free agency happens to be a fairly common practice for highly regarded prospects these days – the Nationals tried it with Stephen Strasburg; the Mets are trying it with Zack Wheeler. But these are the Pirates, and so it feels different – penny pinching and insulting, just another way of putting money above all else, including winning.
The franchise has earned this lack of faith by consistently and willingly making awful moves with one eye on the bottom line, for the better part of two decades. Even in recent years, as the Pirates have flipped from sellers to buyers (using the latter term loosely) both in free agency and at the trading deadline, they are still seen as shopping mostly at the bargain bin. Nobody else wanted A.J. Burnett or Francisco Liriano or Jason Grilli, and the Pirates, bargain-crazed as ever, took the bait.
This is the atmosphere in which general manager Neal Huntington operates. When he took the job in 2007, the Pirates were at an ultimate rock bottom after breaking the professional sports record for consecutive losing seasons. His job was to rebuild the team from inside out, on an extremely limited budget, while placating a dwindling and outraged fan base. After six long seasons, his reclamation project has finally come to fruition, and it must be considered brilliant. This is even more astonishing than it sounds.
It’s astonishing because Huntington is also the guy who traded for a broken-down Aki Iwamura. Who dealt Jason Bay, in his prime, for nothing. Who dealt Jose Bautista, future home run king, for even less. Who gutted a last place team so they could finish in last place again and again. Prior to 2013, the offensive position players signed during his tenure had a collective .231 batting average and a combined WAR of -4.4. With little money to spend, he spent it disastrously: $4 million for Ramon Vazquez; $4.25 million for Matt Diaz; $5 million for Lyle Overbay; $10 million for Clint Barmes. The Yankees or Red Sox can treat mistakes of this nature like accounting errors. In Pittsburgh, these were the biggest transactions of the offseason.
Huntington always insisted on taking the long view, showing remarkable patience and doing his best to convince anyone listening that rebuilding doesn’t happen overnight. He slowly and meticulously dismantled the roster he inherited, trading established players for prospects, cash or draft picks. He was heavily criticized, especially as the losses piled up: 95 in ’08, his first summer on the job, 99 a year later, and a 105 in 2010, the Pirates’ worst season in 58 years.
Huntington didn’t do himself any favors during this dark period. Speaking to Sports Illustrated in 2010, he basically acknowledged that the Pirates were cheapskates, saying, “If a player wants to chase every last dollar, he’s probably not going to be here. If he buys into what we’re doing, he’ll leave some money on the table and he’ll stay.” At the 2010 draft, Huntington said the Pirates didn’t have universally lauded super-phenom and eventual first overall pick Bryce Harper in their top ten.
This was the nonsense that alienated a huge swath of a long-suffering fan base. But if the anti-Huntington movement was sizable from the beginning, it truly exploded in 2009, thanks to a move that appeared to be the very definition of Pirates-esque. On June 3rd – without warning and almost two months before the trading deadline – Huntington traded popular all-star Nate McLouth to the Braves for three minor league prospects, none of whom was ready for the majors, none of whom projected to be a star.
Reaction was swift and decisive; the Pirates were panned by just about anyone paying attention. Adam LaRoche, speaking out from the team clubhouse, said at the time, “There ain’t a guy in here who ain’t ticked off about it.” McLouth, who in February had signed a three-year contract extension, cried in the locker room after the game. Fans in Pittsburgh were so outraged that Huntington was compelled to send a personal email to season-ticket holders to explain his justifications for the trade.
Four years later, the trade looks like a steal…for the Pirates. From the Braves, they received minor leaguers Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton and Gorkys Hernandez. Locke made his first All-Star team this year and is the anchor of the best pitching staff in the majors. Morton is a solid if inconsistent member of said rotation. And Hernandez was later traded for Gaby Sanchez, the current starting first baseman.
It helped that McLouth tanked with the Braves, hitting .229 and missing significant time with injuries in the next two-and-a-half seasons before returning to Pittsburgh, earning a release, and eventually restarting his career with the Orioles last season. But even if McLouth had continued to play well, the deal would have made sense, as the sort of unsentimental, lottery ticket-hoarding deal that small-market GMs have to make.
The McLouth deal also forced the Pirates to immediately promote one of their most prized young prospects in years: centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, their first true superstar in decades, an automatic all-star, and the face of the now-revitalized franchise.
For the third season in a row, the Pirates are one of baseball’s unlikely success stories. For the first of those, they appear more or less capable of making good on that initial surprise. Despite modest expectations and a sputtering offense, they are jostling with the Reds and Cardinals for control of the NL Central; as I write this, they have a tenuous grip on first place. Unlike the past two seasons, in which they collapsed so completely that their streak of consecutive losing seasons was extended to 20 – and, technically, still counting! – this version of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club feels like a lock to be competitive down the stretch. Not to jinx anything.
Naturally, the national media has been gobbling up this long-awaited resurgence. Grilli, the fiery closer, became the first Pirate since Skinny Barry Bonds to grace the cover of Sport Illustrated, before falling victim to the apparently still-active SI cover jinx. Clint Hurdle is the front-runner for manager of the year. The Pirates sent five players to the all-star game in New York, their most since 1972.
Huntington remains mostly in the background, sticking to his guns despite many still having little faith in his (sometimes) unpopular moves and his sabermetric approach. Although he did very well at the trade deadline in ’11 and ’12 – getting vets like Derek Lee, Ryan Ludwick and Wandy Rodriguez while retaining all his top prospects – there are some who still viewed him as culpable in the two collapses that followed, as if his meddling somehow upset the delicate balance of clubhouse chemistry. There was even speculation last winter that Huntington would be fired, even though the Pirates finished with their highest win total since 1997.
But, at long last and amazingly, the frugal Pirates now appear to be built for the long haul. Key players such as McCutchen, Cole, and Starling Marte are under team control until the later half of this decade. Drafting in the top five just about every year has helped also; the minor league system is now brimming with intriguing young talent, including Jameson Taillon, Alen Hanson, and Gregory Polanco, all among Baseball America’s top 50 prospects.
Huntington’s recent personnel moves have been outstanding, too. In 2012, he acquired Burnett in a sign-and-trade while getting the Yankees to cover over half of his remaining salary. He signed Liriano off the scrap heap, stuck with him even after he broke his (pitching) arm while trying to scare his children (!) on Christmas Day (!!), and he’s been lights-out so far. He outbid the Yankees (!!!) for catcher Russell Martin. He grabbed Grilli in 2011 when he was nearly out of baseball, and last fall, traded former closer Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox for Mark Melancon – he of the eye-popping 0.86 ERA, and the team’s closer while Grilli recuperates – and three promising prospects, all of which are performing fairly well in Triple-A. And he’s hit on many of his high draft picks, including Cole, Pedro Alvarez, and catcher-in-waiting Tony Sanchez.
Is Huntington getting the credit he deserves? Does it really matter? It’s accruing all the same. The Pirates are relevant, contending, and seemingly on the verge of a major breakthrough – not just above .500, but possibly deep into the postseason. There is hope, as Diana Moskovitz wrote in this space, and that is something new. The future, both immediate and long-term, is filled with optimism for the first time in a generation. When the trading deadline arrived last week, Huntington displayed great faith in the team he has constructed by not making a single move.
For the better part of two decades, most of the upper management of the Pirates has regularly invoked their own built-in excuse for failure – small markets and all that. Huntington has moved beyond this, and built something that resembles long-term stability for a franchise that has been without it longer than any other. Amazingly, he did it mostly on the cheap, molding together a group of castoffs and spare parts to supplement a burgeoning collection of young, homegrown talent. It’s all in place now, and here’s Huntington’s long view, finally in focus, and much brighter than anyone expected.