As I write this, the Pittsburgh Pirates are 29-30, and I am excited. My friends and I are exchanging emails wondering if this is “the year.” Not the year where they win the World Series, or win the division, or even make the playoffs, but simply make it to .500. They haven’t done so since 1992—when I was six years old—and there is a buzz in the ‘Burgh that Clint Hurdle has this rag tag group of nobodies playing mediocre baseball like no one expected.
If the Pirates do end up making it to 81 wins this year, then we can look back and feel like all this excitement will have had some merit. As a Pirates fan, however, I feel like I have been duped before, and I worry that this I am just getting set up to be embarrassed again.
If I put up a list of the most embarrassing moments of the Pirates’ last 19 years, I would probably be able to write 20,000 words on Kevin Young alone. So instead, here is a list of the most embarrassing things that I actually got excited about while through the almost two decades of futility of Pirates baseball:
Drafted in 1995 with the 10th overall pick, Hermansen was immediately named the savior of the franchise. For years, the front office touted how well he was doing in the minor leagues and how he was progressing into a future superstar, ready to be the next great outfielder to replace Barry Bonds and Andy van Slyke.
Finally, in September of 1999, the Pirates called up the Baseball Jesus in what would surely be the beginning of a long and illustrious, Hall of Fame career. Aaaaaand he hit a whopping .233 with 1 home run and one RBI in 19 games. But no big deal, right? It was just the September call ups. Certainly in his first full season he would really start to hit.
Or not. .185 over 33 games with 2 home runs, 8 RBIs and a coach ticket right back to AAA to work on his swing.
He came back in 2001 and hit .164 over 22 games and finally the Pirates let him go. He bounced around in the Cubs, Marlins and Mets organizations for a few years before retiring. His final stat line in the majors: .195, 13 HR, 34 RBI in 6 seasons.
Moving Jason Kendall to left field
Jason Kendall was a fun player to watch his first couple of years in the league. He didn’t wear batting gloves, he had a big wad of chew in his cheek, he led the league in getting hit by pitch almost every year, and he was a catcher who could bat leadoff. We had to do whatever we could to make sure we kept him around for a long time, because he would certainly lead help lead us to the playoffs one day.
In 2001, right after making Jason Kendal the second richest catcher only to Mike Piazza, the Pirates decided that the best way to protect their investment was to try to move him to left field. It made sense. Craig Biggio had moved from catcher to second base a few years into his career to help protect his knees and it allowed him to play well into his 30s.
On paper, it actually still looks like it wasn’t such a bad move. In his worst season he hit .266 and that was the only season with the team that he hit below .280. However, from 2001-2003 he hit 19 home runs. Total. And that includes the magical 2001 season when he went crazy and hit 10 dingers. Forget that he was such an awful left fielder that (.906 fielding percentage) that the Pirates abandoned the experiment after just 27 games. The Pirates had 18% of their salary locked up on someone providing the offensive prowess as Placido Polonco, who cost about 1/6 as much.
The 2003 Season
In the 2002 offseason, the Pirates finally went out and signed some veteran talent. They went out and got Kenny Lofton, Reggie Sanders and Randall Simon in free agency. They already had young talent with Aramis Ramirez at third and the up and coming Jason Bay in left, with some young pitching that could really get some confidence behind what looked like it could turn into one of the better offenses in the league.
But by the beginning of May, the Buccos were already six games under .500 and never recovered. Everyone forgot that the group of veterans they got might as well have been stand-ins from the movie “Space Cowboys.” It’s okay to have one or two old guys who have lost their abilities and are their just to teach the young guys how quickly the game can pass them by, but you can’t have ALL of your good players be on AARP’s mailing list.
Eventually the whole team just became wonderfully sub-mediocre, and to make matters worse, they Lofton, Ramirez and Simon’s salaries on the Cubs in exchange for Matt Brubeck, Jose Hernandez and Bobby Hill. No, I’m not making that up.
I’m still excited about the 2011 Pirates. I’m actually going to the game tonight. But there’s a part of me that’s expecting us to lose 95 games and trade Andrew McCutchen for a middle reliever.