Finally! The Pittsburgh Pirates clinched their first winning season in 21 years with their 82nd win of the season on Monday night. They didn’t take long getting win 83, beating the Texas Rangers again on Tuesday. They had clinched having a non-losing season with their 81st win last Tuesday, Sept. 3, but then lost 4 in a row between last Wednesday and Sunday. At 83-61 they currently sit just 1 game behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central race, and hold the first wild card by 2 games over the Cincinnati Reds. If the playoffs started today, the Pirates would be hosting the NL Wild Card Game, and I can only feel sorry for the Reds, who would have to play the game in a very hostile environment with a very hungry crowd.
The Pirates won the NL East three straight seasons, from 1990-92, but lost in the NLCS each time, once to the 1990 World Champion Reds, and the other two years to the Atlanta Braves (who they would, ironically enough, play in the NLDS if they are successful in the NL Wild Card game, assuming all seeding stays the same between now and the end of the regular season). Those series in 1991-92 both went 7 games, and the Pirates led the 1992 Game 7 from start to finish, only to lose in the bottom of the 9th to Francisco Cabrera’s miracle pinch-hit game winner. The image of Sid Bream rounding third and sliding safely into home is surely engraved in the minds of Pirate fans.
What followed has become the longest “losing streak” in the history of the “Big 4” pro sports in America: the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB. Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, among others, both left after the 1992 season, and the team that had just won three consecutive division titles was suddenly in rebuilding mode. There were close calls, as teams came close to winning records, and even contended for the playoffs. The 1997 Pirates finished only 5 games behind the Houston Astros, with a record of 79-83.
Clint Hurdle became manager in 2011, and the team was in first place in the Central as late as July 25. On July 26, the Pirates and Braves played a 19-inning game, in which Braves IF Julio Lugo was called safe on a play at the plate when replays very clearly showed he was tagged out; Jerry Meals had missed a game-changing call. After leaving Atlanta two days later, they lost 10 straight, fell well out of first place and under .500, and went on to finish 72-90.
The 2012 season was similar to the previous one, but this time the Pirates gave themselves an even better opportunity for a winning record and a shot at the playoffs. They were 63-47 on August 8, but became the first team in history to be 16 over .500 at the two-thirds mark of the season and fail to record a winning record, going 16-36 the rest of the way. Their 81st loss, which clinched a non-winning season, was in a no-hitter thrown against them by Reds P Homer Bailey on September 28. Two days later, their 82nd loss, which clinched their 20th consecutive losing season, was suffered when the Reds scored 2 in the 9th inning to win 4-3. They finished 79-83.
This year, as spring turned into summer, fans and experts alike wondered if this year’s team would fall down the stretch like the Pirates have the previous two seasons. This team, though, is different. As August appeared, the team continued to play great, at times having the best record in the National League, and even in all of baseball, although that distinction currently belongs to the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox, currently tied. The offseason additions of Russell Martin and Mark Melancon, the emergence of Jason Grilli, the re-emergence of Francisco Liriano, the mid-season acquisitions of Justin Morneau, John Buck, and Marlon Byrd, and the expected excellence of Andrew McCutchen have all been factors in this year’s team building up a winning record and keeping it, all the way to 83-61 on September 10.
A few thoughts about just how long its been since the last winning Pirates team:
In 1992, George H.W. Bush (not W., H.W.) was President, and was fighting a campaign battle he would eventually lose against Bill Clinton. Gas averaged $1.14 per gallon (wow!). The top grossing film was Aladdin. Bryce Harper, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez were born in 1992. President Obama and Michelle married on October 18, just four days after the Pirates loss in Game 7 of the NLCS.
Since the Pirates last winning season, Pittsburgh’s other 2 major pro teams (Steelers, Penguins) have combined for 32 winning seasons, 30 playoff appearances, 5 conference championships, 2 Super Bowl wins (Steelers), and 1 Stanley Cup title (Penguins). Who knows, maybe the Pirates can add a World Series title to Pittsburgh’s incredible sports history and tradition. The Pirates last championship was in 1979.
One final thought: the Kansas City Royals winless drought isn’t as severe as the Pirates, but the Royals haven’t had a winning season since 2003. However, they have a longer playoff drought, as they have not played in the postseason since winning the World Series in 1985. They currently sit at 76-69, only needing to go 6-11 the rest of the way to clinch a winning record. They are only 7 games out of the AL Central division lead and, even better, only 3 games out of the AL Wild Card. They are certainly in contention for that playoff berth. However, there are six teams in contention for those two Wild Card spots, in what is clearly the best race in baseball right now.