By In Stuff

Return of the Pirates

At some point in the eighth inning, I remember going out to concourse of old Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta and watching Atlanta Braves fans slowly shuffle toward the exits and their cars and another long baseball off-season. It is all well and good to say that baseball fans should stay to the end but there are life realities. There’s school in the morning. There’s work in the morning. Braves fans — not a lot of them, but some — went to face their life realities, and I watched them go.

It was a Wednesday night in October. I was just 25 years old and just starting out in the business. Josh Hutcherson had just been born. Bill Clinton was about to be elected president. It was 1992. And nobody in Atlanta really wanted to stick around and watch the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrate their trip to the World Series.

There was nothing at all strange then about the Pirates being on the doorstep of the World Series. The Pirates were good. They were usually good. They were good every year of the 1970s. They started that decade with Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell and Richie Hebner, they were the Pittsburgh Lumber Company, they pounded teams into submission. They ended the decade with Dave Parker and Willie Stargell and Bill Madlock, they were family. They won two World Series in the 1970s, made the playoffs six times. They had a bit of a lull in the early-to-mid 1980s, but then they got Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke and Doug Drabek and won the National League East three years in a row.

They led 2-0 going into the ninth inning on that October day, and fans streamed for the exits, and none of us had even the slightest inclination that it was all about to end for Pittsburgh baseball.

Drabek, the ace, started the ninth — he had thrown eight shutout innings and Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland was going to stick with his guy. Atlanta’s Terry Pendleton doubled to lead off the inning. Then Dave Justice grounded to second, but Jose Lind botched the play. There were runners on first and third with nobody out. I was back in the auxiliary press box inside the stadium and I imagined the people heading toward their cars stopped and turned around. I know that everyone in the stadium started waving their arms in that Tomahawk Chop. My ears still ring.

Sid Bream walked. That loaded the bases. That’s when Drabek was pulled. Stan Belinda came on to pitch.

Ron Gant hit a sacrifice fly that scored Pendleton. The score was 2-1. Damon Berryhill walked to load the bases up again. Then Brian Hunter hit an infield pop-up that wasn’t deep enough to score anybody. Two outs. Bases loaded. Everybody in Atlanta knows what happened next. Everybody in Pittsburgh knows what happened next. A 25-year-old career pinch-hitter named Francisco Cabrera stepped to the plate. In his career, Francisco Cabrera would hit .254. He would have 89-career hits in the regular season — one of them a memorable home run off Rob Dibble that saved the 1991 season. He had three hits in the postseason — one of them was this one, the most famous hit in Atlanta Braves history, I guess.

Cabrera rapped a single to left field, toward Barry Bonds, to score the tying run. And then Sid Bream barreled around third and headed for home. Bream was absurdly slow and also injured. He was perpetually injured. In my mind’s eye, I see him running on crutches. Bonds’ throw home was pitiful. It rolled toward the plate. Bream’s slide eluded the tag of catcher Mike LaValliere. The throw would become infamous. The slide would become famous. The Braves won and would go to the World Series. The Pirates lost and would disappear from view for the next 20 years.

Looking back, the dismantling of the Pirates really was sudden and shocking. They had won three division titles in a row. Then Barry Bonds would go to San Francisco. Doug Drabek left for Houston. Mike LaVallierre would be released. Andy Van Slyke would never have another healthy season. The error man, Jose Lind, was dealt off to Kansas City. The Pirates did what bad teams do. They signed veterans past their prime. They signed a 39-year-old former Pittsburgh hero named John Candelaria and a 38-year-old Lonnie Smith. And the horror began: 87 losses that first year. The next year, they brought in a 38-year-old Lance Parrish. The next year, they released pitcher Tim Wakefield just as he was about to be good. They kept losing.

They traded away hometown heroes Jay Bell and Jeff King to save some money. They kept blundering the draft. This is pretty striking three year stretch in the draft:

In 1997, they took first baseman J.J. Davis in the first round — the next first baseman picked was Lance Berkman.

In 1998, they took lefty pitcher Clinton Johnson — the next left pitcher selected was CC Sabathia.

n 1999, they took right-handed pitcher Bobby Bradley — the next righty pitcher taken was Ben Sheets.

The Pirates had losing records ever year. They moved into beautiful PNC Park in 2001. They celebrated by losing 100 games. They celebrated THAT by taking righty pitcher Bryan Bullington with the first pick in the draft — even with Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain on the board. They kept on losing. In the mid 2000s, they lost 95, 95, 94, 95 and 99 in succession. The 2010 Pirates were a disaster, the worst Pittsburgh team in more than 50 years. They scored the fewest runs, gave up the most runs, lost 105 games and seemed as doomed as a team can seem. Only the Marlins in the National League drew fewer fans.

That was the heartbreaking part because Pittsburgh — like my own hometown of Cleveland — has a wonderful spirit, and that ballpark might be my favorite in all of baseball. But it was depressing inside. Bad baseball. A despondent fan base. I remember going to the park in 2011 when the Pirates, against all odds and logic, were tied for first place late in July. It was getting exciting. They promptly lost 28 of their next 37 to crash to earth. I remember going to park in 2012 when the Pirates, against all odds and logic, were 16 games over .500 in early August. It was getting exciting. In one dreadful stretch lost 23 of 30 and finished with a losing record for the 20th straight season.

And so this year has been wonderful because, once again, their success seemed a bit illogical and dangerously fragile. They have counted on a 29-year-old pitcher Francisco Liriano, who most people around baseball had written off. They have counted on slugging Pedro Alvarez, who swings and misses about as much anybody in the game.* They have counted on 36-year-old Jason Grilli to be a closer for the first time in his long and erratic career, on A.J. Burnett at 36 to keep putting the Yankees years behind him, on mega prospect Starling Marte to emerge and superstar Andrew McCutchen to get even better and play like the league MVP.

*According to Fangraphs, here are the top swing-and-kissers of 2013:

1. Chris Carter, Houston: 34.5% miss percentage.

2. Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh: 34.4% miss percentage.

3. Dan Uggla, Atlanta, 33.0% miss percentage

4. Mark Reynolds, Yankees, 32.6% miss percentage

5. Mike Napoli, Boston, 31.8% miss percentage.

And all those things happened, the Pirates were in first place in late July again, and then came the second mini-miracle: They did not collapse. They lost seven of nine at one point and looked to be heading toward collapse, but they settled down. McCutchen since the beginning of July is hitting .350/.451/.564. Liriano, after one dreadful start at Colorado, is back holding batters to about a .200 batting average. They have found ways to scrape through and here they are, making the playoffs for the first time since Sid Bream slid.

I personally wish the postseason race between the Pirates and Reds was still going on, with the winner getting into the first round of the playoffs. As it stands now, the Pirates and Reds will face off in a one-game playoff for the right to go on, and that’s kind of a bummer. Whoever loses that game, their postseason ends on the spot. That would be a real letdown for either city, but especially in Pittsburgh after 20 years of suffering. But this is how the baseball playoffs work now, and, hey, the Pirates are in the postseason again. So is Atlanta. If things play out, they could face each other. That would be fantastic.

Of course, there’s no more Fulton County Stadium — it was imploded more than 15 years ago. Sid Bream is 53 and a motivational speaker. Barry Bonds is 49, the all-time home run champ, and widely despised. Mike LaValliere is 53 and coaches kids now. Bill Clinton hasn’t been president in more than a dozen years. Josh Hutcherson turns 21 in October, he’s a big star and he is my 12-year-old daughter’s crush — which seems to mean that I’m now old enough to have a 12-year-old daughter. Yeah, a lot of time has gone by. It’s good to have you back Pirates.




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25 Responses to Return of the Pirates

  1. mrein says:

    Swing-and-kissers. *giggle*

  2. Rob Smith says:

    I didn’t live in Atlanta at the time, but Sid Bream actually looked fast running from second to home. So, when I saw the first replay, I didn’t realize how historically slow he actually was. I’m not sure if it’s an optical illusion caused by an extremely weak throw by Bonds, but there is no way anyone, let along a slow runner, should have scored on that play. Cabrera was lightly regarded, so Bonds was playing pretty shallow. The ball was hit relatively hard, and the ball got to Bonds before Bream rounded third. It looked like he would be thrown out by 10 feet, so when he made it, it really did look like Bream was really fast. I guess in actuality, the throw was just that bad…. I estimate that it was about a 10 hopper. Crazy play. It still makes no sense that Bream makes it safe. And it definitely was a defining moment for both teams. The Braves went on to dominate the 90s… except for actually winning more than one World Series…. and the Pirates went on the aforementioned terrible run.

  3. Scott says:

    I find it very hard to believe that fans were leaving in the eighth inning of a two-run game seven of the NLCS. This was 1992. The Braves being good was still new and fan enthusiasm was sky high. The team had spent the previous post-season playing some of the wildest playoff games in baseball history. Its hard to imagine people leaving early at all, much less “at some point in the eighth inning,” with two Braves’ halves yet to be played. If you did see people in the concourse, is it possible they were making a last trip to the bathroom before the ninth, taking an anxiety-fighting smoke break, or engaging in some other non-commuter activity?

    • Unless my memory is failing me, Drabek was absolutely dealing that night. He was making the Braves hitters look foolish. The Braves had been up in the Series 3-1 and had lost game 5 on the road and game 6 at home in a blowout. The way Drabek was pitching that night and the way the previous couple of games had gone, it wouldn’t surprise me if some Braves fans left.

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    • Ben Wildner says:

      We are talking about one of the 2 or 3 worst major sports towns in the country. Maybe the worst.

    • Beezbo says:

      Unfortunately Atlanta is still considered a poor sports town. Nevermind that most people in the region are die hard college football fans (and college basketball in NC & KY). Did the Red Sox sell out games last year? Are the Yankees selling out games this year? When the team is good, people show up. When they aren’t, people spend their money elsewhere.

      Atlanta is the future home of the College Football HOF and current home of the SEC Championship, Chick-fil-a Bowl, Chick-fil-a Kickoff Classic, and within a few hours drive of UGA, GT, Clemson, South Carolina, Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee, and Tobacco Road.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Beezbo, you are correct. Atlanta is College Football first, and probably Pro Football second since the Falcons sell out every game now. Then the Braves. The Braves have always been a regional team, so they do rely on a lot of people coming in from out of state to see games. Obviously that doesn’t happen on weekdays, especially when school is back in… which is mid August on. But most fan bases can be a fickle. I hear Yankee fans complaining all the time about the ticket prices (not that I blame them). They certainly don’t sell out when they’re less than great. Even Philly, with their supposed rabid Phillies fans aren’t selling out anymore after only two subpar seasons…. which was predictable as the team aged. When you get down to it, every fan base is a fair weather fan base to an extent. If you don’t win, it impacts attendance. It’s a pretty simple formula to understand.

    • Chris M says:

      “Rabid Phillies fans” is a meme that needs to die. I went to college just outside Philly from 2002-2006, which was the last year at the Vet and the first few years at CBp, and a time when the Phillies were always decent but never in the postseason, and Phillies fans simply did not exist. I we t to one of the last games at the Vet, and the place was about 20-25% full, and the majority of those there were Mets fans (of a very bad 2003 Mets team). As recently as 2006 I went to a Mets-Phillies game at CBP and you would have thought you were in a (much nicer) Shea Stadium. Prior to 2007, Phillies fans didn’t exist. That was and always will be an Eagles city

    • FranT says:

      Beezbo — During their run of dominance, the Braves often failed to sell out Division Series games. Sorry, that doesn’t happen with the Yankees, Red Sox, or pretty much any other team.

  4. Unknown says:

    I’ll point out that Bonds’s throw wasn’t pitiful or rolled to the plate – it got to the catcher on the fly, but was 6 ft off the plate. Plus the real error was Bonds was playing too deep, as Van Slyke noted later.

    • Mark Daniel says:

      I was thinking the same thing and went back to the replay to watch it. It was a one hop throw up the 1st baseline a bit. Not a bad throw at all. Not a rocket like Ichiro, but a good throw nonetheless.

      Last year was the 20th anniversary of that play which led to a few stories about it, and one story was that someone on the Pirates, maybe Van Slyke, told Bonds to move in and Bonds responded by flipping Van Slyke off. On the replay, it sure looks like Bonds was playing deep. I don’t know if the Bonds flipping someone off is a true story or not, however.

    • J Hench says:

      In watching the replay, I think the real issue was not so much how deep Bonds was, but that he had to move laterally to his left to field the ball. If he was charging straight in, it would have been a different play, but as a left-hander, moving to his left meant he wasn’t in as good a position for the throw home, so it sailed wide.

      Frankly, we see throws like it and worse from outfielders every day (see Cutch’s throw on the crazy play that ended last night’s Pirates game). It’s just that the situation and circumstances have magnified Bonds’ throw over time (which isn’t to say it was a good throw, just that it’s nothing like the worst throw in baseball history).

      Anyway, thanks Joe, I’ve been hoping you’d write about the Pirates all season.

  5. Daniel Flude says:

    The only reason I don’t love the Wild Card play-in game is because Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are already closing the season against each other. But if they were closing against any other teams, it would be a great thing to have them play each other for the chance to get into a playoff series. I think the extra WC spot is working out well so far.

    • Rob Smith says:

      One game playoffs in baseball are a coin flip. I think eventually they will move to at least three games. Whoever loses, will probably play a sub par game & complain that one bad game cost them. The schedule certainly can accommodate three games, but they’ll need to move off (a little) the current playoff schedule which has tons of off days to position the games for prime TV viewing & avoid conflicts with other sports. I’m not sure MLB will go to three games to accommodate a couple of more Wild Card games…. but they should. One game to decide the series for baseball is pitiful.

    • Phil says:

      I think it was Theo Epstein’s idea proposed when this new Wild Card was evolving, and it was a three-game series: doubleheader at the better team’s park, single game the next night if necessary. So you get a do-or-die for the evening broadcast, then a “game 7” feel if it goes to the third game. It would also tax the wild card teams, which is a nice way to reinforce the disadvantage. I like it.

    • invitro says:

      A three-game playoff is also a coin flip. As is a five-game playoff. And even a seven-game playoff. I quit following baseball entirely for a few years after accepting the reality that 7th- and 8th-best teams were winning the World Series as often as 1st- and 2nd-best teams. I came back because those 7th and 8th teams at least had their championship probability halved.

      So I favor the second wild card, but it still has the stench of the swollen, bloated playoffs, so I want it to do its business and go away ASAP, so a one-game playoff is ideal. I would be fine if they played one five-inning game to settle their differences. Or just one inning. Or had a home run derby.

    • Ian R. says:

      Here are the World Series champions this century with their overall ranks in regular-season winning percentage.

      2012: SFG, 4th
      2011: STL, 8th
      2010: SFG, 5th
      2009: NYY, 1st
      2008: PHI, 5th
      2007: BOS, 1st
      2006: STL, 13th (!)
      2005: CHW, 2nd
      2004: BOS, 3rd
      2003: FLA, 7th
      2002: ANA, 4th
      2001: NYY, 3rd

      Eh. There’s an aberration every few years (and the 2006 Cardinals were an embarrassment), but in general it’s one of the top five teams in a 30-team league. That seems reasonable.

  6. springer says:

    Isn’t this the most famous hit in Atlanta Braves history?

  7. Adam Reuter says:

    I would tend to think the most famous hit in Atlanta Braves history is the Kirby Puckett homer that won the WS for the Twins.

  8. Trent Phloog says:

    How can the most famous hit in Braves history be anything other than Aaron’s 715? “There’s a new home run champion of all time, and his name is Henry Aaron!”

    Of course, Vin Scully’s call — — puts that one to shame. The silence, the sound of the crowd, and then: “What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world.” Gives me chills every time I hear it!

  9. If Leyland may have gone too long with Drabek, is he mismanaging Miggy’s injury?

  10. Paul P. says:

    The interesting thing to me when I was reading this was the opening paragraphs made me think of my favourite team, the Toronto Blue Jays. In their case, 1993 was the last relevant year. But the time line is remarkably similar. Excellent franchise throughout the 80’s and into the 90’s. They were relevant, they had star players (Alomar, Molitor, Winfield, Cone, Morris, Olerud, Carter – before sabermetrics Carter was considered elite). It seemed as though they would be a top contender forever at that point despite trading some of the future to win those 2 World Series. Much like the Pirates, the Jays have gone 2 decades without a sniff of the post-season. They may not have been as bad as the Pirates – in fact, some seasons had they been in a different division they would have been in the playoffs – but at the end of the day their franchise timeline from the mid-80’s to today is strikingly similar from a fan’s perspective. I think if/when the Jays become relevant, the Rogers Center (SkyDome) will rock like it once did, but our fan base, which represents our entire country, has become cautious of expecting success, even more so now with the 2013 hype leading to a forgettable season.

  11. ctmazin1 says:

    Jesus Joe. Watch the damn replay. Bonds’ throw neither rolled to the plate nor was pitiful. It was your garden variety throw from the outfield in a major league game. I expect better from you.

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