The Pirates are 17-time losers

Gordon Edes

The Pittsburgh Pirates are the team of Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski and Honus Wagner. They are also the team of Randall Simon(notes), whose whack at an Italian sausage in one of Milwaukee's mascot races is about the only meaningful swing taken by a Pirate in the last 17 seasons.

The Pirates are the team of Dave Parker and Willie Stargell and "We Are Family." They also are the team of Derek Bell and "Operation Shutdown,'' in which the delusional outfielder, coming off a season in which he batted just .173 for the Pirates, threatened to stop playing if he wasn't in the opening day lineup in 2002. Bell was released, but the Pirates paid the balance of his two-year, $9.75 million contract.

The Pirates are a proud franchise. Yet the Pirates are a disgrace, with more consecutive losing seasons than any team in the four major pro sports. Since lumbering Atlanta first baseman Sid Bream slid across the plate ahead of Barry Bonds'(notes) off-line throw in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, the Pirates have gone through 317 players, three ownership groups, four general managers, six scouting directors, four farm directors and over a half-billion dollars in player payroll (which sounds like a lot but is less than the Yankees are paying four players: Alex Rodriguez(notes), Derek Jeter(notes), Mark Teixeira(notes) and CC Sabathia(notes)).

How did the Pirates end up in such a sorry state? They have played badly, drafted badly, traded badly, spent badly and thought badly. They trade All-Stars, draft stiffs, overspend on nonentities and fail to recognize their own talent. They released Tim Wakefield(notes), and the knuckleballer ranks third on the Red Sox list of all-time winners. They placed Bronson Arroyo(notes) on waivers, but traded for Matt Morris(notes), who gave them three wins for the roughly $13 million they're obliged to pay him.

We could go on – and we will.

Since the streak began, the Pirates have never ranked higher than 18th in payroll. That was in 2001, and they lost 100 games that year. In each of the last six seasons, they haven't ranked higher than 27th out of 30 teams in payroll. Even "Batman" couldn't shame them out of their cheapness.

"I fear they will take advantage of the goodwill of the people who continue to show up," said actor Michael Keaton, the actor and Pittsburgh homey who ripped management after being invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in 2006. "For my money, it's disrespectful. At some point, you have to either write the check or you have to do something and not assume, 'Well, we're OK, and ultimately [the franchise] is valuable, anyway.' ''

That check has yet to be written.

Other matters of note, one for each of the Pirates' 17 consecutive losing seasons:

1. Number of Pirates chosen to start in an All-Star game since 1993: 1. Jason Bay(notes), in 2006.

2. Number of Pirates who have been drafted and become an All-Star since 1993: 0.

3. Number of Pirates to hit .300 or better, with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title: 9. Freddy Sanchez(notes) led the league with a .344 average in 206. Jason Kendall(notes) did it four times. All nine players were traded: Sanchez, Kendall, Bay, Jack Wilson(notes), Aramis Ramirez(notes), Brian Giles(notes), Al Martin, Jay Bell and Orlando Merced.

4. Number of Pirates with at least 100 plate appearances to hit under the Mendoza Line (.200 batting average): 17. Mike Benjamin batted .150 in 2002, with 18 hits in 120 at-bats, zero home runs and three RBIs. In both 1997 and 1998, the Pirates had three hitters with averages under .200. That included infielder Kevin Polcovich, who was given 238 plate appearances in 1998 and batted .189.

5. Number of Pirates to hit 30 or more home runs in a season: 5. They all were traded – Bay, Reggie Sanders(notes), Brian Giles (he and Bay were traded for each other before Bay was dealt to Boston), Ramirez, and Jeff King.

6. Number of Pirates to lead the league in errors: 1. Third baseman Ed Sprague made 29 errors in 1999, finishing in a tie with Adrian Beltre(notes) of the Dodgers. Aramis Ramirez led the league in 2003 but was traded midseason to the Cubs.

7. Number of Pirates to win Gold Gloves: 2. Outfielder Nate McLouth(notes) won in 2008, shortstop Bell in 1993. And yes, they both were traded.

8. Number of Pirates pitchers to win 15 or more games in a season: 1. Todd Ritchie won 15 in 1999, then won a total of 26 over the next five seasons, spent with the Pirates and three other teams.

9. Number of Pirates pitchers to lose 15 or more games in a season: 9. Kip Wells(notes) was the biggest loser, going 8-18 in 2005.

10. Number of Pirates pitchers with an ERA of 3.00 or less (among qualifiers): 1. Oliver Perez(notes) had a 2.98 ERA as a 22-year-old lefty in 2004. He was traded to the Mets.

11. Number of Pirates pitchers with an ERA over 5.00: 9. Bob Walk had the highest, 5.68 in 1993.

12. Most games over .500 by any Pirates team in the last 17 seasons: 7, in 2002.

13. Most games under .500 by any Pirates team in the last 17 seasons: 40, in 2001. In eight other seasons, the Pirates finished 25 or more games under .500.

14. Number of seasons in which a Pirates team did not spend a single day over .500 or in first place: 5. An additional six teams were never more than three games over .500 an entire season.

15. Number of first-round draft choices between 1993 and 2005: 15. Number of first-round draft choices to make it as a big league regular: 3. Two are pitchers, Kris Benson(notes) and Paul Maholm(notes). The third is rookie outfielder Andrew McCutchen(notes). There have been 12 first-round busts. The jury is still out on Maholm, a middling left-hander, and McCutchen, who looks like a budding star. Benson, the No. 1 overall pick in 1996, is an undistinguished 69-74 and was outrighted this year by the Texas Rangers.

16. The worst draft? So many to choose from, but none of the Pirates' first 16 picks in 1998 played an inning in the big leagues.

17. Most losses by five or more runs in a season: 36, in 2001. Eight other times, they lost 25 or more games by at least five runs.

HITTING THE CORNERS

Derek and the dominoes: As Derek Jeter draws closer to Lou Gehrig's record for most hits by a Yankee – he still needed three to tie The Iron Horse's record of 2,721 after going oh-fer on Tuesday – one of the more surprising aspects of the record is that it's no better than middle of the pack among big league teams. Gehrig ranks 53d on the all-time hits list, and the Yankee hits' record ranks only 16th among major league teams.

The only active player ahead of Jeter on the hits list is 39-year-old Ken Griffey Jr.(notes), 33 hits ahead of the Yankees shortstop. With Griffey contemplating retirement, Jeter would appear to have an open path to become the 28th player to reach 3,000 hits, the first since Houston's Craig Biggio(notes) in 2007. Only eight Yankees have as many as 2,000 hits – Babe Ruth (2,524) is the only other Bomber to crack 2,500. Other legendary Yankee hitters – Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Don Mattingly and Bernie Williams(notes) – fell short.

A voice that cannot be silenced: Ernie Harwell is 91 and has inoperable cancer, news that sent a shudder through his countless friends, admirers and listeners. But the legendary broadcaster, with the same grace that he brought to a half-century of broadcasting, including over 40 years with the Tigers, offered reassuring words to his vast audience.

"I just don't want people to worry," Harwell told Paul W. Smith Tuesday on Detroit's WJR AM-760. "I know we're all going at some time, and I'm ready for whatever God's got. I have a great feeling of peace about it. Serenity.''

What many people may not know about Harwell is his extraordinary accomplishments outside of broadcasting. At 16, he was a sportswriter in Atlanta. In World War II, he was sports editor of the Marine magazine, Leatherneck. He contributed regularly to The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Collier's, and Readers Digest. He composed nearly 50 songs, and wrote the sweet essay to baseball, "The Game for All America," that hangs in Cooperstown today.

"Of all the announcers I met, none is more talented beyond the microphone or has more of a reason to have a big head than Ernie,'' Ned Martin, the late voice of the Red Sox, told Curt Smith in his wonderful history of baseball broadcasting, "Voices of the Game." "And yet his feet are planted on the ground. He likes everybody. Everybody likes him. You see some guys who haven't done a damn thing by comparison and still they think they're God's gift to creation. Then you look at Ernie, who's a giant and who has time for everyone. The comparison makes you laugh.''

Fungo hitting: With just over three weeks left in the season, Mark Reynolds(notes) of the Diamondbacks still has the longest home run this season, according to hittrackeronline.com, a 481-foot blast off Brad Lidge(notes) of the Phillies on July 28 at Arizona. Josh Hamilton(notes) of the Rangers has hit the longest homer in the AL, 471 feet. The player with the most "lucky" home runs, defined by site founder Greg Rybarczyk as a home run that would not have cleared the fence on a 70-degree calm day, is Boston's David Ortiz(notes), with six. … Although I'm among the first to complain when a hitter poses every time he hits a home run, I've got to admit that the Esther Williams choreography on Prince Fielder's(notes) walkoff home run made me smile. … One of the reasons White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen can speak so openly about getting fired is that he knows it won't happen. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf likes him too much, and he's signed through 2012. But his words still have their entertainment value. “If I’m going to get fired, everything in my office – everything – is going on eBay, and I’m going to give that money to somebody else,” Guillen said. “I don’t want to see that stuff anymore.” … And does anyone believe that Pedro Martinez(notes) hasn't won his gamble that he could sit out for most of the year, come back and pitch well enough to earn one more hefty payday for 2010? It won't be CC Sabathia money, but with pitching as short as it is, Pedro will be in demand.