Cumberland Times-News

July 28, 2009

For Pirates, a tough sell: patience

Mike Mathews

During a C-SPAN interview (hey, good television is hard to find) this explanation was given for the need for continued debate on a pending bill:

“Everything that needs to be said has been said, but everyone who wants to say it hasn’t said it.”

So it is in Washington, I guess. So, too, in Pittsburgh, where the Pirates are pushing two consecutive decades of losing baseball. It’s 16 straight years and likely soon to be 17, in case you’re scoring along at home.

Everybody seems to feel the need to take a shot at the Pirates these days. Writers. Fans. Little League coaches. Comedians. A few days ago a pastor at church even made a crack about the state of the Pirates.

With every passing trade — and there are more to come — it’s almost impossible to walk by the watercooler and not hear a joke about the Pirates’ front-office decisions and on-field losing.

Pittsburgh longs for the success of 1970s. Clemente and Stargell, Robertson and Blass. Sanguillen and Oliver. Then Parker and Madlock. Candelaria, Blyleven and Tekulve.

If those were the best of times, then some would say these are the worst of times. Actually, the worst of times is over because the Pirates front office has started down the right track. It may not seem so at times, and it may sound silly with the team in the midst of another losing season and after trading Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, Jason Bay and Xavier Nady. But it’s true.

It’s easy to understand why fans become irate over trades. They get attached to players and have favorites. Few at the time in 1987 were happy when Tony Pena was traded to the Cardinals for an unknown pitcher (Mike Dunne) a chubby catcher (Mike LaValliere) and a young outfielder who hadn’t yet become a full-time starter (Andy Van Slyke). It turned out to be a steal, and one of the best deals in club history.

The Pirates were at rock bottom then, knew it, and rebuilt smartly through trades that drew players like Van Slyke and Doug Drabek to town, draft picks that included Barry Bonds and Jeff King, and moves that brought Bobby Bonilla and Jay Bell into the fold.

Much of the problem with the Pirates since speedy Sid Bream beat Bonds’ throw to the plate that disastrous night in Atlanta is not recognizing how far the team had fallen. Perhaps the traditionally weak NL Central lured them into thinking they were only a player or two from competing. If so, they were wrong about that, too.

Until this year, the Pirates never truly committed to rebuilding. So for every gain like Brian Giles, there were Benito Santiago and Pat Meares. For every Jason Bay, there were Alejandro Pena, Enrique Wilson, Jody Gerut and Kevin Elster.

For every Freddy Sanchez, there were Derek “Operation Shutdown” Bell, Chris Stynes, Raul Mondesi, Ty Wigginton, Tony Armas Jr., Ryan Vogelsong and Shawn Chacon. Adrian Brown, Emil Brown and Jermaine Allensworth left less than a lasting impression. Can’t-miss prospects like Chad Hermansen and J.R. House never made an impact.

And there was the blockbuster that brought the high-priced, sore-shouldered, aging Matt Morris to the pitching staff. His Pirates career was a dismal 16 appearances. He went 3-8 with a 7.04 ERA, was released, and hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since.

Those were moves made by a franchise that must watch its dollars and cents, can afford few mistakes in scouting, and must build a farm system that can replace players traded or lost to free agency. The Pirates, for the most part over the last two decades, failed miserably in each category. For example:

• Has there been a Jeromy Burnitz sighting lately?

• How about Randall Simon?

• Name any of the players acquired in the Aramis Ramirez trade with the Cubs. (Give up? Answer: Matt Bruback, Jose Hernandez and Bobby Hill).

• How’d those John Van Benschoten (career 2-13, 9.20 ERA) and Bryan Bullington (0-5, 5.45) first-round draft picks work out?

• Jim Tracy? .... over an available and interested Jim Leyland?

It was the lost decade-and-a-half, and because of it the Pirates are now forced to ask their fans to have patience at a time when it already is razor thin or has expired altogether.

The Pirates buried themselves. Now they’re trying, once again, to dig their way out. This time they are on the right, albeit painful, track. No more attempts of a band-aid fix for a gaping wound.

Andrew McCutchen, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton and Delwyn Young are the future, and so is Roy Hobbs — 28-year-old Garrett Jones (22 games, 10 home runs). If you want to see more of the future, go to Altoona for a late-season Eastern League game because third baseman and former No. 1 draft pick Pedro Alvarez and outfielders Gorkys Hernandez (McLouth trade) and Jose Tabata (Nady trade) will soon be with the big team. Shortstop Brian Friday is another to watch.

When Sanchez and/or Jack Wilson go, there will be more angst among the fans. General manager Neal Huntington knows it. He also knows this: he’s got the toughest job in sports — correcting the mistakes of others and getting an earful from some while he does it.

Nobody said it would be easy.

Mike Mathews is a Cumberland Times-News sportswriter. Contact Mike Mathews at