|Curse of Bambino? How about the Bad News Bucs' Curse of Bonds?|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 03 August 2007 07:10|
The Pittsburgh Pirates, the most persistent loser in major pro sports for 15 years, are dealing with a troubling superstition of their own: the Curse of Barry Bonds.
Bonds, soon to be the greatest home run hitter in major league history, hasn't played on many big winners since joining the San Francisco Giants in 1993. But since the Pirates declined to give Bonds the few extra million dollars needed to re-sign him before the 1992 season ended, they've had exactly zero winning seasons.
They're 0-for-14, and soon-to be 0-for-15, during a streak of losing that is fast threatening to become the longest in history of any major pro sports team. Those fictional Bad News Bears of manager Walter Matthau? They have nothing on these Bad News Bucs.
Bonds laughs at the notion he has anything to do with the Pirates' grim stretch of futility, one in which the closest they've come to a winning season was being four games under .500 in 1997.
``Naw, I don't believe that at all,'' Bonds said. ``They've got some good players who can do some things. They just never keep the players. That's been the downfall of Pittsburgh. We all wanted to stay (in the early 1990s). There just was no chance of us staying.''
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the longest run of losing seasons in the four major pro sports was the Philadelphia Phillies' 16-season streak from 1933 to 1948. That came during a dreadful stretch of 29 losing seasons in 30 years that was interrupted only by a 78-76 record in 1932.
The Milwaukee Brewers also haven't had a winning season since 1992, just like the Pirates, but they had a .500 season in 2005 and have led the NL Central most of this season.
In the NBA, the Kansas City/Sacramento Kings had 15 consecutive losing seasons from 1983-98. The NHL's Vancouver Canucks had a 15-season streak from 1976-91, though they reached the Stanley Cup finals with a losing record in 1982. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers - hey, some more bad Bucs! - went 14 seasons without a winner from 1983-1996.
The Pirates? Unless they stage a 1951 Giants-like turnaround in the next few weeks, they'll soon become only the third major league team to go 15 consecutive seasons without a winning record. The Athletics also did so from 1963-67.
``Sure, it wears on you,'' said shortstop Jack Wilson, the most tenured current Pirates player. ``Nobody likes to lose.''
Through Aug. 2, the Pirates were a staggering 279 games below .500 since 1993 - compared to a combined 92 games over .500 while they were winning NL East championships in 1990, 1991 and 1992. They've had 89 or more losses eight times since 1993 and are on pace for a ninth such season this year.
How can one team keep doing it all wrong for so long? Easy. According to several scouts who regularly watch the Pirates, they've made the classic mistakes that perennial losers make.
They draft poorly - often selecting players based on signability rather than ability. In June, they passed up catcher Matt Weiters, considered the best position player in the draft, with their No. 4 pick and instead took a Clemson pitcher with a below .500 record - a move that generated some of the angriest fan response of the last 15 years.
Also, they persistently overestimate the ability of their own prospects and keep underachieving players in the majors too long. They also refuse to go after impact free agents for bottom-line reasons or, when they spend some money, do so foolishly. And they make too many bad trades (see Aramis Ramirez to the Cubs, Chris Young to the Expos, Leo Nunez to the Royals, among many) and not enough good ones.
Some evidence: the $60 million contract given singles-hitting catcher Jason Kendall in 2000 that's still on their books. The $10 million they threw at a clearly washed-up Derek Bell, who didn't last even half a season. The $14 million they showered on Pat Meares after he badly injured a hand. The $24 million spent on Kevin Young. The $10 million they threw away last year on Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz, neither of whom is in the majors this season.
``I'd rather spend $8 million on one significant guy and $2 million on bits and pieces than $10 million on two older veteran guys on the back end of their careers,'' said former Mets general manager Steve Phillips, now an ESPN commentator. ``I think you need a guy going into his prime.''
Remember how Kevin Young, Carlos Garcia and Al Martin were going to ease the Pirates through the seasons immediately after Bobby Bonilla and Bonds left as free agents? That didn't work out, either. How beautiful PNC Park would improve not only their finances but their won-lost record? Wrong again.
Remarkably, the Pirates have played host to two All-Star games (1994 in Three Rivers Stadium, 2006 in PNC) since their last winning season.
Oh, yeah, there's this one, too - a dozen years and 150 wins later, the Red Sox continue to thank the Pirates for inexplicably giving up on knuckleballer Tim Wakefield and releasing him in 1995.
``The Pirates had to dig themselves out of the Kevin Young money and the Kendall money, and they're in the place now where, with one or two decent investments in the right guys, they're in the mix,'' Phillips said. ``But one bad year, one bad choice can set you back.''
How about 15 bad years?
The current Pirates created a glimmer of hope by winning nine of 13 before the All-Star break, but they gave that back and more by dropping 14 of their first 16 out of the break. They went through an even worse stretch last season by dropping 13 in a row during manager Jim Tracy's first season.
``It gets frustrating,'' Wilson said. ``Every day is just like the day before. You say, 'OK, this is the day we're going to turn it around,' but you wake up the next day and go through the same day again. Two weeks goes by and you wonder where it went. It makes it tough to get up and enjoy going to the ballpark.''
Money, either too little of it or too much used on the wrong player, always seems to figure into the Pirates' equation.
Newspaper heir Kevin McClatchy, barely into his 30s, didn't have much money to pour into the club when he bought the Pirates in 1996 and it showed. In the last few years, newspaper chain owner G. Ogden Nutting and his family bought a majority stake in the club, and fans are wondering where the profits from PNC Park and revenue sharing are going. This season's payroll of approximately $40 million is the fourth lowest in the majors.
General manager Dave Littlefield, on the job since July 2001, insists the Pirates are on the right track, pointing to a pitching staff loaded with young starters (Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm and the currently injured Zach Duke) and enough quality position players (Jason Bay, 2006 NL batting champion Freddy Sanchez, Xavier Nady, Adam LaRoche) to build around.
But when does all of this ceaseless rebuilding end? The crosstown NHL Penguins experienced four consecutive terrible seasons from 2002-05, but through excellent drafting and shrewd signings and trades, have quickly built a Stanley Cup contender.
``I still think there's hope there,'' said Phillips, who remembers the Mets-Pirates rivalry of the late 1980s and early 1990s. ``I just would have liked to have seen things step a little more forward than they have this year.''
There's another worry to Pirates' rooters, too. For the Curse of Bonds to equal the Curse of the Bambino, the Pirates must wait another 71 years to win the franchise's sixth World Series title.