The very sweetest things in sports are unexpected victories. When your team is the underdog and somehow everything fell their way and the improbable came to fruition. Welcome to the Pittsburgh Pirates' 1997 story of The Freak Show.
The Bucs were rebuilding and everyone, including those running the club didn’t expect much from this ragtag group of rookies and cheap free agents. All told the payroll topped out at 9 million. Yeah, total.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to tell a tale of a team that took over the league, The NL Central at the time was quite possibly the worst in the league. At the time Houston was still a member and they had what was supposed to be the class of the division, but the upstart Pirates were in contention all season long.
The city had at this point embraced rebuilding, we had all just been through three years of playoff baseball from 1990-1992, 1993 returned much of the team that reached the playoffs the season previous so expectations of success were still semi-realistic, by 1994 the balloon had burst, and everyone accepted what must be done. They blew it up, sending Jeff King out and anyone else of note above the age of 22 replacing everyone with rookies called up from AAA or returned in deals over the winter. The cupboards were bare quite frankly at least that’s what we thought.
The starting rotation featured a young pitcher from Atlanta who could never quite crack the starting rotation there named Jason Schmidt, and his story lines up quite nicely with Joe Musgrove’s as the Pirates tried to trade for a MLB-ready starter. He was a talented pitcher but not considered ready to be a leader. There was Esteban Loaiza another third-year pitcher who showed promise but had yet to put it all together. Jon Lieber, yes that Jon Lieber, the reliever you’ve seen pop up in various places to eat garbage innings against the Bucs. Francisco Cordova Started 29 games with a 3.63 ERA and had the best winning percentage of all the starters. Steve Cooke rounded out the starters. Toss in a bit of Jose Silva and you have the rotation.
Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Well it was in many ways, but the rest of the division was so bad essentially everything became relative. For all intents and purposes this was a terrible baseball team, but they were young, they weren’t supposed to be good and contention was absolutely not supposed to be anywhere near the picture frame of what we watched.
There were breakout stars though. A young first baseman named Kevin Young played in only 97 games but led the club with 18 homeruns. Yes, 18 homeruns led the club. Jason Kendall cemented himself as the starting catcher, Tony Womack was a rookie second baseman and all he did was hit .278 with 60 stolen bases and make the all-star game. Al Martin emerged as the future leader on offense in left field, everyone waited for the power to develop but all the other tools were there. Jose Guillen, a young outfielder with speed, surprising pop and an arm that you couldn’t help but compare to Clemente when you saw him throw from right field. He wasn’t polished and, in many ways, looked like the unconventional Roberto making basket catches and trying to throw to bases over the heads of cut off men with regularity.
Veteran leader of the club was supposed to be Joe Randa, the third baseman the Bucs had acquired in the Jeff King deal. He was a nice player, but the real leader was Dale Sveum, who you could tell had future coach written all over him. He must have felt like he was running a daycare at times.
The funniest thing to watch was the sleepy coach Gene Lamont, seemingly the only person not excited by what was going on around him. He employed a young coach named Lloyd McClendon who was quietly making a name for himself as a rookie whisperer.
The division went to the last week of the season as the Pirates and Astros jockeyed for position. The Pirates led at the all-star break by a game and promptly came out flat against said Astros, not scoring a run in their first 27 innings. That was snapped in dramatic fashion by Mark Smith in the 10th inning of a game in which the Pirates young pitchers Cordova and Rincon combined to toss a 10 inning no-hitter.
They finished the season with a losing record 79-83, five games back of the Houston Astros. If you didn’t live it, this was just another bad team in a soon to be string of 20-straight losing efforts. If you did witness this team, hope springs eternal that maybe this is the year when all the youngsters figure it out and feed off each other together.
The backdrop of this season was important as well. While the kids were making a go of it on the unforgiving AstroTurf at Three Rivers Stadium, the city was in the middle of a fight to enact a referendum, the Regional Renaissance Initiative to build new stadiums for the Steelers and Pirates. It lost badly, but the next year “Plan B” would pass and result in the jewel PNC Park we all love.
At the end of the day the 1997 Freak Show as Greg Brown famously labelled them in Montreal after a Kevin Young Grand Slam winner, was a beacon of false hope. They provided belief that the club was closer to recapturing the magic of the early 90s than anyone should have expected, and consequently caused the team to make minimal effort to improve heading into 1998. The two seasons could not have been more opposing. In '97 everything that could break good, did, in 98 everything went sideways. For those of us who loved them, they gave us one summer as an oasis in a sea of losing seasons, and the ability to look at young players and hope.
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