The Pittsburgh Pirates have been historically bad for 17 seasons and are primed to add to their legacy this year. They're at the bottom of the National League Central once again and last week, the Milwaukee Brewers outscored them 36-1 in three games in Pittsburgh, then came back four days later and blasted them 17-3 in one game in Milwaukee.
In the seven days between April 20 and 26, the Pirates were outscored 72-12. Not by the Yankees, or even the Jets, but by the Brewers and the Houston Astros. This isn't Major League Baseball in any way, except embarrassment.
Break up the Pirates.
No, really. Dismantle them player by player. Melt them down. Paperweights and doorstops for everyone.
Actually, the Pirates have some salvageable parts. A Zach Duke here, a Paul Maholm there. Ryan Doumit and Andrew McCutcheon would be welcome on almost any Major League roster. The rest? No disrespect, but you really have to work at losing 72-12 in one week. Name five Pirates, win fabulous prizes.
Why isn't more made of this?
I ask this as a Pirates fan, old enough to have watched the Great One, Roberto Clemente, at Forbes Field and to have shed actual tears after World Series Game 7s in 1971 and 1979. The worst moment of my sports-scribing career came in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium in 1992, when -- for reasons that elude me to this day -- Sid Bream scored from second base on a hard single to left field, allowing the Braves to beat the Buccos in Game 7 of the NLCS.
Bream ran like Captain Ahab. Barry Bonds fielded the ball cleanly and made a good throw to the plate: A couple bounces, just up the baseline. Mike LaValliere handled the throw and applied the tag, just like you draw it up. Bream scored anyway, and that was that. In that instant, the Pirates ceased being the Pirates, and became the AAAA team we endure now.
Bud Selig frequently expresses a desire that every team have hope on Opening Day. Hope isn't a word I'd use to describe the Buccos in the last 18 years. Why doesn't some other team's owner -- say, some small-money owner who argues for greater sharing of revenues -- call the Pirates out?
Pittsburgh's Opening Day major league payroll was $39 million. The Pirates raked in far more than that without ever selling a ticket or a hot dog or leasing a luxury suite at the very attractive and taxpayer-funded PNC Park. I asked club president Frank Coonelly how much more. He declined to say.
As a model, let's use the Cincinnati Reds. Between revenue sharing money, money from Baseball's Central Fund, their share of MLB Properties revenues and local TV and radio dollars, the Reds took in about $70 million last year. Coonelly said the Pirates' local media dollars were less than Cincinnati's. But their take from revenue sharing was more.
It's not unrealistic to suggest Pittsburgh's haul was slightly more than the Reds' $70 million. Where'd it go?
Every time the Pirates throw out that Quad-A lineup, more wind leaves the sails of the Have Nots' boat. If you are a small-market/money operation, Pittsburgh torpedoes your desire for baseball to become a more extensive corporate welfare club, like the NFL.
Coonelly says the Pirates spend "far, far more on players'' than what they get in shared revenue. He doesn't count the generous allotment from the Central Fund. Or anything else listed above.
Coonelly says his Pirates are paying big money for high draft picks. They've tripled the money they spend in Latin America. He also says, "It's a very exciting time to be a fan in Pittsburgh. I think we have a chance to compete for the NL Central championship.''
I grab my Clemente 21 jersey and lie down in a cool place.
"The history the last 17 years is regrettable and an embarrassment to the city,'' Coonelly offers, after some prodding. Well, yeah. "But I can only justify what's happened since September 2007,'' when Coonelly left the Commissioner's office to became president of the club.
I ask him what a ball club's responsibility is to its fans and how the Pirates are meeting that responsibility. Seems like a fair question for a team that's been playing its fans for years, while buying them off with fireworks and bobbleheads If you're a Pirates fan and not a clinically diagnosed masochist, why? Loyalty? Optimism, self-loathing, postgame fireworks? What is your reasoning and why isn't someone busting you upside your head?
"Our obligation to the fans is to do everything in our power to put a winning team on the field,'' says Coonelly. "Some have questioned our plan, but they can't question our motivations."
OK, but 17 seasons of bad, plus one week of 72-12 from hell, could equal cynicism, Frank. "We're not going to panic because of one bad week,'' says Coonelly.
One bad week?
"It was painful and in fact embarrassing to the organization,'' says Coonelly. "But it was a week. Seven games.''
In the meantime, the Pirates will build for a future that never arrives, or at least never has. They will sell their product with fireworks -- eight big shows this year! -- and giveaways. Endure the game, stay for the George Thorogood concert. And until baseball makes its teams plow all their welfare bucks back into players, not much will change.
If only, Frank. If only.