Ron Musselman | Low-budget Pirates have cornered the market on losing

March 31, 2013 

— It was the fall of 1979, my junior year at Penn State.

Visions of Omar Moreno’s wife dancing on the dugout to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” were fresh in my mind.

I still can see the late Jim Bibby’s hat dripping with sweat in the cold, October air.

It’s hard to forget those hideous uniforms, which had various combinations of gold and black, to go along with striped hats. There were white pinstriped uniforms as well.

And I remember manager Chuck Tanner’s faith being tested before Game 5 of the World Series, when he found out his mother had passed away at a nursing home in New Castle following a lengthy illness.

On top of that, Tanner’s Pittsburgh Pirates trailed the Baltimore Orioles, 3-1, in the best-of-seven series for the second time in the decade.

Tanner, who I had the pleasure of interviewing many times after that, never wavered.

Nor did the Pirates, who rallied to win the final three games against the Orioles, including Game 7 on the road to claim their fifth World Series championship in franchise history.

The late Willie Stargell, one of three holdovers from the 1971 team that also beat Baltimore on the road in the deciding game, was named 1979 series MVP after hitting .400 with seven RBIs and 12 hits.

He went 4-for-5 with two doubles, a two-run homer and a single in Game 7 of the Pirates’ 4-1 victory.

President Jimmy Carter, who had thrown out the first pitch at Memorial Stadium, paid a visit to the locker room afterward.

All was good — or so I thought.

At that point, the Pirates had captured three World Series championships in my lifetime, although I hadn’t even celebrated my first birthday when they beat the hated New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series thanks to Bill Mazeroski’s famous home run in the bottom of the ninth.

The 1979 season produced 98 wins as well as Pittsburgh’s second World Series title in a nine-year span.

Well, here we are, almost 34 years later and the low-budget Pirates have not been back to the Fall Classic since that season.

They had three really good shots to reach the World Series in the early 1990s, when they won 95, 98 and 96 games and three NL East titles behind Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke and Doug Drabek.

But Jim Leyland’s gang went up in smoke, losing the NL Championship Series to the Cincinnati Reds in six games in 1990, and to the Atlanta Braves in seven games, first in 1991 and then again in ‘92 on Francisco Cabrera’s gut-wrenching two-run single in the bottom of the ninth.

Since that October night more than two decades ago, the Pirates have been downright dreadful.

Although they have flirted with a winning record early in each of the past two seasons, they have crumbled after the All-Star break each time.

The Pirates’ 20-year losing streak is the longest in the history of American professional team sports.

Fans born in 1993, the year the streak began, have graduated from high school and entered college. Some have even gotten married and had children.

The Pirates, scheduled to open their season Monday afternoon against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park, will be looking to put a halt to the sobering skid.

But don’t expect any miracles.

Keep in mind, since their last World Series win in 1979, the Pirates’ franchise has produced just seven winning seasons - 1980, ‘82, ‘83, ‘88, ‘90, ‘91 ‘92.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Phillies, who also open their season Monday night against the Braves in Atlanta, have won two World Series (1980, 2008) championships since the Pirates’ last title.

The Phillies, who finished .500 last year after nine consecutive winning seasons, also have won six division titles since Pittsburgh’s last one in 1992.

The Pirates, projected to finish near the bottom of the NL Central after going 79-83 a year ago, need not look any further than the Baltimore Orioles for inspiration in snapping their two-decades-long losing streak.

A year ago, Buck Showalter’s bunch went from annual loser - Baltimore had witnessed 14 consecutive seasons of sub .500 baseball - into a team that went 93-69 in the AL East and took the New York Yankees to five games in the AL Division Series.

“You can’t alter the past,” Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen said recently. “We can’t dog ourselves for 20 years of losing. We haven’t been here for 20 years. Of course we’re going to have that on our shoulders, but we’re not worried about it.

“All we can do is keep pushing forward and be the team to change things around.”

McCutchen, without question, is the face of the Pirates franchise. He hit .327 with 31 homers and 96 RBIs last year, but he doesn’t have much help outside of pitcher A.J. Burnett.

The Pirates’ biggest offseason acquisition was catcher Russell Martin; their biggest loss was closer Joel Hanrahan, traded to Boston.

The Pirates have been tied for first place in the NL Central in July the past two seasons, but finished 18 games back last year and 24 out in 2011.

One thing the Pirates have mastered is losing.

Ron Musselman is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter@ronmusselman8.

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