The Pirates haven't won since losing Barry Bonds in 1992 or been to the World Series since beating the O's in '79

The Baltimore Sun

You've heard this tale before.

A once-proud baseball organization is now stuck in a historic cycle of losing while the sports-crazy town it inhabits has become apathetic.

The beautiful downtown ballpark sells out only on Opening Day and often finds itself more than half-empty. The ownership is criticized for being too cheap or too distracted to care about winning.

And, by July, anyone within 100 miles of the city is thinking football.

But, sorry, Orioles fans, this one is not about you.

It's about your hard-working cousins 250 miles to the northwest, the ones you hate during football season but commiserate with in the summer.

Pittsburgh Pirates fans understand your pain. In fact, they are in worse shape. Think nine straight losing seasons, with a 10th looming, is tough to take? Think being tied with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for the most consecutive losing seasons in the American League is tough to swallow?

Well, throw yourself on Pirates fans' swords for a moment. Their club has had a losing record for 14 straight seasons - the longest currently in the majors - and is staring at No. 15. They haven't had a winning year since the Pirates, gulp, failed to re-sign Barry Bonds in the winter of 1992.

"It's discouraging because it has been consecutive years, not a couple bad years and then a good one, there is nothing in between to pump you up," said Steve Blass, a former Pirates pitcher and current club broadcaster. "So you have to keep your fingers crossed."

Many of the fans, though, already feel crossed.

Take Kevin Gray, for instance. A Pittsburgh native and long-suffering Pirates fan, he lives in Indianapolis but comes back home to visit friends, family and his Buccos. Last week, he went to PNC Park wearing a newly printed T-shirt with "Five-Year Plan, Year 15" on the back and a "No Nutting" insignia on the front, a reference to the Pirates' owners, newspaper tycoons, the Nutting family.

"It has been so long," Gray said. "I am 30, I didn't really start realizing about baseball until I was 5 or 6, and in that time they have been really good for a grand total of three years, 1990, '91 and '92. And they still didn't get to the World Series."

The Pirates' last championship came in 1979, when Willie Stargell and "family" broke the Orioles' hearts in seven games. They haven't been back since.

One primary reason is the franchise's unwillingness - or inability, depending on whom is asked - to spend money. For a decade, the Pirates have cried the small-market blues. And it hasn't gotten any better since the gorgeous PNC Park opened in 2001.

"We thought when we got in a new ballpark, we'd pretty much put a competitive team on the field," said broadcaster Bob Walk, who pitched for Pittsburgh's last winning team in 1992. "That hasn't happened, and people right now are pretty upset about it."

On Opening Day, the Pirates' payroll was about $39 million, fourth lowest in baseball. Only one player, shortstop Jack Wilson, makes $4 million or more; in contrast, the Orioles have 11 players in that financial category.

"Most years, if not every single year, we are down toward the bottom of payroll," Walk said. "There is no room for errors when you are down there, and we have been making some errors."

Similar to the Orioles, an obvious area where the Pirates have gone wrong has been in the first round of the amateur draft. In the past 14 years, the Pirates have selected in the top 11 a dozen times. Yet, the best players to emerge from that group are back-end starter Paul Maholm (eighth overall in 2003) and Kris Benson (No. 1 overall, 1996), who won 43 games in five seasons with the Pirates before being traded.

This year's selection of Clemson closer Daniel Moskos at No. 4 overall was widely panned by fans, who felt the Pirates decided to go cheap instead of choosing Georgia Tech catcher and super agent Scott Boras client Matt Wieters, whom the Orioles selected at No. 5.

"They had a chance to actually pick a good player and they drafted a kid that was considered the fifth-best pitcher [by Baseball America], and they drafted him with the fourth overall pick," Gray said. "Make an effort; throw us a bone."

That's when his frustration truly boiled over, and he bought the T-shirt.

But, truthfully, many Pirates fans have accepted the losing streak, simply having blind faith that one day it gets better.

"Sure, we'd like it if they won more, but the true diehard fans are going to watch every day, no matter what," said Shirley Bigenho, 67, who attended Wednesday's game with 14 other members of a local Red Hat Society women's group.

She's not familiar with many of today's Pirates, but she believes there is hope that "we'll see the next [Roberto] Clemente or Bonds come out of here."

Like the Orioles, the Pirates have some promising young pitchers such as starters Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny and closer Matt Capps. They have the defending batting champion, Freddy Sanchez, and a budding star, Jason Bay.

And like the Orioles, the current Pirates say, despite their record, they'll win soon. And, if it ever happens, they can't wait for the buzz when a winner is in PNC Park.

"I don't think because [losing] is the way it has been that it necessarily makes us feel that's the way it is going to be," Bay said. "I would like nothing more, and so would everyone here, like nothing more than be part of the team that turns it around."

The problem is Pirates fans - and Orioles fans - have heard that line before.

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