Pirates show promise; just be patient
How times have changed.
Eighteen years ago, Clint Hurdle was the New York Mets’ manager-in-waiting, biding his time by filling out the lineup cards for the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, the Tidewater Tides.
The Pittsburgh Pirates? They were three-time defending NL East champions, a sign of success for the people of the baseball world.
Boy, how things have changed.
Today, Hurdle is being asked to perform a baseball miracle, to raise the Pirates from the ashes of a fallen franchise.
The Pirates fans are anxious. With the team coming off a 4-2 road trip, the sellout crowd of 39,219 who showed up for the home opener Thursday afternoon represented the second-largest crowd in the history of PNC Park, which opened 10 years ago Saturday.
Not that they had much to celebrate. The Rockies scored two runs before the Pirates batted for the first time, and the visitors walked out of PNC Park with a 7-1 victory.
"If they are patient in Pittsburgh, and give Clint time to get the job done, he will get it done," said Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd.
That’s a big if.
The Rockies had patience, and in Hurdle’s sixth full year as the manager, they advanced to the World Series for the first time. Hurdle was replaced by Jim Tracy in May of 2009, and the Rockies rallied to claim the NL wild card that year. This year, Colorado is expected to battle San Francisco for the NL West title, albeit with a foundation built during Hurdle’s tenure.
Think about it. Every member of the Rockies' starting lineup — except second baseman Jose Lopez, who came from Seattle in an offseason trade — was signed by the Rockies and arrived in the big leagues during the Hurdle era.
In pro sports, however, "patience" is an expletive deleted.
Dusty Baker learned it the hard way in Chicago, where he managed the Cubs for four years, but had to carry the burden of a century of the Cubs’ failures.
"Fans don’t look at who the manager is," Baker said. "They don’t think about who was there two years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago or even two weeks ago. What fans know is their team hasn’t won, and they want the team to win."
For Hurdle, it’s not a century-plus of failure he has to deal with, but the past 18 years are a load to carry. And not only have the Pirates suffered through a losing season in each of those 18 years, but they have averaged 89 wins, and are coming off a 57-105 season — the franchise’s worst in 58 years.
They have spent only 84 days in first place in the past 18 years, and only once in those 18 years have they even been in first place later than April 28.
Patience? Pirates fans ran out of that a long time ago. How long has it been since the Pirates enjoyed success?
Well, the last time they had a winning season was the same year Bud Selig was appointed interim commissioner. It was the year before the expansion teams in Colorado and Florida began play. It was two years before the strike that forced the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. It was three years before the wild card was added.
How long ago was it? In May of 1992, when the Pirates were on their way to a third consecutive division title, Jay Leno replaced Johnny Carson as host of "The Tonight Show." In November of that year, Bill Clinton was elected president. Gasoline was $1.051 a gallon.
The only other big-league teams that have failed to advance to the postseason in the past 18 years are the Kansas City Royals and Washington Nationals. In fact, the four expansion squads that have come into existence since the Pirates' last postseason appearance — Colorado and Florida in 1993 and Tampa Bay and Arizona in 1998 — have made a combined 11 postseason appearances. Arizona even won a world championship in 2001, and Florida did it in 1997 and 2003.
"There’s a generation of Pirates fans who haven’t seen them win a game," Hurdle said.
How bad has it been? Well, the Pirates showed up at PNC Park Thursday afternoon fresh off a 4-2 season-opening road trip, in which they took two out of three from the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.
It was the first time the Pirates won back-to-back road series since August 2007. That’s more than 500 games ago. The Pirates, remember, were a worst-in-baseball 17-64 outside of PNC Park a year ago.
The Pirates feel they are farther along in the rebuilding than it may seem. They feel they have a quality young nucleus with second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, and outfielders Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen.
"Those are the guys who are going to get the Pittsburgh Pirates organization going in the right direction," said Lyle Overbay, an offseason free agent addition, and the team’s elder statesman at 34.
It’s not going to happen overnight, however.
Over the past 18 years, Pirates fans have learned that the hard way.