Friday, November 07, 2008

The Road to 17: 1995

The Road to 17 is a longer-form look at each losing season that the Pirates have had since their last playoff appearance in 1992. The object is not to wallow in the misery of the Pirates, but instead remember just what it is that makes us Pirate fans in the first place. Every team has their great moments, the Pirates' are just fewer and further between. Today, we hit the third stop on the Road to 17: 1995.

Above and beyond everything else in 1995, the one thing that I remember is Spring Training. With the strike spilling over from the year before, the owners were ready to do anything to prevent another season from being lost. "Anything" consisted of replacement players. The reason that this memory stands out so vividly for me is that the Pirates' team of replacement players steamrolled through the Grapefruit League that year (I've been digging for stats, but they're nigh impossible to find) and looked poised to improbably return the team to their previous glory when the owners caved and let the players back in for a shortened 1995 season.

The reason that 1995 stands out to me is that I think it's the first time that it felt to me like the Pirates' losing streak had been going on for a long time. That seems ludicrous now. The Pirates were entering their third year of losing in 1995. Three years is peanuts compared to the epic proportions that we've entered now. But back then, it felt like a long time. You can understand why, I was ten and only really even saw the Pirates win. Seeing them lose for two straight years was painful. When the replacement players tore up Brandenton, I remember feeling that finally the Pirates would be good again.

They weren't, of course. That summer, I briefly flirted with the awesome Indians team that finished with the highest winning percentage of all time before my Little League coach (for Hermitage Kiwanas, we were 17-1 and won the league going away) saw my Indians hat and said, "American League baseball? What's that? You're a Pirates fan!"

He was right, of course. But it had been over two years since the Pirates were any good!

Of course, 1995 will forever be remember for something else. On April 26th, the Pirates finally opened the season up against the Montreal Expos. The Expos had been decimated by the strike, but mostly everyone was just happy to see baseball back. As I waited in the turnstile line for my first home opener, I was handed a small Pirate flag in a white tube. Being only ten, I didn't grasp the aerodynamic nature of this handout until much later in the game.

The Pirates and 'Spos were tied at one heading in to the fifth inning. Jon Lieber got into some trouble in the fifth (runners were on first and third and he'd already allowed one run), but he managed to get Roberto Kelly to hit a swinging bunt up the third base line to Jeff King for what should've been the final out of the inning. Instead, disaster struck. The erosion of time and the horrors of the play itself have blocked the exact memory of what happened from my mind, but here's how it's described in the box score:

R Kelly: Single to 3B (Ground Ball to Short 3B Line); Lansing Scores; Floyd Scores/Adv on E5 (throw)/No RBI; Kelly Scores/Adv on E9 (throw)/No RBI

That's right. The Pirates turned a swinging bunt into an inside-the-park home run on two throwing errors by Jeff King and Orlando Merced. The aforementioned flags became projectiles in their plastic tubes as they were hurled to the earth by fans who were completely fed up with some combination of the terrible play, the early part of this losing streak, and the strike. The two teams came off the field as the grounds crew attempted to remove the flags as more and more rained down from above. When they announced over the PA that the Pirates would have to forfeit if fans kept throwing things on the field, people booed loudly and someone almost nailed the third base ump with another flag. As they attemtped to clear the field, some of the players came out and helped. This was how a photographer caught Orlando Merced sadly waving one of the flags as he walked off the field (I would kill for a copy of that image but I can't find it anywhere).

Still, at least Pirate fans cared enough to get mad in 1995. If the exact same play happens during the home opener in 2009, fans are going to throw their hands up in an exasperated manner and say, "Same old Pirates. So really things were getting bad in 1995, but they could've been much worse.