Monday, November 10, 2008

The Road to 17: 1996

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 fourth stop on the Road to 17: 1996.

While the early years of this losing streak all have fun stories about the strike or the All-Star Game or just being the first losing year in general, 1996 is momentous for something else entirely. 1996 was the first time in this unending losing streak that the Pirates front office looked at things and said, "Uh-oh. We're doing it wrong."

This move was of course brought on by the acquisition of the team by Kevin McClatchy. After the strike the Pirates lingered in ownership limbo while the businessmen that bought the team from the Galbreaths in the 1980s attempted to sell the team. They were almost sold to John Rigas, who's also known as "That guy that ran Adelphia that drove the Buffalo Sabres into the ground and is in jail now." His bid was turned down by baseball and McClatchy and his group sailed in at what was seemingly the last second, buying the team with the promise of a new ballpark and implenting the "Five Year Plan" to have the Pirates on a trail to success by the time this new theoretical park opened. As we all know, only the Five Year Plan was theoretical, but we'll get to that later.

As an aside, the new ownership nearly brought me my first brush with Pirate-related fame. At the home opener that year, which was absolutely freezing cold, I was interviewed by Jennifer Antkowiak from KDKA about the new ownership and how cold the opener was and how hopeful I was for the future of the team. I was rather sunnily optimistic then, but my interview never aired.

When the Pirates tore their club apart in 1992, the main goal was to rebuild around the group of players who played supporting roles on the division champs from '90-'92 with a few big prospects like Al Martin, Denny Neagle, and maybe Kevin Young added in. The guys that were supposed to grow into the void created by the absence of Bonds and Bonillia were mostly Jeff King and Orlando Merced. King and Merced were decent players and seemed to be nice enough guys, but they were entirely miscast in the role of the guys that would carry the team. King had a career year in '96, hitting 30 home runs, driving in 111 (something he almost did two years before with only 9 home runs, which I find to be kind of hilarious), and putting up a career best OPS+ of 116. Merced was a similarly solid player that just never quite lived up to the billing of a star in Pittsburgh or anywhere else. I'll always remember him for being the worst switch hitter in history. His inability to hit right-handed was so sad that it was funny.

With the new owner hoping to clear payroll and the plan of building around these guys clearly failing (even with King's career year the Pirates only won 73 games in 1996), it was time for the first true Pirate fire sale. King and Jay Bell were shipped off to Kansas City for Jeff Granger, Joe Randa, Jeff Wallace, and Jeff Martin. Merced was sent to Toronto with Carlos Garcia (a truly failed prospect who somehow hit like Chico Lind but didn't field anything like him and second) and Dan Plesac for Jose Silva, two guys who never made the majors, and three players to be named later. One of those players turned into Craig Wilson. One of them turned in to Abe Nunez. The third amounted to even less than Nunez. Neagle was sent to Atlanta for Jason Schmidt, Ron Wright, and a third player. And just like that, the Pirates embarked on a second wave of rebuilding.

To take things off on another tangent, Wright was supposed to be the future super-star of the Neagle deal, but he had bad back trouble and ended up with the most depressing stat line in the history of Major League Baseball. He never played for the Pirates, was eventually released, and ended up in Seattle. In 2002, he made his big league debut with Seattle as their DH in mid-April. In his first at-bat, he struck out looking. In his second at-bat, he hit into a triple play. In his third and final at-bat, he hit into a double play. And he never got in to another Major League game. And you thought being a Pirate fan was bad.

Anyways, the dismantling of an already bad team resulted in what was probably the enduring image of that year: Jim Leyland blubbering off the field in his last game as Pirate manager after he decided he didn't want to rebuild and would much rather go to Florida where a World Series would be gift-wrapped for him. Some Googling turned up this fantastic clipping from a Sporting News article:

"The thing that kept hitting home was owner Kevin McClatchy saying it would be another two or three years," Leyland says. "I believe in my heart that it's time for the Pirates to have a new manager, and it's time for Jim Leyland to move on. It wasn't a tough decision, but it was a sad decision."

Says former Pirates outfielder Mark Clark, who was traded during the pennant stretch: "He's the best manager in baseball. Now, he'll get a chance to show his ability. You can take a guy off the street and lose 100 games for you. A manager of his ability shouldn't have to rebuild a club when he can take a team to a championship."

Clark also says he wasn't surprised. "I had a feeling this would happen, knowing Jim and his personality. He got tired of losing. Everybody got tired of losing.... It's sad for Pittsburgh, and there will be sadder days to come."

Let's see, there's Jim Leyland talking in the third person, Kevin McClatchy telling Jim it would be "two or three years" until the Pirates were winners again, and Mark Clark babbling incoherently about how "the best manager in baseball ... shouldn't have to rebuild a club" Does that seem stunningly incongrous to anyone else? Then again, maybe I shouldn't be so hard on Jimmy. He got out way back when the rest of us probably should've.

When you get down to it, 1996 was the fourth year in the losing streak, but it was really the first year of the rest of our lives. McClatchy got involved, pretty much everyone left that was involved with the early 90s team either jumped ship or was pushed off the plank in a fire sale, and the table was set for a very ugly stretch of Pirate history that just took a year longer to manifest itself than it should've.

So yeah, 1996 was as bad as you remember.