Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Road to 17: 1997

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 fifth stop on the Road to 17: 1997.

If you want to know how screwed up the Pirates have been since 1992, let's start with 1997. Technically the most successful year for the franchise since Bonds left, the 1997 Freak Show was the worst possible thing that could've happened to the Pittsburgh Pirates as an organization. In 1997 the Pirates were a below average team that hit their ceiling by playing .500 ball. Unfortunately, they were run by a very poor front office that failed to recognize a team playing over its head. This, however, isn't about 1998, 1999, 2000, or 2001 **shudder**. This is abou 1997. And 1997 was awesome.

I don't really know where to start with the '97 team. They weren't like the 2003 team that shot out of the box to 12-5, then slowly fell apart. After starting the year at 4-4 on a West Coast road trip, they dropped the home opener to the Dodgers 7-1, then had a rainout, then got drubbed 14-5 on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon that was so ugly my friend's dad estimated the attendance in the eighth inning at "58" when they showed it on the scoreboard and I don't think he was off by much. The weird thing about 1997 is that the other shoe just failed to drop. The Pirates were around .500 in April, and they were still there in May, then June, then July. And when the Astros failed to run away with the division, well, we had something special on our hands.

The first time the wheels could've come off was in mid-May when Kevin Elster got hurt. He was about as big of an acquisition as a team with a $9 million payroll could've made and the Pirates picked him up because without Jay Bell they had no one to play short. Well, they had no one to play shortstop except Kevin Polcovich, the 27-year-old with no big league experience that had a .674 OPS in AAA in 1996 and was demoted to AA to start '97. On May 17th (the day after Elster got hurt), this was our starting lineup:

  1. Tony Womack, 2B- A leadoff hitter with a .326 OBP.
  2. Adrian Brown, CF- Or as I prefer to know him, Adrian f***ing Brown (that's how I distinguish him from f***ing Emil Brown in my head).
  3. Al Martin, LF- One of the Pirates that had a career year (114 OPS+) in '97.
  4. Mark Johnson, 1B- But only because Kevin Young had the night off.
  5. Dale Sveum, SS- Won a ring in 1998, as the Yankees bullpen catcher, but in fairness put up big numbers off the bench in '97.
  6. Jason Kendall, C- The best hitter on the team hit sixth that night while Adrian Brown batted second.
  7. Jose Guillen, RF- Remember when Jose Guillen was a 20-year-old uber-prospect with a Roberto Clemente arm from right field? Good times.
  8. Joe Randa, 3B- Gene Lamont may have been the worst person ever at assembling a batting order. Then again, Randa was hitting pretty poorly at this point.
  9. Steve Cooke, SP- I met him in the Hermitage Giant Eagle in 1993 with Randy Tomlin. I still have his autograph.
LOOK at that lineup! It's terrible! Mark Johnson? Tony Womack? Dale Sveum? Adrian f***ing Brown!

Of course, that was what made their run so beautiful. Do you remember how awesome it was to see Rich Loiselle set down Frank Thomas, Albert Belle, and Harold Baines to hold a 3-0 lead? We started Jermaine Allensworth in center that night! He was the butt of the joke in an SNL sketch so obscure, I can't even find a clip of it on the internet. And what about the game in late August with the Pirates starting to fall behind Houston, only to have Loiselle nail down the save by striking out Barry Bonds?

The best part about the '97 team is that everyone has a few favorite memories like that from the season. When else in history can a player like Shawon Dunston be a franchise hero? He rode in on his white horse after Polcovich got hurt while doing a reasonable impression of an MLB shortstop, hammered two homers in his debut against the Indians on September 2nd (side note: when did interleague games ever happen in September?) and crushed the ball all month before becoming a free agent. Has any team in history ever had a more unlikely shortstop trio than Kevin Elster, Kevin Polcovich, and Shawon Dunston? I remember the Pirates being in first place at the All-Star Break that year and actually reading a feature story about them in Sports Illustrated. A positive story! All about the Pirates!

Of course, while ten different people might have ten small favorite memories about the '97 Pirates, all ten of them have the same big favorite memory: the no-hitter. THE no-hitter. In all of my years of watching baseball, I've only seen one play that I swore happened in slow-motion the first time I watched it and that was Mark Smith's home run. Francisco Cordova was probably the first iteration of the frustrating "Ace of the Future" for the Pirates. He great out of the pen in 1996, he was awesome in the rotation in '97, then even better in '98, and he didn't pitch again after the year 2000. July 12, 1997 was his night, though. How do you describe the pressure that builds during a no-hitter? It was July and the Pirates, who hadn't made the playoffs in almost five years at that point, were a game behind the Astros. Cordova had become the ace of the staff by that point in the season and he just kept stringing zeroes on the board. He struck out ten in his nine innings, but without a Pirate run, he came out in favor of Ricardo Rincon in the tenth. This is just an opinion, but that tenth inning was probably the highest leverage situation any reliever in Pirate history has ever pitched in. I still remember watching him pitch one inning that seemed to take three hours in my parents bedroom (I have no idea why we weren't in the living room, but we weren't). When he got out of the tenth, every Pirate fan thought the same thing: "SCORE A RUN, PLEASE!" In the bottom of the tenth, with two on and two out, Mark Smith, a journeyman who hit 32 home runs in eight big league seasons, delivered a monstrous three-run bomb. The no-hitter was preserved, the Pirates were tied for first place, and for one of the last times in recent memory all was right with Pirate baseball.

A flash in the pan starter, a journeyman pinch-hitter, and a career LOOGY combined to create the best memory the Pirates have given anyone since their last playoff appearance. No matter what happens to them for the rest of their lives, they'll always have that game. And Pirate fans will always have that game. And when you get down to it maybe the Pirates only won 79 games in 1997, and maybe they missed the playoffs, but it's hard to say that year was a failure.