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Loveable losers


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Consider the wonderful irony of it. A season flushed with achievement -- all those no-hitters and perfect games just for openers -- may be best remembered for one entire team's incomparable incompetence. Only in Baseball might it even be thinkable.

We speak of the Pittsburgh Pirates who quietly and unassumingly, as is their way, have already nailed down their record-smashing 18th consecutive losing season. They did so with little fuss or fanfare. No victory laps were run, no champagne wastefully sprayed, nor cream pies splattered in the faces of such players whose contributions were deemed vital.

As has become their custom, the bashful Bucco's merely nodded sheepishly, took their historic attainments in stride, and bore on to the next night for another game and another loss. Perchance their loyal patrons would have it no other way.

This is heroic stuff. For this is an ancient and honorable team founded back in 1882 when the unforgettable Chester A. Arthur was President and America's war of the moment was with the Sioux and Comanche Nations. When you consider the history that drips from this franchise you have to admire the grace and dignity with which it has borne such an epic burden. Many consider it unfair. But they blame no one but themselves, which is admirable.

Representing Pittsburgh, a gritty town long on pride and suffering, is a further blessing. No one there whines about "curses." The fact that mystical interventions played no role in making the Pirates the laughingstock of professional sports is calmly accepted with remarkable stoicism. If you are going to stink, Pittsburgh may be the best place to do it. They don't cut and run in that rock-ribbed old frontier fortress of a town where the three great rivers majestically converge.

But what the Pirates are now accomplishing -- and there's no reason to believe they can't go on with this merry skid another 18 years -- would test the resilience and resolve of Rome itself. George Herbert Walker Bush -- Big Daddy himself -- was President when they last had a winning season. Indeed under the young and scrappy manager, Jimmy Leyland, the Pirates in 1992 graced the playoffs for the third straight season and while they hadn't won it all since Willie Stargell's "We are Family" bandwagon rolled in 1979 they'd been dogged and perennial contenders for more than three decades. They played hardball, these Bucs. No franchise was more honorable.

And then came the blow from which they've never recovered. In December of '92, Barry Lamar Bonds, their young superstar who had just been named the National League's most valuable player for the second of what would become many times, departed for San Francisco and a free agent deal that was regarded as 'historic' at the time. It was hardly a surprise. The inevitability of losing him had long obsessed Pittsburgh nor had Bonds ever pretended his heart belonged anywhere but 'Frisco, his hometown, where as it happened his dad, the erstwhile slugger Bobby, and godfather, the immortal Willie Mays, were still on the Giants' payroll. Pittsburgh's loss of Bonds was pre-destined but that didn't make it any less crushing.

The tainted Bonds' saga is well-told and obliges no re-hashing here. But make of him what you will, you cannot deny his greatness. Who knows? Maybe the pitfalls that he wandered into on the Coast might have been avoided in the more fundamental baseball environment of Steel Town. Bonds' departure -- slightly preceded by that of his fellow bash brother, Bobby Bonilla -- sparked a rush for the exits that eventually made the estimable Leyland the inevitable victim of the unavoidable collapse. Near a generation later, they are still picking up the pieces.

In this baseball day and age of so many devices and contrivances designed to promote parity plus the existence of the amateur draft that guarantees that the heavy losers get first crack at the superstars of tomorrow it is near criminal for a franchise to hit the skids for a couple of decades. Only a dreary ownership of dubious commitment would allow it to happen and that has been precisely the Pirates' foremost affliction. In the meantime, expansion franchises, like the small-market Tampa Rays, have risen to the top, and even haphazardly run new teams, like the Florida Marlins, have won a couple of championships. It takes total dedication to the goal of losing to become as wretched as the Pirates have become.

People lament that it's all about money, but it isn't. In each of the last couple of seasons the Pirates were guaranteed roughly $70 million in MLB welfare funds including luxury tax and revenue sharing disbursements plus broadcasting and licensing fees before a pitch was thrown. On top of that they obviously garner the gate receipts and all the hotdog, beer, and parking money, etc. and it adds up to about another $70 million. Against all that they have a payroll that dipped to $34.9 million this season, lowest in the majors. To keep it under control the Pirates have developed a genius for selectively peddling higher priced veterans for marginal prospects.

According to an investigative coup scored by the Associated Press -- which the Bucs' current Coonelly-Nutting ownership has roundly scorned -- Pirate profits for the '07 and '08 seasons totaled more than $29 million. Subsequently, ownership acknowledged a profit of $5.4 million for last season.

For all of their colossal failure the Pirates don't lose money, only ballgames. No one should begrudge a business some profit. But in how many other lines of work can you do your job so poorly and still make money?

If the Pirates manage to maintain this season's losing pace through September -- and we have every confidence in them -- they'll finish with 108 losses. As bad as they've been, they're only getting worse. Their best young pitcher, the very brainy Princeton grad, Ross Ohlendorf ex of the Yankees, finishes the season on the disabled list. Their best hitting prospect, the once highly touted Pedro Alvarez ex of Vanderbilt, debuted with a modest .232 batting average. Their best acquisitions in recent salary-dump capers, Lastings Milledge and Jose Tabatha, remain two of the most puzzling head-cases in all of MLB. Pity the poor Bucs. The more things change the more they remain the same.

Baseball of course had epic losers long before the Pirates came along. Boston sure knows. In the Roaring '20s, the Red Sox had 10 straight losing seasons while the Braves had nine out of the 10. No city ever had a lousier decade in any sport. If you don't count the war years (1942-45), the venerable St. Louis Browns of sainted memory went near a quarter of a century (1930-1953) without a winning season. Washington can tell you a tale or two. So can Chicago.

Then there were the Philadelphia Phillies. The Pirates have the record and they can keep it. But no team compares with the Fighting Phils from 1918 thru 1948. Only one season -- a valiant effort in 1932 when they finished as winners by the slimmest possible margin -- saved them from logging 31 consecutive seasons with a losing record. Now that's Herculean!

After eight last-place finishes in the span of 1918-1931, the Phils under the paternal direction of Burt Shotton, eked out fourth place with a 78-76 mark in 1932. The marvelous Chuck Klein led them hitting .348 with 38 homers and 137 RBI's. Dutifully, the Phils resorted to their hopeless ways the next season and remained abject losers another 16 years until the Whiz Kids of Robin Roberts, Curt Simmons, Richie Ashburn, Del Ennis, Granny Hamner, etc., revived them. Interestingly, that revival sustains them to this very day.

With this season's landmark performance the Pirates become not only holders of MLB's longest losing streak but the longest losing streak in the history of American professional sport.

Wow!

Consider the wonder of that. Is there a Hall of Shame somewhere where this titanic achievement can be properly bronzed and emblazoned?

There should be. Losers fascinate us. Maybe because in the end, we all must learn how to lose, eh?

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