For Major League Baseball fans in many cities, Opening Day is filled with possibilities. For Pittsburgh Pirates supporter Oliver Bateman, however, it marks the continuation of a 20-year rebuilding process that he hopes will never end.
It’s almost baseball season, and isn’t that exciting? I can’t wait, and I’m sure you can’t, either. I’ve loved the Pittsburgh Pirates for as long as I’ve been able to love, and, like most of my ex-girlfriends, they’ve let me down in so many marvelous, unexpected ways.
Thanks to baseball’s unfair revenue structure and Bob Nutting’s legendary frugality, the Pirates appear unlikely to have another winning season. They haven’t had one since 1992, back when a few local sportswriters were bold enough to argue that Andy Van Slyke was a better player than Barry Bonds. After that came two decades of rebuilding, during which time the Pirates have become the most rebuilt team in sports history.
It’s hard to argue with the results of this project. Most teams rebuild to improve, something that never made sense to me. Once a team improves, it has to stop rebuilding—no more reclamation projects, high draft picks, anemic attendance figures, losing seasons, post-game concerts by bands like Collective Soul, and devil-may-care trades.
It takes a lot of work to stay this mediocre. Ask the general managers of the Golden State Warriors, Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Columbus Blue Jackets. To keep the process of rebuilding alive, you need to make the wrong decisions at the wrong times over and over again to stay out of contention.
Fortunately, the Pirates aren’t operating in an environment where a salary cap has led to competive parity and thus occasional winning seasons even for the worst-run teams. Instead, they’re free to be as mediocre as they want to be, in the process serving as an important counterbalance to the civic cockiness that comes from residing in the City of Champions. The people of Pittsburgh need the chips knocked from their shoulders and the french fries swept off their salads and sandwiches. Their beloved Pirates deliver the goods, in the form of below-average performances, 162 times per season.
Recently, though, the Pirates began to move away from the truly terrible decisions that former general managers Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield made. Neal Huntington, a graduate of Amherst College and therefore subject to classification as a “baseball intellectual,” shows disturbing signs of competence. He hasn’t signed a single has-been player along the lines of Derek “Operation Shutdown” Bell or Jeromy Burnitz, nor has he wasted the best years of a mid-level star’s career. In fact, he traded most of the Pirates’ aging and slightly overpaid players so that the team could finally field the squad of minor leaguers that our fair city deserves.
But I don’t think Huntington went far enough. He traded away established players like Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson, but he shouldn’t have stopped there. He should have dealt the decent players the Pirates have in the minors, like Jameson Taillon, in exchange for several less promising players from another organization. Rather than locking up star center fielder Andrew McCutchen with a team-friendly long-term deal, Huntington should have shipped him to Cleveland for a package including Grady Sizemore, Shelley Duncan, and a half-dozen thirtysomething relief pitchers.
Using this sort of plan, two players could be turned into four, four into eight, eight into 16. Eventually the Pirates would accumulate hundreds of players, none of whom are any good, and then they’d be set for a century’s worth of rebuilding. One of the things that a rebuilding team needs is depth—and lots of it. What a rebuilding team doesn’t require is a transitional star or anyone else who could serve as the face of the franchise. Far from it, actually: the players pictured on the front of the program should be unrecognizable to fans who don’t read “Baseball America.”
The Pirates have shown a willingness to rebuild at all costs, by which I mean as few costs as possible. If they’re always rebuilding, they don’t have to spend that much—why bother luring 10,000 fans to a game when 5,000 will suffice to cover their modest payroll? As it stands, their reputation for rebuilding is unexcelled among all the teams of Major League Baseball and will remain so unless the stars align and they luck into an 82-win season. Until then, fans should be honored to watch Clint Barmes and Chase D’Arnaud in their primes, given that few teams besides the Houston Astros would even dream of giving these guys so much playing time.
It will soon be the 20th anniversary of the Pirates’ losing—and thus rebuilding—streak. They’re always nowhere near having a winning season. Yet on each successive opening day, we Pittsburghers can entertain thoughts that they might have one, and then, after 100 games have passed, shrug our shoulders when it’s clear that they won’t. Baseball is a beautiful game.