The Pittsburgh Pirates: Pride. Passion. And Above All, Prospects

Here’s how to judge the success of a major league baseball franchise in three easy steps:

1. Go to the Team Store of your favorite franchise

2. Search “jerseys”

3. How many players’ jerseys are available for purchase?

If the answer is less than three, then your team is not in good shape.

At the Pittsburgh Pirates shop, fans can currently purchase one jersey. #12, Freddy Sanchez. That’s it.

Red Sox fans have the choice of 7 different players.

Cubs fans have 5 stars to pick from.

The San Diego Padres have 3 players deemed worthy of having a print-run of their kit, and they’re even more putrid than the Pirates.

Small-market peers the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who last season squeezed a World Series birth out of a payroll $5 million less than the Buccos – well, they managed to have 3 household names in their team shop.

But the Pirates have one lone replica jersey – and even Sanchez, whose 2006 National League batting title was the only thing other than Sauerkraut Saul to get a rise out of PNC Park in the last 15 years, may be out the door before the July 31 trade deadline if general manager Neal Huntington thinks he can ship off the three-time All-Star for some ever-illusive “bullpen depth” and bag of kettle chips.

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“Well, Freddy’s given five great years to this organization, but in the eleventh hour, the Yankees threw in three Pony ball prospects and we knew this was a move we had to make for the future.”

Maybe I’m too negative. After all, the Pirates probably have the silk screen machines all fired up and ready to stamp oodles of #21s, oops I mean #22s for the Roberto Clemente, I mean Andrew McCutchen era – what with his .292 batting average and 23 RBIs in just 36 games – but the brewing McCutchen excitement has been tempered by same old, same old organizational moves. There was great hope with the 2007 front office house cleaning that the chin-down, losing culture of the past two decades would turn around. It hasn’t.

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Yes We Can….’t.

By trading Jason Bay in 2008, then Nate McLouth and fan favorite Nyjer Morgan this summer, Huntington may as well have grabbed a microphone during the 7th inning stretch and sung a karaoke version of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” to the smattering of languid pyromaniacs at PNC Park.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. (Enjoy the fireworks)

McLouth was batting out of his league at the time of the trade, so, knowing that his slugging numbers would eventually come back down to earth, Huntington sold him at his “peak value.” This brand of shrewd, pocket-protector management works well in an Excel spreadsheet, but in real life, it has consequences. The Pirates went a long way in alienating an already damaged fan base by dealing one of their only “replica jersey” players – one of their only recognizable numbers.

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Sure, the Greatest Generation will always come to the ballpark with pencil and scorecard in tow. They were brought up on “America’s Game” in neighborhoods chock full young kids hungry to play a game of baseball after school – even if it meant using tree branches instead of Louisville Sluggers and fedoras for base pads. Nostalgia aside, that generation had Honus Wagner and Bill Mazeroski to idolize and imitate.

What about the younger generation – the potential Pirates fans of 2009? Whose swing do they mimic when they step up to the plate in tee-ball? Whose number do they Sharpie on their cleats? On humid summer nights in the backyards of Bethel Park or the alleys of Bloomfield, when the fireflies are flickering and kids are gathering to play homerun derby with yellow wiffle bats and tennis balls – which names echo through the air?

Not Jason Bay. Not Nate McLouth. Those would-be heroes have been shipped off for future prospects or guys with unfulfilled “upside” like Lastings Milledge. The McLouth trade was disheartening, but the Morgan-for-Milledge trade is inexcusable. The Pirates swapped a solid locker room guy brimming with positive energy and hustle for another outfielder whose cancerous clubhouse antics led one of his former teammates to hang a sign above his locker that read, “Know your place, Rook!”

The Pirates’ front office says Milledge has a high ceiling. Good thing. He’ll need it for his enormous head. You can change a losing culture with character, “glue guys” like Morgan. The Penguins did it five years ago with their own Nyjer Morgan: a hustler who was short on talent but long on contagious energy by the name of Maxime Talbot.

Here is the argument of Pirates’ apologists and the team’s front office in a nutshell:

“The team was bad with those departed players, so who cares if we traded them? At least we got some prospects for the future. It doesn’t matter if the team is four games out of first place or 14: in the end, we’re still losers.”

In this Moneyball era of Harvard-educated general managers, spreadsheet jockeys, sports analytics, “upside,” all-you-can-eat buffet bleacher seats, and public relations spin and spittle…well, that seems like a pretty sound argument. Some say Freddy Sanchez and infield partner Jack Wilson should be traded at the deadline as part of a grand “scorched earth” house cleaning. Analytically, financially… maybe it’s a good idea.

But try telling that to this kid.


Categories: Pulling No Punches