After 12 consecutive losing seasons apiece, Brewers and Pirates see hope on the horizon
By John Perrotto
PITTSBURGH—The Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates found themselves in a rare position on Opening Day: national television.
The Brewers and Pirates started the National League season at 1:35 p.m. on April 4 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. ESPN was there to televise the game, just as the cable network telecast the Red Sox and Yankees in the American League opener a night earlier. While the Red Sox and the Yankees are on national TV seemingly every other day, it was a rare chance for the Brewers and the Pirates to strut their stuff to the nation’s fans.
Alas, the Brewers and the Pirates didn’t stay in the spotlight for long. ESPN just needed to fill a half-hour of airtime before Pedro Martinez made his Mets debut in Cincinnati against the Reds at 2:05, so when that game started most of the country switched over.
That’s the way it has gone for the Brewers and Pirates, truly brothers in arms when it comes to losing and having a low profile. Neither team has had a winning season since 1992, which means they seldom rate a blip on the national radar. It has been so long since either team was on the right side of .500 that Hall of Famer Robin Yount was patrolling center field for Milwaukee, and Barry Bonds was winning his second National League MVP award with Pittsburgh.
The Brewers and Pirates haven’t merely done a ton of losing over the past dozen years. They have done it in nearly history-making proportions, as both teams have made it three-quarters of the way to the all-time record for most consecutive losing seasons. The Phillies failed to have a winning record from 1933-48, a 16-year mark of futility.
The consensus appears to be that the Brewers are closer to ending their streak than the Pirates, but neither team is assured of a quick turnaround.
“It’s been a tough go for both franchises, no question,” Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin said. “We’re both trying to break that cycle of losing and I think we’re both headed in the right direction. It’s tough, though, for everyone in the organization and the fans when you haven’t won for a long time.”
The Brewers and Pirates both face the obstacle of being losing baseball teams in regions where football rules the roost. The Brewers are seen by some fans in Wisconsin as merely a diversion for the time between the end of one Green Bay Packers season and the beginning of their next training camp. The Steelers overshadow the Pirates much the same way.
Both the Brewers and Pirates, though, had reason for optimism four years ago. The Brewers moved into Miller Park in 2001, the same year the Pirates opened PNC Park. Both ballparks were supposed to increase attendance, expand the fan base and increase revenue enough to help both franchises end their losing ways. It hasn’t worked out that way so far.
Both franchises set attendance records in ’01, Milwaukee drawing 2.8 million and Pittsburgh attracting 2.4 million fans. However, the Brewers lost 94 games that season and the Pirates produced a 100-loss disaster marked by injuries and dubious personnel decisions. The Brewers sunk all the way to 106 losses in 2002 and followed with a pair of 94-loss seasons. The Pirates’ loss totals have been slightly lower the last three seasons at 89, 87 and 89.
“Obviously, things haven’t gone the way we hoped moving into a new ballpark,” Pirates president Kevin McClatchy said. “We’ve made our share of mistakes and had some bad luck. We’ve had to dig ourselves out of a hole.”
The same can be said for the Brewers. Now, both franchises are in a race to dig out fast enough to avoid the indignity of breaking the record for consecutive losing seasons.
“I think it would be very important for this franchise to get over .500,” said manager Lloyd McClendon, who has been part of 11 of Pittsburgh’s last 12 sub-.500 seasons as a player, coach or manager. “I think it would be good for this franchise to get rid of that dark cloud that kind of hangs over us.”
On the surface, it would seem neither the Brewers nor Pirates are ready to compete for the playoffs yet. However, officials from both franchises feel they are finally headed in the right direction after years of frustration.
Both teams have GMs who took over after the teams moved into new parks and were given the charge of building a winner and getting disillusioned fans back in the seats. The Brewers’ attendance dipped to 1.7 million in 2003 before rebounding to 2 million last season. The Pirates drew only 1.5 million last year.
Pittsburgh’s Dave Littlefield replaced Cam Bonifay midway through the 2001 season after serving as Expos farm director and assistant GM for the Marlins. Doug Melvin took over for Dean Taylor in Milwaukee after the 2002 season after holding down the Rangers GM job from 1996-2001 and building three American League West winners.
While the Pirates have a slightly better record the past three seasons, the consensus is the Brewers are further along on the long road back to respectability.
Milwaukee is one of the few small-market franchises to have a legitimate No. 1 starter in righthander Ben Sheets, and it locked up its ace early in the season with a four-year, $38.5 million contract extension. The Brewers also have a strong middle of the order in outfielders Geoff Jenkins and offseason acquisition left fielder Carlos Lee and first baseman Lyle Overbay. Jenkins is the one veteran the Brewers decided to build around, while Overbay led the NL in doubles last year in his first full big league season.
The Pirates’ two primary building blocks are lefthander Oliver Perez and left fielder Jason Bay, both acquired from the Padres in the late-season 2003 trade that shipped outfielder Brian Giles west. Perez’ 239 strikeouts last season were the third-highest total in franchise history, while Bay became the first Pirates player ever to win NL rookie of the year. The duo gives Pittsburgh an edge in terms of young big leaguers, one National League scout said.
What really gives the Brewers and Pirates hope is the number of prospects they have at Triple-A, following a winter when they swapped affiliates at that level.
Slick-fielding rookie shortstop J.J. Hardy, whose two-run single keyed a 9-2 Opening Day win against the Pirates, is the vanguard of a wave of prospects that gives the Brewers hope. Seven of the Brewers’ Top 10 Prospects opened the season at Nashville, led by second baseman Rickie Weeks and first baseman Prince Fielder. Also with the Sounds were hard-throwing righthander Jose Capellan (acquired from the Braves at the Winter Meetings for closer Dan Kolb), right fielder Corey Hart, righthander Ben Hendrickson, left fielder Brad Nelson and center fielder David Krynzel.
Milwaukee’s potential impact bats kept the organization ranked third in Baseball America’s minor league talent rankings after it ranked first a year ago. Weeks, at No. 8, led the Brewers’ five-player contingent in BA’s Top 100 Prospects list, which also included righthander Mark Rogers, the club’s 2004 first-round draft pick.
The Pirates had just two players in the top 100: lefthander Zach Duke, the Pirates’ No. 1 prospect, and their 2004 first-round pick, catcher Neil Walker. While Walker opened the season in low Class A, Duke won for Indianapolis on Opening Day against Red Sox ace Curt Schilling, who was pitching for Pawtucket on an injury rehabilitation assignment.
Other Pirates prospects on the Indianapolis roster included righthanders Ian Snell and Bryan Bullington and outfielder Nate McLouth. Switch-hitting catcher Ryan Doumit took Schilling deep, one of four homers he hit in the first four games of the season. Still, the Pirates rank just 18th in BA’s talent rankings due to their lack of impact talent.
An American League scout summed up the differences of the two farm systems: “The Pirates’ guys at Triple-A have a chance to be good players, but the Brewers have guys who can be superstars.”
Ultimately, what will help determine the success of both franchises is money and management. Neither team figures to ever make it into the top half of major league payrolls, so both will have to follow the model of teams like the Athletics and Twins to win on a budget.
Pittsburgh had a franchise-record $57 million payroll when it moved into PNC Park four years ago, but that figure had dipped to $32 million last season before going up to $38 million this year. Milwaukee’s payroll went from $50.2 million in 2002 to $27.5 million in 2004. It rose to $39 million this season after the family of commissioner Bud Selig sold the club to Los Angeles investor Mark Attanasio in January.
McClatchy, a newspaper heir from Sacramento, Calif., put together a group that bought the Pirates in 1996. While McClatchy has been hailed for keeping the franchise in Pittsburgh, he has also been vilified for not putting a winner on the field. And while Attanasio seems to have the resources to improve the Brewers, the Pirates’ financial situation is harder to grasp. G. Ogden Nutting, a newspaper magnate who lives in Wheeling, W.Va., has the most money invested in the club but does not grant interviews and has the reputation within the newspaper business of being tight-fisted.
One thing is certain. Both franchises are eager to start winning.
“Everywhere you go, you’re asked about winning and when are you going to win,” Attanasio said. “My expectations are pretty high in terms of putting together a team with a lot of potential.
“Our goal is not to put together a team for one winning season. Our goal is to put together a team that will win for many years to come.”
The Pirates hope to do the same thing, though McClatchy is wary of putting a target date on winning.
“I got out of the prediction business a long time ago,” McClatchy said. “I am confident in saying that we’re heading in the right direction, though. I think the worst is over for a franchise and better days are coming.”
Brewers correspondent Tom Haudricourt contributed to this story.