Bateman: Pirates working hard for mediocrity

By Oliver Bateman

It’s baseball season, and isn’t that exciting? We couldn’t wait and neither… It’s baseball season, and isn’t that exciting? We couldn’t wait and neither could you. We’ve loved our Pittsburgh Pirates for as long as we’ve been able to love, and like most of our girlfriends, they’ve let us 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, and a few local sportswriters were bold enough to argue that Andy Van Slyke was a better player than Barry Bonds. After that came 17 years of rebuilding, during which the Pirates have become the most rebuilt team.

It’s hard to argue with the results of this project. Most teams rebuild to improve, something that never made sense to us. Once a team improves, it has to stop rebuilding — no more reclamation projects, high draft picks, anemic attendance figures, losing seasons and devil-may-care trades.

It takes a lot of work to stay this mediocre. Ask the general managers of the Oakland Golden State Warriors, Detroit Lions or the Columbus Blue Jackets. You need to make the wrong decisions at the right times over and over again to stay out of contention.

Fortunately for the Pirates, they’re not operating in an environment where a salary cap leads to parity and occasional winning seasons even for the worst-run teams.

The Pirates can be as mediocre as they want to be, and in the process serve 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 shoulder and the french fries swept off their salads. 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 amenable 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 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 established players like Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson for organizational depth, but he shouldn’t have stopped there. He should have traded the decent players the Pirates have in the minors, like Pedro Alvarez, for even more minor leaguers.

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 would be set for decades of rebuilding.

If one or two of these players panned out, they could be traded immediately for additional depth. One of the things that a rebuilding team needs is depth — and lots of it. A rebuilding team doesn’t need a transitional star or anyone else who could serve as the face of the franchise. The players 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 we 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 support their comparatively meek payroll?

Their reputation for rebuilding is unexcelled among all the teams of Major League Baseball and will be until they have a winning season. Fans should be honored to watch Delwyn Young and Andy LaRoche in their primes, because few teams besides the Kansas City Royals would ever give these guys so much playing time.

It will soon be the 20th anniversary of the Pirates’ losing streak. They’re always nowhere near having a winning season. Yet on each successive opening day we fans can entertain thoughts that they might have one, and of course, they won’t. Baseball is a beautiful game.

If you like the Pittsburgh Pirates and love futility, you should check out The Moustache Baseball Club of America still hasn’t posted a winning season, but hey, you’ve gotta believe.

E-mail Oliver at [email protected].