The most beautiful ballpark in the majors, PNC Park, has mostly been a house of horrors for much of its first 10 years of existence. Before that, Three Rivers stadium took the brunt of the bad baseball for many years prior. But with the extensions given to manager Clint Hurdle and his front-office counterpart, Neal Huntington, it looks like the team believes it's officially turned the corner on two decades of disaster.
Saying that the Pirates were bad for a while is like mentioning in passing that the Allegheny River was intentionally set ablaze in 2011; it leaves out important pieces of the story such as why, how and who the heck was in charge. And that Pittsburghers had to watch the whole thing burn.
In terms of point-source pollution, it's widely believed that it all started with the disastrous Sid Bream game. That game saw Barry Bonds exit stage left -- along with the Pirates' playoff chances for the foreseeable future -- after he was unable to make what would have a game-saving defensive play in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. From there, they were unable to produce a winning season from the end of the first Bush administration until the beginning of Obama's second term, finishing an average of six games below .500 for an entire generation of fans.
Well, what fans were there, anyway.
The Pirates finished either 15th or 16th out of all 16 NL teams in attendance every year from 2004 to 2012, after only a brief uptick when they debuted their new digs in 2001. And that, even more so than whatever residual damage existed from the Bream game (and Bonds' subsequent departure), is why the club has been unable to right the ship until now.
Despite a long and storied history that stretches all the way back to 1876, the Pirates have never been a major draw at home or on the road. Part of this is the luck of geography -- Pittsburgh is a small and relatively isolated media market -- and some of it has to do with the predominance of the Steelers. While it's hard to say definitively how much that's affected them, they've only finished in the top half of attendance once since 1972. (Though they are third in the NL for the 2014 season, as of Friday!)
In a league without a salary cap, an inability to generate revenue to pay the market rate becomes a self-perpetuating problem. While some teams have figured out how to navigate the gap between themselves and wealthier teams using math, science and service-time chicanery, the Pirates lagged far behind teams like the A's and Rays when it came to analytics. In fact, until 2008, the team was completely without an analytics department.
From the beginning of his tenure, Huntington was forced into an uphill battle against organizational sloth and a total unpreparedness for the direction the game was going. According an interview from last season with Huntington and his Director of Baseball Systems development, Dan Fox, the team didn't even have a proprietary computer system to track their players.
After developing that system, Fox is now involved in nearly every step of the process from player acquisition to defensive shifts, despite working closely with the decidedly old-school Hurdle. This has allowed the team to make up for the considerable gaps between itself and its deep-pocketed opponents in the NL Central. Also helping bridge the divide is reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, who has been the best player on the team for each of the last four years in terms of Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement and was the clear choice for the league's Most Valuable Player last season.
Along with slugging third baseman Pedro Alvarez, McCutchen has been a panacea for whatever was ailing the Pirates before his arrival. McCutchen, who the team selected with the 11th pick in the first round of the 2005 draft, has managed to make it to three straight All-Star games, earned two straight top-three MVP finishes and captured a Gold Glove and a pair of Silver Sluggers. And he's helped carry his team closer to the promised land than the organization has been in 20 years.
So while the departure of veteran pitcher A.J. Burnett -- and a $25 million dollar drop in payroll -- might lead to a bit of a regression for the team, it's clear at this point that, with a future this bright, Bucs fans may want to start wearing sunglasses to the games. And not because the river's on fire this time.