On Reaching .500

The Pittsburgh Pirates just won their 81st game of the season, which means their historic streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons is finally, mercifully, over. Odds are good that in the next few days, maybe as soon as tonight, they’ll get number 82 and have their first winning season in two decades officially in the books. They’re in first place in the NL Central and a near-lock to at least capture a Wild Card berth, if not a division title, which means we’ll see them in October for the first time in a generation.

A few quick facts about the Pirates’ last postseason appearance in 1992:
  • The last pitcher to record a playoff win for the Pirates is Tim Wakefield. Now, that doesn’t seem like a big deal given that Wakefield was still active just two years ago, but in 1992 he was a 25-year-old phenom wrapping up a season that put him third in the Rookie of the Year voting. He hasn’t pitched for Pittsburgh since 1993.
  • Taking the loss for the Braves in that game was left-hander Tom Glavine. He’ll be eligible for the Hall of Fame next year.
  • The 1992 Pirates’ best pitcher was Doug Drabek, who was then 29 years old. Today, his son Kyle is in his fourth major league season with the Blue Jays.
  • Their best position player, of course, was NL MVP Barry Bonds.
  • Bonds led the team with 34 home runs. No one else had more than 14, and only two other players even cracked double digits. The Pirates’ 106 home runs would tie them with the Cardinals for 13th place in the National League today – and that’s 162 games’ worth of home runs for the Pirates against the Cardinals’ total through 137. They finished fourth in the league in 1992.
  • Put another way, the Pirates’ .381 slugging percentage would tie them with the Padres for 12th in the NL today. In 1992, that mark was good for fourth place.
It’s been a while.

In 1992, the American and National Leagues still weren’t completely merged. Each league had its own president, and interleague play (except for the World Series and All-Star Game) did not exist. There were only two divisions in each league and just two rounds of playoffs; no Wild Card, no Division Series.

The New York Yankees had their fourth straight losing season, and owner George Steinbrenner was still banned from baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays won their first of two straight World Series

The Montreal Expos not only existed, but were actually pretty good in 1992. They won 87 games and finished second in the NL East – behind, of course, the Pirates.

The AL MVP was Dennis Eckersley, who remains the last relief pitcher to take home that award. The NL Cy Young went to Greg Maddux, who was still a Cub.

Sammy Sosa was a 23-year-old outfielder who had yet to post even average offensive numbers at the Major League level. Mark McGwire was a 28-year-old former Rookie of the Year who’d flashed occasionally dominant but inconsistent offense.

Jamie Moyer was out of the big leagues and looked completely washed up at age 29.

Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan and George Brett were still active players.

It’s fair to say that was a different time.

Plenty has happened in baseball since 1992, as you’d expect in any 20-year stretch. 

Since the Pirates were last in October, we’ve seen Chipper Jones’ entire Hall of Fame career and the rise and fall of Manny Being Manny Ramirez.

We’ve seen four new teams join the league in the Rockies, Marlins, Diamondbacks and Rays. All have been to the Fall Classic, two have won, and the Marlins have won twice.

Speaking of the Marlins, they’ve had three fire sales since 1992. Build it up, burn it down.

Ten different players have joined the 500-homer club since the Pirates’ last winning season. Four pitchers have joined the 300-win club. The all-time home run record has fallen; the single-season record has fallen twice.

Three different pitchers (Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera) have broken the all-time saves record. Hoffman racked up every single one of his 601 saves after the Pirates’ last postseason appearance.

Since 1992, we’ve seen the entire trailblazing career of Hideo Nomo and the subsequent wave of Japanese players. Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish… none of them would have had a shot at the big leagues when the Pirates last finished over .500.

The Angels have changed geographic affiliations three times (from California to Anaheim to Los Angeles of Anaheim) without ever leaving their home city.

Baseball has changed tremendously in the last two decades. Every other franchise, even the Yankees, has had good years and bad years since 1992. We’ve seen historically great offensive seasons and historic runs of pitching dominance. We’ve seen the rise and fall of great players, great teams, great dynasties. For young fans, myself included, who have only been conscious of baseball for 20 years or less, it can be tough to keep up.

Through it all, though, the Pirates have been the constant. Whether the top sluggers are blasting 60 homers or barely reaching 40, whether the best pitcher in the game is Johnson or Martinez or Verlander or Kershaw, whether the Yankees or Marlins or Red Sox or Giants are world champions, baseball fans know one thing for certain: The Pittsburgh Pirates are always, always, always losers.

Until 2013.

I’m happy for Pittsburgh fans, because after so many years of futility, they deserve a winner. I’ll be cheering for the Pirates all the way through the playoffs (well, at least until they meet my Red Sox in the Fall Classic). I’m a little sad, though, because one more constant in my life as a fan is gone.

At least the Cubs haven’t won the World Series yet. I’m pretty sure the world would end.

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