The Pirates finished off their 15th consecutive losing season — one short of the major-league record of ineptitude of 16 straight losing seasons established by the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies.
The Bucs’ 68-94 record this season was a very modest improvement over the identical 67-95 marks compiled by both the 2005 and 2006 teams — but it wasn’t good enough to put the Pirates any higher than last place in what is baseball’s weakest overall division, the National League Central. For the third season in a row, the Pirates failed to win 70 games, and this year, they finished 17 games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs.
Once again, any intrigue surrounding the Pirates’ on-the-field fortunes was wiped out by late July, when a 2-14 slide snuffed any chances of a finish that would be .500 or better.
This summer, there were no all-star games to break up the tedium surrounding a mid-summer losing streak, no batting title chases to keep some degree of interest percolating into the waning weeks of the season, and no outstanding rookie phenoms on which fans could base expectations of exciting future contributions.
This year’s Pirates, quite simply, failed to perform in many areas — with the exception of a splendid August in which the team clubbed a franchise-record 45 home runs and won 17 of 30 games.
Such continued failure calls for radical change, and the Pirates did indeed make drastic changes in their front office in the final month of this season.
Whether those changes will eventually translate into the type of success on the field that has eluded the Pirates for the past decade and a half — let alone the magnitude of the great accomplishments of the World Championship teams of the 1970s — remains to be seen.
But the Pirates at least have to be credited for attempting to set the wheels of positive change in motion.
In September alone, the team fired its long-time general manager, hired a new one and also appointed a new president/chief executive officer.
One of the chief questions surrounding the Pirates this offseason will be whether field manager Jim Tracy and his coaching staff are retained by the new upper management team for the 2008 season.
Since becoming the Pirates’ field manager in 2006 after a five-year managerial reign with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tracy hasn’t helped the Bucs make any considerable progress.
Tracy has exhibited a laid-back, Pollyanish attitude toward the Pirates’ numerous problems on the field, and some of the players’ careless and uninspired performances at times have reflected that attitude.
Tracy’s pitching coach, Jim Colborn, appears to have a combative, abrasive and confrontational side to his personality that has turned some of the Pirates’ players off.
Colborn should also share some of the responsibility/blame for the downfall of left-handed pitcher Zach Duke. When Duke emerged on the major league scene just two years ago, he had National League batters eating out of the palm of his hand — riding a wicked curve ball and better-than-average fast ball to an 8-2 record and 1.81 earned run average.
Since the arrival of Colborn and Tracy, Duke has largely fallen off the baseball map. After Colborn ordered him to make alterations in his delivery a year ago, Duke has really never been the same. Last year, he slipped to 10-15 with a 4.47 earned run average, and this year — a season punctuated by a two-month stint on the disabled list with elbow problems — Duke posted a 3-8 record and surrendered 150 hits in 97• innings with a 5.78 earned run average.
New general managers often prefer to clean house with their own hand-picked field personnel, and it would be more surprising than not if Tracy, Colborn and the rest of the Pirates’ coaching staff are back next spring.
The Pirates were on life support back in 1996, when Kevin McClatchy — who announced this July his resignation as team president effective at this season’s end — came in from California with the money to keep the team in Pittsburgh and eventually resurrect beautiful PNC Park for the start of the 2001 season.
This present management juncture, in many respects, is no less critical to the health of the franchise. If the Pirates make a commitment to spending more money on a few quality players who will bring long-term value — and spending that money wisely — their ship could eventually be righted.
But if the same lack of vision that has persisted for nearly two decades continues, expect the Pirates to continue to flounder and expect sports fans in Pittsburgh to continue to bide their Junes and Julys waiting for Steelers’ training camp to open.
In any event, this winter, and the next few summers, in Pittsburgh should prove to be quite interesting ones indeed.
John Hartsock can be reached at email@example.com or 946-7444.