The Road to 17 is a longer look at each losing season that the Pirates have had since their last playoff appearance in 1992. The object is not to wallow in the misery of the Pirates, but instead remember just what it is that makes us Pirate fans in the first place. Every team has their great moments, the Pirates’ are just fewer and further between. Today, we hit the seventh stop on the Road to 17: 1999.
Perhaps the analogy I’m about to use is a bit of a stretch, but it’s predominate in my mind at the moment so I’m sticking with it. On Sunday, I left Hermitage at 8 AM for my 8-hour trip back to North Carolina hoping to get back in time for most of the Steeler game. Thanks to a wonderful combination of a huge travel day and horrendously crappy weather, my 8-hour trip took almost 11 hours. The only positive thing was that the dense cloud cover from Washington, PA onwards somehow carried the 1170 signal with Bill, Tunch, and Wolf out of Wheeling (one that my dad says he’s never picked up south of Morgantown on I-79) all the way to my apartment. It was one bright light in an disappointing day.
Similarly, the 1999 Pirates had Brian Giles. Except for Giles, most of ’99 was disappointing. We can get to the other parts later, but let’s start with Giles. After Cam Bonifay acquired him in exchange for only Ricardo Rincon in the winter of 1998, he lead the NL in OPS with an insane .315/.418/.614 line that saw 39 homers and 115 RBIs from a lineup that batted Al Martin (.337 OBP) and an empty hole in front of him after Gene Lamont moved Jason Kendall out of the leadoff slot on May 1st. In 1999 (and later in 2000, 2001, and 2002), Giles was just about as good at the plate as anyone in Pirate history. That seems insane to say, but it’s true. Had Giles spent his prime somewhere other than the Indians’ bench and with the Pirates, he’d be remembered as one of the best players of the late 90s and early 00s. Instead, he’s an All-Star and nothing else. It’s a shame, but I guess it’s how it works out sometimes.
Beyond Giles, though, 1999 will be defined by Jason Kendall’s horrific ankle injury. The Pirates came into the 4th of July at a game above .500 and certainly in the thick of the NL Central and wild card race. Then, in the sixth inning of a game in which the Pirates trailed 3-0 (after two straight losses to drop them near the .500 mark), Kendall tried to make something happen with a leadoff bunt for a hit. As he raced down the first base line, he stretched out, hit the base funny with his right foot, and completely dislocated his ankle. The bone stuck out of his leg, his foot dangled off at a precarious angle, and his season ended. The Pirates lost the game, briefly went above .500 again at 42-41, and then fell off to a 79-win season, even though they had their best Pythagorean record of the 17 year losing streak (775 runs scored, 782 allowed).
The Kendall trade also went on to some disastrous reprecussions. After Keith Osik failed to fill Kendall’s shoes, the Bucs traded Jose Guillen to Tampa for Joe Oliver and Humberto Cota. The Pirates mishandled Guillen in just about every way possible, from the way they called him up early, to keeping him up when he struggled, to giving up on him at the age of 23. They could have mishandled him worse, but the only way they could’ve done that was if his name was Aramis Ramirez. At least the Pirates had the sense to keep him in the minors for most of 1999 after his disastrous debut as a 19-year old in 1998.
Presenting Giles as the only redeeming factor of 1999 is a bit misleading. Giles was the difference between the awful 1998 offense and the respectable 1999 one. He was the reason that 1999 was disappointing and not disastrous. There was, however, another player that Cam Bonifay rescued from the scrap heap that was a key component to the ’99: Todd Ritchie. He went from Twins castoff to 15-9/3.49/1.29 for the Pirates, leading what was again a very good Pirate pitching staff (except for Pete Schourek … he was awful).
Good turns from Ritchie, rookie Kris Benson, and Jason Schmidt should have portended a good Pirate pitching staff for years to come. Instead, they were the last Pirate pitching staff to finish with an ERA+ of over 100 (though they did finish right at 100 in 2002 and 2004). A lot of this can probably be blamed on the decline of Francisco Cordova, who fell off in 1999 after 220+ innings in 1998 and was never the same again. He probably wasn’t 27 years old like he said he was at the time, but losing him from the rotation was something the team never really seemed to recover from.
There are a million other mini-plots from this year we could talk about. There’s the mystery of Warren Morris, who was a solid .288/.360/.427 rookie second baseman in 1999, then never hit ever again. There was the continuing awfulness of Brant Brown and Mike Benjamin, who spent most of the year in the starting lineup despite being awful. We also had Mike Williams’ first disastrous stint as closer but a solid bullpen because of Scott Sauerbeck, Brad Clontz, Marc Wilkins, and Jeff Wallace — a bunch of guys that mostly never came close to matching their 1999 seasons.
When you view the Pirates’ 16-year journey as a full story, 1999 was the year that things finally hit the fan for good. In reality, the Kendall injury followed by the Guillen trade was what officially transitioned things from attempting to build a decent team for the future to the “Drive for 75.” That’s not to say that Bonifay didn’t misstep here or there before the Guillen trade, but at the midway point of the ’99 season the Pirates had guys like Kendall, Giles, and Jason Schmidt with young guys like Guillen, Ramirez (again, in AAA in ’99), and Kris Benson. When they ditched Guillen for a poor-hitting veteran catcher with a good defensive reputation and a middling catching prospect like Cota was an attempt to finish .500 in a year when .500 shouldn’t have been the goal. Leading up to’99, Bonifay was making his name by pulling guys like Ritchie and Turner Ward and Kevin Polcovich off the scrap heap and turning in reasonable production from them. After ’99 he made some good moves, but mostly signed terrible players like Pat Meares and Derek Bell to terrible, crippling contracts. The focus of the front office shifted from trying to slowly rebuild to trying to put a superficially decent squad on the field in 2001 when PNC Park opened.
I’ve been in the car for too long today. Thinking about 1999 more than this is a bad idea.