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 ninth stop on the Road to 17: 2001.
PNC Park is glorious. Pittsburgh, despite all of the bad things that people say about it, is a beautiful city to look at. The skyline is perfect, the rivers give a wonderful framing effect, it’s everything you’d want in a city, aesthetically. PNC Park is situated on the North Shore to perfectly capture all of the beauty of the city and it does the job. The skyline is there, the Allegheny is there, the statues of Pops and Roberto and Honus are there, the Pittsburgh food is there, the North Side Notch recalls the massive left-center gap in Forbes Field, the wall in right field is 21 feet high for Clemente, and I could go on forever about the details. Perhaps the best part about PNC Park is that every single time I walk across the bridge for a game, I have the same breathless reaction. It doesn’t matter who I’m going with, or if it’s a home opener on a cold April night or a pointless game in August or the first time I’ve been there in a year. Each time I walk across the Clemente Bridge I take a second and think to myself, “This place is beautiful. This place is where baseball was meant to be played.”
(Editor’s Note: I didn’t plan on updating these posts at all because they’re just my memories of each of these seasons, but I just got an e-mail reminding me that I left out one of the most important details of 2001 and so I’ve updated the post a bit starting at this point)
Sadly, PNC’s opening day had a pall cast over it by the death of Willie Stargell. The universe is a funny place sometimes. Just like Charles Schultz died the day before his last Peanuts strip ran in newspapers, Stargell died on the very day that the Pirates were playing their first game in a new stadium, just two days after they dedicated the statue of him that sits outside of it. Instead of opening day being one of joyous celebration and tailgating, a pile of flowers somberly piled up at the foot of the newly dedicated statue to Pops. Looking back on things, it’s almost like he couldn’t bear to watch what was coming.
Of the sixteen terrible baseball teams we’ve had the pleasure of watching since 1992 ended, only one has lost 100 games. The 2001 Pirates were that team. Oddly, the 1-2 punch of Brian Giles and Aramis Ramirez was the best middle lineup mashing combination the Pirates have seen in this futility streak; they combined for 70+ home runs and 200+ RBIs with Giles mashing a .994 OPS and Ramirez mashing an .886. But then, they were the only two regulars (unless you count John Vander Wal’s 313 at bats) to put up an OPS+ of over 100 (which means they were the only two above average hitters on the team that year) and the pitching staff was horrendous.
The first sign that 2001 was going to be a bad year came early, even before Stargell’s death. After starting his career with two good seasons, Kris Benson started to have arm troubles in spring training. The team first claimed they were minor, but when my uncle ran into someone who I believe was affiliated with the old Pirate Report newsletter, he was told that Benson was seriously injured and the team was holding the news back until after the new park opened. Sure enough, the team announced towards the end of April that Benson would be undergoing Tommy John surgery and 2001 would be lost.
2001 also gave us what will likely be the enduring image of this streak of Pirate futility. After Gene Lamont’s contract wasn’t renewed following the 2000 season, the Pirates decided to hire an animated, young, and entirely under qualified man to be the new manager of the ballclub: Lloyd McClendon. McClendon is, by almost all accounts, a great guy. He’s clearly passionate about a lot of things and baseball is one of them. But in 2001, all he really had going for him was that he played and that he’d been a hitting coach for four years. Still, the Pirates hired him to manage and while his entire five year career with the Pirates was tumultuous, nothing any Pirate manager can ever do will quite top “the first base incident.” After a series of bad calls at first base, McClendon became enraged with the umpire, argued with him, and screamed something to the effect of, “If you’re not going to give us first base, I’m going to take it.” He then walked over to the bag, pulled it out of the ground, stormed off the field, and chucked the base into the dugout, where Brian Giles took it and turned it into a clubhouse shrine. The Pirates fought back to win the game in 12 innings, with the key hit being Aramis Ramirez’s game tying 2-run homer in the 11th inning (you may wonder how it could be game tying in the 11th and to that I would respond, “Mike Williams”) and Rob Mackowiak’s walkoff single. You can say what you want about McClendon (and I did, WHYGAVS very nearly began its life as FireLloydMcClendon.com), but at least he cared.
There was another monumental occurance in 2001 that doesn’t get nearly the attention that it should. When looking at Jason Kendall’s decline from an all-around great hitter to singles hitter, most people think that it happened because his ankle injury sapped his speed and leg power. This isn’t true. The real decline in Kendall’s plate performance came after 2001, when Kendall suffered a serious thumb injury in April, but simply tried to learn to play outfield instead of taking the year off. This was, in the words of George Oscar Bluth, a huge mistake. Not only was Kendall a bad outfielder, his slugging percentage dropped from .470 to .458 and he only topped .400 one more time in his career. When the season ended, he had reconstructive surgery on his thumb and was never the same at the plate again.
2001 also saw the firing of Cam Bonifay at mid-season and the hiring of Dave Littlefield towards the end of the season. It was clear at the time that Bonifay had to go; he’d spent an immese amount of money on Kevin Young, who stopped hitting after signing his new contract, Jason Kendall, who’d recent destroyed his thumb, Pat Meares, who actually got his big contract after a debilitating hand injury, and Derek Bell. He was a good scout, but a bad general manager and it was clear the franchise had stagnated with him in control. At the time, Littlefield seemed like a great hire, he’d worked in Florida and Montreal with Dave Dombrowski and seemed to be the perfect guy to rebuild a team like the Pirates. But we’ll talk more about him later.
There is one other 2001 subplot that I can’t not mention: the birth of THOR. As a rookie without a position in 2001, Craig Wilson came up in late April and struck his mighty hammer down for 13 rookie home runs, including a fairly mind-boggling 7 as a pinch hitter. On the whole year he only managed 183 plate appearances in 88 games, but he hit .310/.390/.589 as a 24-year-old. I distinctly remember thinking that the Pirates would be able to add his big bat to Giles and Ramirez and create a vertiable modern-day Lumber Company. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men …
There are few teams that have had more disastrous seasons in recent history than the Pirate had in 2001. They wasted the huge years from Giles and Ramirez, their starting rotation featured horrific turns from Don Wengert, Omar Olivares, and Ramon Martinez, they drafted John Van Benschoten and made him a pitcher, they hired the Galactus of general managers, a man who devoured their franchise whole over the next six years, they traded for Ryan Vogelsong, and Willie Stargell died! In some ways, the Pirates are still recovering from 2001. I’d say we should probably never speak of this season again, but I’m sure we will.