The Road to 17 is a longer-form 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 tenth stop on the Road to 17: 2002.
It always amazes me that people don’t know the full story of Operation: Shutdown. If Derek Bell had played even three years later than he did, his shenanigans would’ve made him an internet sensation ten times over. Instead, he pulled his stunt in 2002 and no one ever heard about it except Pirate fans. For that reason, I’m going to start this episode of the Road to 17 with a full retelling of the events.
Prior to the 2001 season, Cam Bonifay tried hard to pull together a team that would contend in it’s first year in PNC Park. To fill a spot in the outfield, Bonifay went out and signed Derek Bell to a 2-year deal worth $9 million. Bell was coming off of a year with the Mets in 2000 that could wholly be described as “average,” but because he was the starting right fielder for the NL Champions, he was an attractive target to the Pirates. Bonifay failed to take his age (32), the fact that he’d declined seriously since his peak in Houston a few years before, or PNC Park’s unfriendly dimensions to right-handed hitters into account. Bell was an abject failure with the Pirates in 2001, hitting .173/.287/.288 in 46 games before going on the disabled list. In fact, sitting on the wall in right field while Pirate fans heckled Bell mercilessly is probably my clearest memory from all of the games I attended in PNC’s inagural season.
After he flamed out in 2001, Bell came to camp in 2002 and continued to struggle. He was politely informed by the coaching staff that they were interested in a young player named Craig Wilson who’d had a breakout year in 2001 and if Bell didn’t start to hit, he was going to lose his starting job. Bell was offended by this thought and simply told the Pirates that he didn’t come to compete for a job and if they expected him to do so, he’d put himself into “Operation: Shutdown.” Seeing as Bell was one of the worst hitters in the majors in 2001, the Pirates were confused as to how Operation: Shutdown could possibly be worse than his attempt at playing baseball. Bell, however, actually carried through on his nebulous threat by getting on his houseboat and sailing out of camp and out of Major League Baseball forever. Of course, baseball contracts are guaranteed so the Pirates actually paid him about $4.5 million to do so, prompting the funniest thing that Mark Madden has ever said or written when listing his “Top 10 Pirate Moments” October of that year:
8) Derek Bell becomes the ultimate Pirate: Lives on a boat and steals money.
2002, however, was marred by an ultimately much more damaging event to the current history of the Pittsburgh Pirates: Aramis Ramirez’s ankle injury. After his breakout 2001 campaign, the Pirates figured to have a budding star playing third base. Ramirez started 2002 off similarly well, hitting .333/.385/.667 going into the Pirates’ April 17th game against the Brewers. He doubled off of Ben Sheets in the second inning, but took exception to Sheets beaning him in the third and charged the mound, somehow badly injuring his ankle in the process. The Pirates put him on the DL, but rushed him back and never gave him enough time off to heal the ankle. He ended the season by putting up a .222/.266/.377 line in 122 games after May 13th, forever poisoning his stock with the Pirates in the process. Honestly, the mishandling of Aramis Ramirez by the Pirates, starting by not protecting Joe Randa in the expansion draft and calling Ramirez up at the age of 19 in 1998, moving through their handling of this ankle injury, and ending with the trade of him, may be the single worst thing the Pirates have done since 1993.
Despite Operation: Shutdown and the Aramis Ramirez incident, the Pirates did manage to improve their win total in 2002 by ten games over 2001. This mostly happened because the pitching made some huge strides. The offense, on the other hand, was putrid. Brian Giles was the only every day player to put up an OPS+ of over 100, though to be fair his monster .298/.450/.622 line was good for a 177, making it arguably the best season of his career. Craig Wilson had an OPS+ of 107 that year and hit 16 homers, but the Pirates only managed to get him to the plate 424 times. That’s criminal, given that Kevin Young’s .322 OBP played 146 games at first base, Adrian Brown got more than 200 PAs with his .582 OPS in center, and Armando Rios got some significant PT in the outfield as well (I won’t hold playing Chad Hermansen against them, he was still a prospect).
One of the most positive aspects of 2002 was the famed “Todd Ritchie trade.” Prior to the season, Dave Littlefield sold high on Ritchie, who was never actually that great, and received Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, Sean Lowe in return. Wells was the gem of the deal, a 25-year-old with great stuff that immediately became the de facto ace of the Pirates’ staff. He coupled a nice WHIP with a good strikeout rate (6.1 per 9 innings) and used that to cobble together a 3.58 ERA and 12 wins. His walk rate was a bit high, but hey, he was young. That was something that had to improve … right? Josh Fogg was his Josh Fogg self, not great but about average, Kris Benson had a decent comeback year from his TJ surgery (a 2.65 ERA in his last 9 starts) and Jimmy Anderson was Jimmy Anderson (read: crappy), but Dave Williams, Brian Meadows, and Salomon Torres all made decent turns in the rotation. And Ron Villone was our Opening Day starter that year, and I prefer we don’t speak of that again.
I also feel like I need to note that this is the one year out of his Pirate career that Mike Williams was actually good. I’m really not certain how a closer racks up 46 saves on a team that only wins 72, but Williams did it. His slider was actually pretty electric in 2002, which helped him hold opponents to just 54 hits in 61 1/3 innings, certainly a big aid to his 2.44 ERA that year. He was joined in the ‘pen by one of my personal Pirate favorites, Mike Fetters. I’ll now allow you two minutes so that you may get up from your computer, go to a mirror, and practice the Mike Fetters breathing routine that he used to control his asthma on the mound and intimidate the crap out of pitchers. Dave Littlefield traded him to Arizona for Duaner Sanchez in July. That would’ve been a good trade, but he lost Sanchez on waivers just over a year later.
It should be noted that one reason that the pitching of the Pirates, especially from guys like Kip Wells and Mike Williams who found little success later (or in Williams’ case, earlier) in their careers, was actually not awful in 2002 was likely that the defense was very good. Pokey Reese played 119 games at second base and teamed with Jack Wilson to make one hell of an awesome double play combination. Reese couldn’t hit at all and did get hurt a lot, but when he and Jack were both healthy, they were fun to watch.
It’s scary to look at it this way, but 2002 had a lot of parallels to 2008 and 2009. As fans, we were in a holding pattern, waiting for Dave Littlefield to dig the Bucs out of the hole that Cam Bonifay had dug for the team. It was too early to judge Littlefield because he was thrust into the job at the deadline in 2001, making his trades then (Jason Schmidt and John Vander Wal for Ryan Vogelsong and Armando Rios) hard to evaluate. He opened 2002 with a nice deal that gave us some hope and while his first draft pick (Brian Bullington over BJ Upton) was immediately infuriating, giving up on a GM in his first year is a pretty bleak feeling that I don’t know many of us were willing to do. The 10-win improvement was promising and we really had no idea what kind of sledgehammer was going to hit us in 2003.