The Road to 17: 2003

The Road to 17 is a 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 eleventh stop on the Road to 17: 2003.

2003 was a benchmark year in this losing streak for the Pirates, but weirdly enough the first memory of the year that jumps to mind for me is the late-May rainout that happened between the Pirates and Red Sox. It was maybe a night or two before my high school graduation and my dad had grabbed the tickets for the throwback to the 1903 World Series. The Pirates had planned to turn the scoreboard off, the teams were wearing throwbacks, and it all seemed like it was going to be a lot of fun whether or not the Pirates got killed (because they probably were going to get killed, you may remember George Steinbrenner actually complaining in 2003 that it was unfair the Red Sox pulled the Pirates in interleague play and the Yankees didn’t). Instead, we got a swirling rainstorm that should’ve had the game cancelled before anyone showed up at the park. The Pirates being the Pirates, though, meant that 38,000 people showed up at the park and wandered around for two hours, spending money on concessions, before the game was cancelled at 9:30. Which is pretty much exactly what happened during the Yankees game I tried to go to this summer, too.

Of course, that’s just the memory of mine that stands out the most from 2003. In reality, there were at least as many noteworthy events in 2003 as there were in any of these past 16 losing seasons. After the 2002 season, the free agent market was remarkably stagnant (the owners later paid a $16 million fine when the player alleged that they were colluding to keep free agent price tags down this winter) and the Pirates ended 2002 with only one significant free agent signing: Matt Stairs. As early 2003 pressed on, though, there were a bunch of decent players who hadn’t found teams and Dave Littlefield was there to scoop them up. He signed Jeff Suppan at the end of January, then after camp opened he signed Reggie Sanders on March 10th, then Kenny Lofton on March 14th. It was crazy, but the Pirates had somehow stumbled in to signing two guys that almost everyone had heard of before.

In reality, this philosophy was the downfall of Dave Littlefield, as he spent each off-season after 2003 trying to find his next Reggie Sanders, a guy who he could get for next to nothing and plug into his lineup with a 130 OPS+. We didn’t know that in 2003, though, and when the Pirates shot out of the gate with a 7-3 record, it really seemed like this new GM was on to something. Of course, then the Pirates fell to 8-8, did a little tango with .500 up until they were 14-14, dropped pretty quickly to nine or ten games below .500, then stayed there for the rest of the year. It was the pinnacle of the “Drive for 75.” If only we knew.

2003 was marked by hardcore roster turnover in Pittsburgh (Jason Kendall, Jack Wilson, and Sanders were the only two Bucs to play in more than 130 games) and I’ll get to the scarring trades in a minute, but before I do that, I really want to take a minute to relive the strangest moment of the Pirates’ seventeen year losing streak: Sausagegate. I will allow the video to do the talking.

I love how serious the news anchors are in this clip. If they’d ever met Randall Simon (or watched him play baseball), they would’ve immediately known two things: 1.) He’s about as happy-go-lucky as Major League player come and 2.) He swung at everything. But instead, they’re discussing assault charges. Thank you, Randall Simon, whereever you are, for the most ludicrous thing to take place on a baseball field since Disco Demolition Night.

As I’m working my way through this post, I can’t help but feel it’s a bit disjointed. It’s probably because I’m dreading mentioning the Aramis Ramirez trade. Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton for Jose (K) Hernandez, Bobby Hill, and Matt Bruback. Hernandez was an over-the-hill journeyman who struck out a lot and was acquired simply because someone had to play third base with Ramirez gone. Hill was already a busted prospect when we got him and I’m 99% certain his career highlight was being featured in this Dugout. I just had to look Bruback up and it seems he made four appearances for Nashville (our AAA affiliate at the time) before being claimed off of waivers less than a month after the Ramirez trade. So for a past All-Star having a decent year at a position the Cubs needed to fill and a future star third baseman, the Pirates got a crappy journeyman, a prospect with no upside, and a guy they didn’t want. I don’t care why the trade happened, it still makes me too angry to really even start talking about it.

Because I’m having a hard time forming coherent thoughts after that paragraph, let’s take a second for some Tike Redman fun facts.

  • Tike has a brother named Prentice who also played in the majors in 2003, hitting .125/.192/.292 in 15 games with the Mets. He is currently in the Mariners organization, where he’s been bouncing between AA and AAA since for the past two years.
  • Despite all of his failings, I will always remember Tike for his game the day after the trade deadline that year. He was just called up to Pittsburgh and he tripled twice in that game, with his second triple tying the game at 11 after the Pirates had fallen behind 11-6 going into the bottom of the ninth, scored the winning run, and made some nice catches in the outfield. I think that officially made me and my dad the first two people on the Tike Redman bandwagon. Present Me is shaking my head sadly at Past Me.
  • Tike is actually still in baseball.

You know, the more I think about 2003, the harder it’s getting to keep this post shorter than the Book of Job. The Ramirez trade wasn’t the only trade DL made that year. He also dealt Scott Sauerbeck and Mike Gonzalez to Boston for  Brandon Lyon and Anastacio Martinez, then decided that Lyon’s arm was bad and sent Lyon, Martinez, and Jeff Suppan to Boston for Gonzalez and Freddy Sanchez. The net of the trade was Sauerbeck and Suppan for Sanchez. I seem to recall this deal making Pirate fans almost as angry as the Ramirez deal at the time.

If that weren’t enough, Brian Giles was then shipped to San Diego after the trade deadline for Jason Bay, Oliver Perez, and Corey Stewart. Bay put up a fairly respectable line with the Pirates in his 100 or so ABs and managed to drive in 8 runs in the front end of a double-header against the Cubs in mid-September. As bad as Ramirez trade looked off the bat, the Giles trade always looked pretty good.

So many things happened in 2003. I mean, Matt Stairs was a Pirate! He spent all year hacking away with his awesome swing at the right field wall and he rolled several balls into rolling into the Allegheny. It was a pretty wild year, in all, that could be remembered for the Giles trade or that the team played about .500 ball for the last 100 games. Instead, we can remember that Dave Littlefield traded a 25-year-old budding All-Star for Jose Hernandez and Bobby Hill.

I don’t think this team deserves us as fans.

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.