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 twelfth stop on the Road to 17: 2004
There is one thing that 2004 will always be remembered for: the Garret Mackowiak game. I guess it’s only fitting that the franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 1992 managed to benefit from one of the weirdest, most improbable days in baseball history. I’ll get to that, but I want to start this off at the beginning of the season before we hit May 28th.
In the fall of 2003, I started school at Duquesne. This officially shifted me from “kind of a big Pirate fan that lived an hour away from Pittsburgh and thus never got to that many games” to “full-on crazed.” Who actually becomes more of a Pirate fan in the middle of their twelfth consecutive losing season? This guy. But hey, the 20 minute walk from the bluff to PNC is just kind of irresistible for someone like me. The season started on an incredibly cold afternoon against the Phillies (I skipped Physics). I walked down to the park with a friend from high school and told her that Craig Wilson was going to have a breakout year (bingo!) and that Kip Wells was going to turn into an ace (oops!). I went on to tell her Wells would pitch a solid game in the opener and the cold would keep the scoring down and the Pirates would win 2-1. Oddly, that was exactly what happened. I was mostly being full of crap, but it was obvious then that I was a blog just waiting to happen.
After that, the Bucs actually got out of the gate decently. They hung around .500 for the first two months of the season mostly thanks to the bat of one semi-mortal outfielder. After being relegated to a backup role by the front office for two years (after his breakout rookie season in 2001), Craig Wilson showed up in camp with long, flowing blond locks of hair and a clear position on the team with Matt Stairs and Reggie Sanders gone and Jason Bay out for a few weeks, the Pirates had no choice but to give Wilson some playing time to start 2004. He mashed in April and May with 12 homers and consecutive months of a 1.000+ OPS. Greg Brown became fond of calling him “Samson” because of his hair, but that seemed kind of silly since Samson’s story ends with his hair getting cut and him, you know, dying. No, we knew that a true legend was born that season:
So the Pirates get out of the gate pretty decently and on May 28th, they sat at 20-22. With a double header scheduled against the Cubs, I headed to the park with my dad to skip my cousin’s high school graduation (sorry, Suzanne!) and watch what we figured was the Pirates’ best chance to get close to .500 late in the year. In the car on the way down, they talked on the radio about Rob Mackowiak’s wife delivering a healthy son that morning and that Mackowiak was planning on being with the team for the game. “Well, he’s going to have a big night,” my dad said.
We got to the park about halfway through the first game and we were still wandering towards our seats in the seventh inning when Michael Barrett hit a grand slam to put the Cubs ahead 5-4. The air kind of went out of PNC at that point and it stayed out until the ninth. That inning started off with a Tike Redman triple (that was really a weird theme in the Pirate games I was attending at that point in my life) and Abe Nunez quickly tied the game up with a single. From there, the Pirates loaded the bases and after Craig Wilson struck out, Rob Mackowiak stood up at the plate, only needing a single to create an incredible story for his recently born son. He hit a grand slam and PNC went wild.
That in itself would’ve made for an amazing night at the ballpark and for a while, it seemed like it would end there. McClendon gave Mackowiak the night cap off and we speculated in the stands that maybe he’d sent him to the hospital to be with his wife and son. He did come in as a late sub in the seventh, but the Pirates trailed for most of that game and found themselves heading into the bottom of the ninth trailing 4-2. Tike Redman (again!) lead off the ninth and drew a walk, and Mackowiak stepped up to the plate. I don’t know if I’ll ever experience a playoff game at PNC Park, but if it does happen I can’t imagine it being more electric than it was for Mackowiak’s at-bat in the ninth inning of that game. The crowd went wild when he was introduced and I swear I briefly left my body and attained a higher form of consciousness when he launched a game-tying homer to the same spot. I remember Craig Wilson’s walk-off home run in the tenth, but it may have been an out of body experience. It’s been nearly four years and this is the second time I’ve done a long recap of these events on WHYGAVS and I’m still not certain I can find the right adjective for what happened that night.
With a couple exceptions, the rest of the season kind of feels like a side note to that night. That’s mostly because of the pitching staff which, with the exception of Oliver Perez (more on him later), was awful. There were so many things that went wrong with the staff that year that it hurts to recount them. Kip Wells’ downslide started that year, Kris Benson was about average until he got traded for Ty Wigginton (but only because Dave Littlefield didn’t want that bum Ryan Howard), Sean Burnett had four good starts and blew his arm out, Ryan Vogelsong had an awesome spring and then sucked something awful during the season, and we got our first taste of Van Benschoten. The bullpen, which featured a dominant Mike Gonzalez, a weirdly resurgent Jose Mesa, a flat-out awesome Salomon Torres, and a surprisingly solid (in that I had no idea he ever pitched that well for us) Brian Meadows was actually very good that year. Too bad for them, the lineup and rotation weren’t good enough to get them a ton of leads.
The one bright spot was, of course, Oliver Perez. Do yourself a favor and just look at his game log from 2004. He had nine starts in which he struck out ten or more batters. From June 15th through the end of August, he had a 2.25 ERA and struck out 119 hitters in 92 innings, walking on 41 in that span and holding hitters to a .186/.286/.307 line. I was at the July 28th game with my brother. We watched Ollie breeze through 8 2/3 innings, allowing only five hits and striking out ten. Unfortunately, one of those five hits was a solo homer to Chipper Jones in the fourth and that was the only run of the game. Russ Ortiz gave up 9 hits in seven innings and Chris Rietsma gave up 2 more in the eighth, but the Pirates didn’t plate a single run and they lost 1-0 in what was probably the most frustrating game I’ve ever attended at PNC Park.
Really looking at 2004, it was the first true year of the “Littlefield era,” if you will. There were some good things, there were some bad things, and they generally mixed together to make a season that, with the exception of Rob Mackowiak’s wild night in May, was both entirely unoffensive and forgettable all at the same time. The Drive for 75 was officially in effect.