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 fourteenth stop on the Road to 17: 2006
I attended more baseball games in 2006 then in any other year of my life. OK, so maybe I haven’t kept track, but I am 99% certain that this is a true statement. It was the second summer I lived in Pittsburgh and not only was I in the city all summer, but I knew other people that liked going to Pirate games. As a result, my memories of 2006 are kind of like weird slideshow of game memories in my head.
I see Opening Day, watching Michael Keaton throw out the first pitch, then seeing my dad fall asleep in the stands before the fifth inning. I think, “this is going to be a long year.” I’m watching Ian Snell dominate the Phillies in late April after some perceived slight the day before. Then I’m up in left field, yelling the answer of the “Know Your Buccos” question to a clearly puzzled man a section over, who still hasn’t thanked me for his home plate club tickets. I’m in a bar on the South Side watching Jason Bay launch another homer. I’m in the left field bleachers watching Jose Castillo launch behemoth homers thinking, “Finally! He’s finally breaking out!” I’m still there two months later to watch Tom Gorzelanny struggle against the Rockies. I’m sitting on my couch furiously typing when Karl Ravech says, “The Yankees have acquired Craig Wilson; we think Shawn Chacon is involved.” I’m in stats class and our professor uses Freddy Sanchez to illustrate rate stats; he asks us if anyone remembers his final batting average and the whole class wheels and looks at me. “.344” They all turn back around.
Really, there wasn’t a lot special about the 2006 Pirates. Before the season started, Dave Littlefield went out and overspent on Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz and inserted them into the starting lineup for no good reason. Everyone that knew anything about that team knew it was a huge mistake. Both Burnitz and Randa were playing for one last paycheck and the Pirates had better internal options (Freddy Sanchez, who killed the ball in August and September of 2005 and Craig Wilson, patron saint of WHYGAVS). Dave Littlefield didn’t care. Burnitz had a big left-handed swing that could hit balls over the Clemente Wall and Randa was a crowd pleaser. Nothing else really mattered.
Of course, Burntiz cratered and Randa lost his job to the eventual NL batting champion. If there was a person left in Pittsburgh that thought Dave Littlefield was doing a good job, even they were convinced by the end of 2006 that it was time to go in a new direction. Thank god for small favors, I guess.
The early part of 2006 was marked by two incredible hot streaks. From May 18th until May 28th, Jason Bay hit ten home runs in ten games, finishing with a seven-in-six flourish. It was a hot streak unlike anything I’ve ever seen from any Pirate, including Brian Giles (who was a much better hitter than Bay). Night after night the ball just kept leaping off of his bench and over the fence. For a while it seemed like it was going to carry on forever. It came right in the middle of the Pirates ridiculous push to get him into the All-Star Game, too, which was nice because when he was voted in mostly everyone agreed that he deserved it. I don’t know how many times the Pirates have lost seven of ten games since this losing streak began, but the only 3-7 stretch I’ll ever remember is this one.
Right as Bay’s streak was winding down, Jose Castillo started a streak of his own. He homered in five straight games to end the month of May, including a ridiculous 2-homer, 6-RBI night against the Brewers where one of his bombs glanced off the third level of the rotunda and the other one went to dead center. After the Pirates beat the Brewers again on June 1st, Castillo stood with a .311/.359/.500 line with eight homers and I think every Pirate fan everywhere thought that he was finally starting to hit a stride and come out of his shell. From June 2nd on, he hit six homers with a .222/.267/.320 line. He swung for the fences with every cut. The hot streak that we all thought was his breakout ruined him.
The season itself was just a continuation of the same old Bucs. Only three regular position players (Jason Bay, Fredd Sanchez, and Sean Casey) had above average OPSs on the year and Craig Wilson was the only bench player to hit that above average mark. Of those four guys, two of them were traded at the trade deadlien for Brian Rogers and Shawn Chacon. The bullpen was pretty awesome (Mike Gonzalez, Salomon Torres, Matt Capps, John Grabow, and Roberto Hernandez all threw significant innings with good ERAs), but the rotation was bad with Zach Duke and Paul Maholm dropping off from their breakouts and Kip Wells struggling with a blood clot, Ian Snell taking his lumps in his rookie year, and Victor Santos existing. Looking at the rotation and the lineup, you can see that this team was just a recipe for disaster.
And boy, did disaster ever strike. Just like the home runs wouldn’t stop flying off of Jason Bay’s bat in May, the Pirates couldn’t stop losing games in June. On the 15th, they suffered a seemingly innocent 6-5 loss to the Cardinals. That ballooned into a sweep by the Twins, who started Francisco Liriano AND Johan Santana against us, that brutal make-up game loss to the D’Backs on a Monday afternoon when the Pirates had bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the tenth but failed to score, a sweep at the hand of the Royals who had the worst record in baseball by a good amount at the time, three troucnings in LA against Jim Tracy’s old team, and two losses to the White Sox. I don’t remember why, but I was in my car on the Thursday afternoon that the Bucs and Sox played the third game of that series. They carried a two-run lead into the eighth inning and after Rob Mackowiak singled with one out, Jim Thome came up to pinch hit. I remember screaming at the radio in my car when Tracy left Hernandez on the mound to face Thome with Gonzalez still in the pen and sure enough, Big Jim tied it all up with a two-run homer. I was convinced we were going to lose and I’m still honestly kind of in disbelief over Freddy Sanchez’s walkoff homer to end that game. I sort of feel like if he didn’t hit it, we might still be mired in that losing streak now.
Now that we’re getting well into the WHYGAVS era, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that two of my all-time favorite WHYGAVS moments took place in 2006. One of them was the Pirates/Royals game I decided to liveblog in mid-June. The Pirates were mired in their awful losing streak, but Kip Wells was coming back and the Pirates and Royals were so bad I decided to make a stab at a live blog. This was the final entry from that game before my sign-off:
11:29- Some fun stats: the Pirates committed 3 errors tonight, walked 11 batters, gave up more runs than hits, threw a wild pitch, allowed a passed ball, and gave a win to Mark Redman and his “5 innings, 6 hits, 5 runs (all earned) 5 walks” line. All told, our pitchers threw 168 pitches tonight (!) and only managed to get 89 of them across the plate. If you remove Matt Capps, it’s 75 out of 151 (less than 50%). Just an ugly, ugly game. Actually, the Royals were pretty bad in their own right, but just about anyone can find a way to win when the opponent walks them 11 times.
Perversely, that liveblog also turned out to be WHYGAVS’ breakout moment, as Deadspin picked up the link in the morning and sent a then-unheard of wave of traffic my way.
The other great moment is, sadly enough, the trade deadline from that year. I finished up lab work for the summer at the end of July, so my first true off-day was July 31st. I walked downstairs, opened up my brother’s laptop, sat on the couch, and turned on ESPN. That day was probably Dave Littlefield’s most active day as GM. He’d already traded Sean Casey by the time I dragged myself out of bed that morning and before 4:00 PM, he’d dealt Kip Wells, Oliver Perez, Roberto Hernandez, and Craig Wilson as well. The total haul for that day was Xavier Nady, Jesse Chavez, Brian Rogers, and Shawn Chacon. Just thinking about it makes me want to vomit. What was awesome about it, though, was that there was a lot of people online that afternoon reacting just as violently to the trades as I was. It sucked, but it was kind of reassuring to know that it sucked for so many other people, too.
The longer I write this, more and more memories from 2006 are pouring out of me. Who remembers the 18 inning game against the Astros in late May? Who else was at the 15-inning game against the Astros in late September? By the time that game ended, it was me and two friends with a ton of Astro fans who chided us when we cheered for the Pirates by saying, “WHAT? Do you WANT the Cardinals to make the playoffs or something?” I could probably go on forever about this awful, awful baseball team. They were terrible, but maybe more so than any other team during this losing streak, they were mine.