“It almost could have been a movie,” third baseman Joe Randa said. “It was kind of a misfit group that started believing in each other, guys coming together and gaining each other’s trust.”-Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Until recently, the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans were suffering through the longest streak of losing seasons in all of North American professional sports. This may be a moot point now, because in 2013 all of that suffering ended, but for those of us that are die hard fans, we know that the suffering COULD HAVE ended in 1997. There would be less of an ominous specter hanging over the Pirates, and just a bunch of really bad teams in the 2000s. That year, the Pirates came the closest they would ever come to having a winning season during the streak.
That’s not to say the 1997 Pirates weren’t a really bad team. When Kevin McClatchy’s ownership group took over, they slashed the payroll from $21 million in 1996 to $9 million in 1997. They were expected to lose over 100 games. This team, which was unceremoniously dubbed, “The Freak Show”, competed with the Houston Astros for the division until the last week of the season. These Pirates ended up finishing 79-83. Highlight of this season, not including the exciting race for the division, Francisco Cordova and Rincardo Rincon combining for a 10 inning no-hitter. The immortal Mark Smith hit a walk-of 3-run homer in the bottom of the 10th for the Pirates to win it.
For Pirates fans in my age group, that would be the 24-35 age group, successful and exciting Pirates teams was something we were born into, but have only recently seen succeed. For 10 years, 1986-1996, aka the “Leyland Years”, the Pirates had developed a lot of stars, including Barry Bonds, Tim Wakefield, Jay Bell, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, and Jermaine Allensworth (just kidding on that last one). Wouldn’t you know it, Leyland left the team (because of the fiscal fascism of McClatchy and Co.) at the end of 1996 and in 1997 won his only World Series with the upstart Florida Marlins. You’ll see some former Pirates on that winning team too.
After the Leyland Years, the Pirates had many managers, none of them very good. However, some of them were very entertaining. I am a Clint Hurdle proponent, he makes what some superstars on Pirates Twitter consider to be either questionable or apocalyptic decisions at certain points, but research either can’t pin down the effect a manager has, or it postulates that managers don’t have that much of an effect. None of them have ever held a job as a Major League manager, so what do they know? For the record, the manager of the 1997 Pirates was Gene Lamont.
Today, we’re going to see if the 1997 Pirates could have actually ended up having a winning season using the greatest baseball simulator ever devised: Out of the Park Baseball.