Wednesday, January 30, 2008

the freak show

kevin polcovich
Kevin Polcovich from Baseball Almanac

1996 saw a lot of goodbyes for the Bucs. They started when Jim Leyland left for the Marlins, and Cam Bonifay made sure a boatload of his players joined him in the bon voyage from Pittsburgh.

Denny Neagle, Dave Clark, Charlie Hayes, Carlos Garcia, Orlando Merced, Dan Plesac, Jay Bell and Jeff King were all dealt. Bonifay explained the first McClatchy plan (of many), which was to strip the club to the bone and invest in the minors and Latin America so they could hit the field running when PNC opened in 2001. Well, they got the "slash costs" part down to a science - they trimmed the $21M Buc payroll of 1996 down to $9M in 1997. The part about them making moves for the future? Well, that didn't work out quite so well. The only starting player Pittsburgh got was the Joker, Joe Randa, and a couple of bench warmers, Abraham Nunez and pitcher Jose Silva. Craig Wilson joined the organization too, as a minor league catcher.

But as Greg Brown said, the 1997 Bucs were a freak show. How else can you explain a lineup of Randa, Jason Kendall, Kevin Young, Tony Womack, Kevin Polcovich, Al Martin, Jermaine Allensworth and Jose Guillen hanging around the top of the Comedy Central division until the last week of September? These guys actually were tied for first in mid July, and spent 32 days of the season in the top spot.

Mainly it was because they overachieved, just the kind of players that Neal Huntington is looking for today. Womack stole 60 bases, Randa and Young were .300 hitters, Martin and Kendall hit in the .290's and the rest all chipped in with respectable offensive numbers. The bench of Dale Sveum, Mark Smith, and Turner Ward had more than its' share of moments during the year too.

The starters were solid, and in fact the trio of Jason Schmidt, Jon Lieber, and Esteban Loaiza would become quite competent pitchers, although not in Pittsburgh. Francisco Cordova had his best year and Steve Cooke rounded out the staff. Cordova was the only one with a sub-4 ERA and each won between 9 & 11 games. Rich Loiselle was our closer, with a 3.10 ERA and 29 saves. He was joined by a cast of thousands in the bullpen, notably Marc Wilkins, Clint Sadowsky, Ricardo Rincon, Matt Reubel, Chris Peters, Jason Christiansen and Dave Wainwright.

Gene Lamont, who took over the reins from Leyland, did a Hall of Fame job guiding his group through the season. The Bucs got just 39 games out of their one big pick up, free agent shortstop Kevin Elster, who managed to break his arm after hitting 7 homers in 139 at bats. He and Martin, both $2M men, were the only Pirates that made over $400K. Kevin Polcovich rode to the rescue – no, seriously. The baby faced dude played short like he belonged, fielding the ball well and hitting .273. He wouldn’t be the only feel good story of this unlikely season.

The team got it's name in late May against the Expos. In a wild game punctuated by some oddball plays, Kevin Young came up in the ninth with the bases loaded against Lee Smith. Announcer Bob Walk mentioned it'd be freaky if he hit one out, and of course he did, winning the game for the Bucs 8-6. Greg Brown cried "It's a freak show," which would become his tagline for the season. The Pirates even changed their ad campaign from "Let's Go To Work" to "The Freak Show." It caught on in a town hungry for a ball team to believe in.

Besides playing some decent baseball - their 79 wins would be the highwater mark of the McClatchy era - the Pirates gave us some memorable moments. It started May 2 when Turner Ward ran through the right field wall at TRS flagging down Mike Piazza's drive even though his team was down 9-0 to the Dodgers. The play was aired season-long as the highlight of the year on TV.

On July 12, Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon combined on a 10 inning no hitter against the Astros, won by a dramatic two-out, three run shot by pinch hitter Mark Smith. It's still the only combined extra inning no hitter ever tossed. The win put the Pirates into a first place tie with the Astros. And it happened in front of a sellout crowd of 44,119 who came out to honor Jackie Robinson's 50th anniversary before the game and catch some Zambelli fireworks afterwards.

On July 17, they were still tied for first place. Four days later, the Bucs beat Curt Schilling and the Phillies. Polcovich missed a suicide squeeze sign and Keith Osik, breaking from third on the pitch, was easily tagged out at home. Wondering if the missed sign would get him a seat on the next bus to the minors, Polcovich banged the next pitch into the seats for the game winner. Schilling chirped at him as he rounded the bases, unable to believe what just happened.

And Pittsburgh became a stretch run buyer for the only time since 1992 when they picked up Shawon Dunston on August 31. He hit .394 for the Pirates during September, but his Superman act wasn't enough to pull the little train that couldn't up the hill.

They ended the season five games behind the Astros by the time the smoke cleared, last hitting the .500 mark on August 30. (Houston got knocked out in the first playoff round by the Buc's old nemesis, the Atlanta Braves.) Allensworth, Womack and Randa left in the offseason. Polcovich had one more year in the bigs before he was out of baseball. Guillen was traded in 1999 for Humberto Cota and Joe Oliver after Kendall splintered his ankle hustling to first base. The core players - Young, Martin and Kendall - slowly faded away.

The pitching staff was broken up, too. Cooke went to the Reds as a free agent in 1998. Loaiza was traded to Texas after the 1998 season for Warren Morris and Todd Van Poppel. Jon Lieber was sent to the Cubs for Brant Brown in 1999, and 2000 was Cordova's last season in baseball. Loiselle had 19 saves in 1998 and his career ended after the 2001 season. Schmidt lasted until the middle of 2001 when he and John Vander Wal went to the Giants for Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong.

Gene Lamont managed through 2000 with the Pirate's blue light special rosters when he was replaced (perhaps mercifully) by Lloyd McClendon. Two last bits of trivia - the current Pirate logo was unveiled in 1997 (the Pirate with the red bandana), and one of the Buc's 2008 free agents, Elmer Dessens, was on the Freak Show roster. A good omen, no?

I say long live the Freak Show. They were the last Pirate team to show a pulse in Pittsburgh.

piarte logo 1997
1997 Pirate logo from Pirate's website

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