There are a lot of retrospectives about the bad, the bad, and the ugly for the Pirates over the last two decades. Here's a good one from a Pirates-centric site. Here's one from impartial Internet person Dayn Perry. So much has happened. So much misery. So much dejection.
There are a lot of ways to put the streak into perspective. The last time the Pirates ended a season over .500, Bryce Harper was a fetus, and José Fernandez wasn't crawling. I was a virgin with Coke-bottle glasses and multiple Pantera shirts, wondering why girls didn't go for guys with Coke-bottle glasses and multiple Pantera shirts.
But if there are countless ways to put it into perspective, here's my favorite:
That was the manager of the last Pirates team to finish over .500. Now, this card is from 1986, and not from the last winning season. But the last time the Pirates finished .500 or better, that card was not yet completely ridiculous. It was only slightly ridiculous. That's how long it's been since the Pirates had a winning season.
Jim Leyland was the same age in that picture as Jason Giambi is now, by the way.
Why is that hat so shiny?
The most impressive part of the streak to me, though, wasn't the endless dejection. The awful decisions that bred like tribbles. The miserable management combined with the miserable ownership. No, no, the most impressive part of the streak was that they never backed into an over-.500 season. Even the Royals had 2003. It took a lot of incompetence to do what the Pirates did, but it also took a complete absence of breaks. Here, then, is a rundown of the breaks the Pirates didn't get during that horrendous streak.
Prospects carrying the team
Every so often, a bad team comes up with a prospect so good, the organization can't screw him up. The Giants went decades between homegrown All-Star hitters. Then they drafted Buster Posey early in the first round, and he was rushed to the majors before he could get screwed up too much.
Team: Okay, you're holding the bat the wrong way. Why do you think the other end is so thick? For gripping, stupid. Hey, that's a butterfly!
Fortunate distribution of runs
You know how this works. A team goes 42-3 in one-run or extra-inning games. Stat dorks write about how the performance isn't sustainable. Fans of the team yell and yell and yell about this evaluation. Everything returns to normal the next season. Fans simmer down.
The Pirates never had one of those seasons. Oh, they came close in 1997, when they were outscored and finished 79-83. Their awful GM won the Sporting News Executive of the Year Award as a kind of, "So, you weren't as wretched as we were all expecting!" consolation prize.
That was it. That was their fluky season.
Decrepit veteran's dead-cat bounce
The Pirates didn't get a lot of veteran free agents, to be honest. Everyone goofs on Derek Bell and Operation Shutdown, but that was an anomaly. The Pirates didn't spend a lot of money on outside players during the streak. Which is kind of a problem.
Look at the Mets with Marlon Byrd, or the A's with Bartolo Colon. Or the Giants with Ryan Vogelsong, who is one of the very worst pitchers in Pirates history according to ERA+. The Pirates didn't get a lot of those guys. You think the Mets saw some secret mechanical adjustment from Byrd that gave the Mets some sort of secret insight? No way. They got lucky.
The Pirates never got that lucky. They didn't spend a lot in the offseason, sure. But they never got lucky, either.
Random collection of bullpen aces
Every once in a while, bullpens come together in a weird way, and they make up for the shortcomings of a sketchy rotation. It's not enough to win a division or a World Series, mind you. But it's enough to push an iffy team over .500 for a year before the regression ruins everything.
A BUNCH OF #1 PICKS WORKING OUT WELL, DAMMIT
Look, it's not like the Pirates were drafting Greg Oden with their first-round picks.
Good size. Lots of projection. Deceptive delivery, probably because he doesn't know how to throw a baseball. Weird, sloshing sounds coming from his knees, but that's probably nothing. An 80 prospect, worthy of the first-overall pick.
Scouts liked all of those players. It's not like they found Bryan Bullington from a Craigslist ad. Scouts loved him. Everyone loved him. If he went #6 or #7, everyone would say things like "Oh, dang, can't believe he lasted that long, what a steal!"
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Because he was supposed to be good. This went on for decades. The Pirates drafted in the top half of the first round. This is why the Rays have Evan Longoria and David Price. This is why the Tigers have Justin Verlander and why they were able to trade for Miguel Cabrera. First-round picks work out every so often. Not always, but every now and again.
It never worked for the Pirates. Until Andrew McCutchen. The prophet who shall lead them. And he was an 11th-overall pick, which is a historically cursed pick. McCutchen is the most valuable #11 pick in history, even after just five seasons.
They didn't have a McCutchen before. They have one now. And they have a magic bullpen. They have the veterans on the dead-cat bounce with A.J. Burnett and Russell Martin. They have prospects carrying the team, with Gerrit Cole and Starling Marte doing fantastic things. They have first-round picks working out all over the place.
This is the Pirates team that should have been around all along, even if only in pieces big enough to help them to an 82-win season every now and again. It never happened. It's happening now, though, so congratulations upon congratulations, Pirates. Congratulations, Pirates fans. I'm not going to suggest it was all worth it. But the pain makes this season seem that much sweeter every danged time you think about it.