The Ever-Sinking Ship: The Historic Losing Streak of the Pittsburgh Pirates: The Ryan Dixon Line [BEST OF FaN]

.500. For any fan of baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates, this number now has more significance than Barry Bonds’ home run record, DiMaggio’s hit streak or Cal Ripken’s consecutive games played. When I wrote the following blogumn in March, it looked like the chances of  the Pirates  finally ending this season with as many wins as losses after a record 18 consecutive years of failing were about as good as Newt Gingrich winning the Republican nomination.

Then a funny thing happened: the Pirates started winning. And they’ve kept winning with as much regularity as they’ve been losing. And now the wins are starting to outnumber the losses. We’re about halfway through the season and if the Pirates keep going, this blogumn will be forever outdated. Never before have I ever wanted my writing to be so wrong...

Originally published 03/25/11

How do the Pittsburgh Pirates compare with other infamous losers of history?

On Thursday, April 7th, Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates will take to the field of PNC Park to play the Colorado Rockies. If all goes as planned (and there is little reason to doubt that it won’t) sometime in early October, the Pirates will finish their 19th consecutive losing season. The only records that will be broken will be their own: In 2009, their 17th  losing season tied them with the Philadelphia Phillies for the longest streak of consecutive losing seasons in North American sports history. And last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrated their final descent to the bottommost throne in Loserdom’s decaying garbage heap with the most losses (105) in their 123 year existence.

In terms of embarrassment, ignominy and defeat, the Pittsburgh Pirates are now only competing with themselves.

Of course many people will argue that Pirates’ fans really have no right to complain. Pittsburgh sports has done very well for itself recently: Two Super Bowl titles (and…sound of weeping…three appearances) in six years, the Penguins are the most popular team in hockey and recent Stanley Cup winners, Pitt basketball seems to have a perennial place in the top 10 (at least in the regular season)…

And sports fans don’t abandon their teams after one, two or even ten losing seasons like you would a TV show after it “jumps the shark” or a movie series when it “nukes the fridge” (Dear Mr. Lucas and Mr. Spielberg, thanks for making a film that created a new adjective for “awful”). Fans hold on to the good times — for example, those Pirates teams from 1990-92 that came so agonizingly close to making it to the World Series — hoping that the memories stay strong long enough to last through the bad times.

But how many years of losing can one fan base put up with before they just stop caring?

In the case of the Pittsburgh Pirates, if history is any indication, at least for a little bit longer. While the legendary string of futility that plagued the Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the first half of the 20th Century is well-documented, many seem to have forgotten that the Pirates have fielded bad teams for far many more years than good ones.

Yes, the Pirates have won five World Series titles, nine N.L. Pennants, have had the honor of fielding the first all-minority lineup in 1971 and count a number of legendary Hall-of-Fame players on their all-time franchise roster. But they’ve also endured a 33-year, mid-20th century pennant-less drought (and have just completed another three-decade period without one), the drug trials of 1985 and the “skinny” Barry Bonds who, despite winning the MVP for the Buccos in 1990 and 1992, was still a jerk even without the ‘roids.

Need another sign of our checkered past? How about the nickname?  The reason that the Pirates were called the Pirates in the first place (way back in 1891) was because they were accused of being “piratical” in their effort to sign (some would say steal) players from other teams.

Even so, eighteen straight years of losing seems more like the sort of magic realism found in a W.P. Kinsella novel than a real-life statistic. Thoughts steer away from lost opportunities in games “we could have won” and focus instead on whether Divine retribution is a legitimate cause for the losses. Like Odysseus, the Ancient Mariner and Flying Dutchman before them, did Pirate fans commit some offense to the baseball gods to forever sail the winless sea? Or does the losing spring from a diabolical Cleveland-created curse? (The one solace Pittsburgh fans can take comfort in is that Cleveland’s sports suffering has gone past the Biblical and into the just plain unspeakable. Even Job wouldn’t want to be a Cleveland Browns/Cavs/Indians fan.)

But this year, instead of drinking the usual cocktail made from equal parts anger, apathy and alcohol, Pirates fans should embrace this losing streak as part of our wonderfully dysfunctional history. We should be grateful that our baseball team’s level of losing is so profound, so devastating, so unfathomable that it’s impossible to compare it with other sports teams. The losing ways of the Pittsburgh Pirates can only be compared to those peoples, empires, languages and artifacts defeated within the wavering waves of history.

And so, to help us get into the mood for the 2011 baseball season, I present to you a selection of some of the other ignoble, epic losers of history, to whose annals the Pittsburgh Pirates now (not-so-proudly) join:

Marduk and pet

Germany in Wars – With 35 major war appearances and only one victory, German is to wars what the Big Ten is to bowl games: an unbeatable force on paper; overhyped and deeply flawed on gameday.

Indigenous Peoples of the Americas– The Washington Generals to Western Civilization’s Harlem Globetrotters. Sure the I.P.A. made the game of conquest interesting at times, but just as the Generals always eventually collapse under the shear talent of the Globetrotters, the I.P.A. had no defense for the Western World’s full court press of mechanized weaponry, pestilence, and pure pillaging power.

Marduk – Just call this “The Miracle on Sand.” That the bi-polar, genocidal and all-together humorless god of a small tribe of oft-enslaved nomads called the Israelites could somehow outlast Marduk, the chief Babylonian deity of the most prevalent religion of the most powerful society in the Ancient Near East is the Cinderella story to end all Cinderella stories. And to the victor belong the spoils: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Tower of Babel, two of human history’s greatest triumphs, are now symbols for the kind of sinful debauchery currently found only in Catholic rectories and Baptist church bathrooms.

Euripedes – The Dan Marino of Ancient Greek Tragedians. Today he is celebrated as one of history’s greatest dramatists and more of his works survive than any other Greek playwright. But when he competed in the Dionysia festival, Euripides almost always came up short, and often at the quills of his two major competitors: Sophocles and Aeschylus won a combined thirty-eight competitions while Euripides ended his career with only four titles.

General Sr. Douglas Haig – In 2008, Detroit Lions head coach Rod Marinelli did what many experts thought impossible and led his football team to a perfectly imperfect 0-16 season. While that season will forever be a black mark on Marinelli’s career, his incompetence pales in comparison to this WWI British general who owns an even more dubious record:  the most casualties under a single general’s command—a total of 2 million British soldiers. You’d think one record like that would be enough, but the general wasn’t nicknamed “Butcher Haig” for nothing. As author Jeff Anaelek points out: “Haig also oversaw the greatest single day loss of British lives in history when, on the morning of July 1, 1916, 60,000 troops—20% of the entire British fighting force engaged—was killed or wounded (including all but 68 men of the 801-man strong 1st Newfoundland Regiment) in an offensive that failed to gain a single one of its objectives.”  And like Marinelli, who managed keep a straight face while telling the press that his team was “filled with good young players from the draft,” Haig also seemed to be infected with the sort of daft optimism usually seen only in insane asylums. His diary entry for July 2, 1916, states that “…the total casualties … cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked.”

Illustration of a Bubonic Plague undertaker

John C. Turmel– The Buffalo Bills of Politicians. Turmel, a Canadian professional gambler, has run for office 72 times. He has also lost 72 times. His only victory, it seems, is holding a permanent place in the Guinness Book of World Records for this dubious achievement.

Anyone Living in Europe During the 1300’s – To come even close to the catastrophic level of suffering endured by those who lived through Bubonic Plague (fondly nicknamed “The Black Death”) where 45-50% of the entire population of Europe was wiped out, you’d basically have to be a die-hard fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Clippers and New York Islanders combined, sat through each and every one of the Philadelphia Phillies’  record-breaking 10, 232 losses and watched every game played by the 2008 Detroit Lions, 2003 Detroit Tigers, 2006 Oakland Raiders, 1998 Denver Nuggets, 1993 San Jose Sharks, 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks, 1990 New England Patriots, 1989-90 Quebec Nordiques, 1981 Baltimore Colts, 1975 Washington Capitals, 1973-74 California Golden Seals, 1972 and 73 Houston Oilers, 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, 1960 Dallas Cowboys, 1935 Boston Braves and the 1899 Cleveland Spiders while eating salmonella-infected corned-beef sandwiches, drinking flat beer and having your significant other nag at you incessantly about cleaning the bathroom in pig Latin at a volume of 797 dB.

If all the above sounds like a good time, then Ahoy, Mateys! Come aboard and purchase season tickets to your 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates right here!

Season tickets out of your price range? Then purchase a copy of my graphic novel, Hell House: The Awakening. It’s a guaranteed win! And after the book changes your life, please follow me on Twitter, which you can do by clicking here.