At the turn of the last Century, when the American League was formed, the owners of the Junior League began raiding the talent of the much older and more established Senior Circuit. For some reason, they never got around to luring players away from the Pittsburgh Nine. Thus began the bedrock for one of the best franchises in baseball.
In 1901, 1902 & 1903 they won the National League pennant. In 1909 they not only won the NL but also the World Series by defeating the Detroit Tigers. They won the NL pennant in 1925 (and the World Series against the Washington Senators) and in 1927. In 1960 they won it all again as they did in 1971 and 1979.
There were gigantic stars that led these teams through these years. Let’s begin with one of the biggest stars of all time, Honus Wagner. Then there were Paul and Lloyd Waner, Arky Vaughn, Max Carey and “Pie” Traynor. “Kiki” Cuyler, Ralph Kiner, Dick Groat, Bill Mazeroski, Willie Stargel and Roberto Clemente. Dave Parker, Bill Madlock, Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Jason Kendall, Gus Bell, Vern Law, Doug Drabek, Preacher Roe, Elroy Face, Bob Friend and Andy Van Slyke all played for the team that is now playing on the banks of the Allegheny.
Now, after 43 years of frustration, the Pirates are on the verge of bringing back a National League Championship title. They were the first team to win 50 games this season, accomplishing that feat last night with their 5th straight sellout of their PNC Park. Entering Sunday, they are one game ahead of St. Louis and 17 1/2 games ahead of last place Milwaukee. They are a remarkable 23-13 at home and 23-17 on the road. Nearing half way in a baseball season that is often compared to a marathon, they are on their way to winning the title again.
This year it is not around the hitting power that has built championship Pirate teams of the past as they rank 20th overall in runs (318); 23rd overall in batting average (.242); 22nd in on base percentage (.308) and 17th in slugging percentage (.395). Sure they have stars like Pedro Alvarez (20 HRs & 53 RBI) and the incomparable Andrew McCutchen (.293 BA) and Starling Marte who has 88 hits so far this season, This season they have pitching. Francisco Liriano won his 7th last night; Jeff Locke has also won 7 games and a 2.07 ERA; A.J. Burnett has 99 K-2s; Jason Grilli has 27 saves and Mark Melancon has 23 holds. Wandy Rodriguez has won 6 and Justin Wilson has won 5.
Of course, pitching wins pennants. This year, after the Pirates had failed to play at least .500 ball for 17 straight seasons that only ended in 2010 (1993-2009) the stain of failure in the past is about to be obliterated. The Pirates have finally figured out how to win and that was not by following the hitting exploits of most of those listed above but by following the legendary figures of Face and Friend; Ellis and Drabek to championship victory.
To the City where Black & Gold mean championships in sports, you are on the verge of doing it all again.