The Curse of Barry Bonds

Seriously, why don’t we talk about the Pittsburgh Pirates being cursed?

The team hasn’t had a winning season since 1992. A lot of that has been due to horrible decisions. But even with horrible decisions, it’s hard to go that long without a winning season, unless you’ve got some bad luck involved.

The Pirates have had their lucky years. There was the Freak Show. There was the 2011 team that captured first place in mid-July. Each team had a shot at a winning record, and each team collapsed late in the year. The ’97 team was 66-64 on August 24th, then went on a 5-14 stretch which did in any chance of a winning season. The 2011 team was 53-47 in late July, then lost 12 of their next 13 games, including ten games in a row in early August.

That all started with the Jerry Meals game, and we all know the story there. The reason for the downfall was probably the injuries to Chase d’Arnaud and Alex Presley, removing the spark from the top of the lineup. But it’s hard to ignore the coincidental timing with the Meals game.

The 2011 team then traded for Derrek Lee at the deadline to help their push. Lee got off to a great start in his first few games with the team. Then he was hit in the hand with a pitch. Scratch that. He was hit in the hand when he reached out to try and block a pitch from hitting him, something that players never do. That put him out until early September.

How about the countless top prospects that haven’t worked out? The Pirates have had a few guys work out. Andrew McCutchen is the obvious one, but McCutchen is one of the few exceptions. The Pirates have either seen top prospects totally bust (Chad Hermanson, Jermaine Allensworth), or turn in to lesser than expected players (Paul Maholm, Zach Duke). They saw every single top pitching prospect go down with a major injury for several years, which helped to prevent some players from reaching their potential. They saw most top prospects acquired in trades bust after those trades.

Then there’s all of the players who played horribly in Pittsburgh, only to finally put it all together after leaving. First there’s Jason Schmidt and Ryan Vogelsong. The Pirates acquired Vogelsong as a key part in the deal that sent Schmidt to the Giants in 2001. Schmidt, who had never lived up to his hype in Pittsburgh, immediately became the ace pitcher the Pirates wanted him to be. Vogelsong bombed with the Pirates, and was eventually out of baseball after the 2006 season.

That is, until he returned five years later in 2011, back with the Giants, and put up a 2.71 ERA in 179.2 innings.

Then there’s Bronson Arroyo. After a 5.44 ERA in 187 innings with the Pirates, Arroyo was designated for assignment and claimed by the Boston Red Sox. Since that point he’s combined for a 4.15 ERA in 1687.2 innings.

Tim Wakefield was cut by the Pirates, then went on to have a 17 year career with the Boston Red Sox, pitching over 3000 innings.

And how about Jose Bautista? In his time with the Pirates, Bautista hit for a .241/.329/.403 line with 43 home runs in 1314 at-bats. He continued that pace for a year and a half with Toronto, then exploded in 2010. Bautista has led the league in homers the last two seasons, including 54 in 2010, which was 11 more than he hit in five years with the Pirates.

Some of these decisions were poor decision making. But some were bad luck. How else can you explain the Pirates trading an ace pitcher that never lived up to his ceiling, only to watch that pitcher immediately reach his ceiling? And then the ace prospect they got in return busted, only to have a breakout season ten years later with the team that originally traded that prospect. And how about a guy who looks like a career bench option turning in to one of the best hitters in the game at the age of 29?

While we’re on the subject of performing after leaving the Pirates, what about some of the players who were recently brought in as free agents? Eric Hinske was added in 2009 to add some power off the bench. He was coming off a year where he hit 20 home runs with the Tampa Bay Rays. Hinske hit one home run in 106 at-bats with the Pirates. He was traded in late June to the New York Yankees, then went on to hit seven homers in 84 at-bats.

Lyle Overbay was the same story. He hit for a .227/.300/.349 line in 352 at-bats with the Pirates in 2011. The Pirates needed offense, specifically from the first base position. They eventually traded for Derrek Lee and released Overbay. Arizona signed Overbay, and watched him immediately put up a .286/.388/.452 line in 42 at-bats. Meanwhile, Lee was hurt until the point where the Pirates had no shot at a winning record.

Then there’s the draft, specifically the first round. The Pirates have been fortunate in the second round of the draft over the last two years, landing first round talents Stetson Allie and Josh Bell. But the first round hasn’t been the same case. They drafted the sure thing in 2008, taking Pedro Alvarez, who was the number one ranked prospect in the draft. Alvarez hasn’t lived up to that hype yet. In 2009 and 2010 the draft had sure things at the top. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper have both lived up to the hype so far. The Pirates got the first overall pick in 2011, and had another top talent on the board. This time the top talent, Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, had a horrible season and saw his draft stock fall from the point where he was the obvious number one pick, to the point where he went sixth in the draft.

And what about the draft spending? The Pirates had a General Manager for years who refused to spend in the draft. Dave Littlefield passed on Matt Wieters for Daniel Moskos. He passed on B.J. Upton for Bryan Bullington. And people might be happy with the selection of home town player Neil Walker, but they forget that the number one prospect in the draft, Jared Weaver, was still on the board. The Pirates finally added a General Manager who would take advantage of the draft, and what does MLb do? They overhauled the draft to take away this advantage.

Then there’s the A.J. Burnett injury from this week. Burnett was injured after fouling a bunt off of his face. He fractured his orbital bone, and will undergo surgery tomorrow. The Pirates just acquired Burnett from the New York Yankees. Part of his appeal is due to the fact that he never gets injured, and is pretty much a lock for close to 200 innings. The Pirates didn’t even get to the point where they played a Spring Training game, and Burnett got injured, in a freak accident no less.

The Burnett freak injury isn’t the only one. It’s not even the only freak injury involving a bunt. How about when Jason Kendall broke his ankle and went down for the season in 1999 trying to beat out a bunt?

The list could go on and on.

Derek Bell going in to Operation Shutdown a year after batting for a .173 average with a .576 OPS.

Darren Lewis deciding to retire, rather than accepting a trade from the Chicago Cubs for Chad Hermansen.

Willie Stargell passing away the day PNC Park opened.

Derrek Lee turning down at least $8.5 M guaranteed, and likely opting to retire, which will cost the Pirates a rare first round compensation draft pick.

MLB making it known that the Pirates had to shed payroll in 2003, thus forcing them to deal Aramis Ramirez with very little leverage. They had no leverage because Ramirez was the only player to trade. The team wanted to trade Kris Benson, but he went down with an injury prior to the trade deadline.

Or what if we just go back to what started it all? Barry Bonds fails to throw out Sid Bream at the plate, leaves Pittsburgh, and the team hasn’t won ever since. Meanwhile Bonds went on to become one of the greatest hitters in the game.

How can you not say the team is cursed? There’s poor decision making. There’s poor development. There’s bad players. But you can’t just chalk it up to that for the Pirates. What has happened to them requires bad luck. All of the busted prospects. All of the players who put it together after leaving Pittsburgh. All of the freak injuries. These things don’t happen to a normal franchise. If this stuff happened to the Chicago Cubs, they’d file it as another chapter in the Curse of the Bill Goat. If this happened to the Boston Red Sox prior to 2004, they’d file it in the Curse of the Bambino book.

The irony here is that most Pirates fans don’t like talking about a curse. They look down on the topic. At the same time, those Pirates fans expect everything to go wrong. Draft a pitcher? He’ll have Tommy John surgery. Cut a player? He’ll go on to become a star. Add a big contract? He’ll be the next Matt Morris/Jeromy Burnitz.

Pirates fans acknowledge the curse, but no one fully embraces it. I think it’s time for that to happen. It’s time to finally recognize The Curse of Barry Bonds. Or maybe we could call it The Curse of the BamBreamo. But we need something. Otherwise what will we do when Brad Eldred hits his 40th homer of the 2012 season against the Pirates, and the home run ball knocks Joel Hanrahan unconscious in the bullpen, killing his trade value?

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • blackmax

    “Seriously, why don’t we talk about the Pittsburgh Pirates being cursed?” Probably because many of us don’t believe in curses.  Besides, there is no evidence that any of the Pirates committed a terrible sin circa 1980 that would explain the long string of setbacks for the club. (Unless it was firing Art McKenna in 1987).  Is there a more rational explanation? Maybe it is due to the fact that the team has had weak ownership since the Galbreaths sold the team. The club went through a similar dark period after Dreyfus died and his ineffectual son in law took over.

  • JAW2425

    It’s the curse of Barry Bonds because they decided paying marginal players was more important than paying, at that time, a 2 time league MVP.  Instead of signing Cutch they need to write Bonds a check for the exact money he wanted and they should have given him in 1992, and start on his statue.  Hopefully that will be enough to lift it.

  • gregenstein

    I’m going with the Curse of the Green Weeny. I haven’t seen a Green Weeny since Sid Bream’s slo-mo hook slide.

  • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

    Bad management isn’t a curse, it’s become a Pirate tradition.

  • ecbucs

    I will never believe the Pirates had no leverage when Aram was traded.

    The Cubs were not the only team in need of a third baseman.  I don’t believe in curses either but think this article is a good summary of some of the highlights and lowlights of past 20 years. Jason Schmidt story is a lesson to be learned too.  While some pitchers perform well right from their rookie years I think there are more that take awhile to develop.

    • Mark Ludwig

      Believe it or not, the Pirates had NO leverage in dealing Ramirez. First of all, every team in the league knew that the Pirates had to trade him. Secondly, there really weren’t any other trading partners. Besides the Cubs there were 11 teams in contention (teams that finished within 10 games of their division winner) and all of them had solid 3B options. The Marlins had Mike Lowell who was still a very good power hitter. The Astros had Morgan Ensberg during his brief stint as a legit major league hitter. The Cardinals had Scott Rolen. The Giants had Edgardo Alfonzo who was having a down year but was coming off a 5 WAR season and had just signed a long term deal with San Fran. The Red Sox had Bill Mueller who had a .900+ OPS that year. The Yankees had traded for Aaron Boone who was an All-Star in ’03. The Twins had Corey Koskie pre-concussion. The White Sox had Joe Crede who was a 25 year old top-prospect and would hit 19 HRs with 75RBIs that year. The Royals had Joe Randa. The Athletics had Eric Chavez. The only other possible option was Seattle who played Carlos Guillen (2.3 WAR in ’03) at 3rd down the stretch.Guillen wasn’t great but his OPS+ that year was higher than A-Ram’s so I’m not sure the Pirates could have convinced the Mariners to give up a ton for a guy that the Pirates had to trade and was not a definitive upgrade over what they had.

      • ecbucs

        I understand what you are saying but I still don’t believe that the Cubs were only market for Aram.  The market would not be limited to contenders. Diamond Backs could have seen him as replacement for Matt Williams, Rockies needed to find someone to take Chris Stynes place. At the least the team should not have needed to send Lofton along and should have gotten better return.  IIRC, I’m not even sure that DL tried to see if anyone else was interested in him.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OZG2IYY4UIJEND5745XPPUOSHY steve-O K

    I don’t think we’ve won a game in Milwaukee since Guido was hit by Randall Simon.  Come on and let the dang sausage get revenge…

  • sirchampalot

    The article is a nice historical summary, but curses follow from awful decisions, dishonorable events, treachery, and betrayal.  The mere fact that Sid Bream was the last Pirate with a legitimate hope of winning anything isn’t the catalyst for a curse. 

  • http://twitter.com/butterjc81 Mike Zimmerman

    I mean, Chase D’Arnaud?  Really?  You’re better than this, he was a terrible baseball player last season, his injury had nothing to do with the downfall.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      The numbers might not have been that strong, but Presley and d’Arnaud provided a spark at the top of the lineup. The offense was noticeably different after they left, and the team immediately went in to a slide.
      I think a big reason for this was also because those guys were injury replacements themselves. When they went down, the Pirates moved to their third options at each position.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6KEYHS3XWH74U3LRIHGWL7XPBA Nate

    It’s not really bad luck or even bad management (although it was pretty absymal), I think the main things is player development.  Right now we have Pirates developing players to the goal of not “power” but “gap power”, sounds dubious.  We have the Pirates developing pitchers as fastball throwing when yes, they should be working on their fastball, but also developing a 2/3/4 pitches in the minors.  When are these important secondary pitchers going to be developed – AA, AAA, MLB?  Has this strategy even produced a single above average pitcher since 2008?  

    Unless the development paradigms change, the Pirates are going to have “bad luck” forever.  Drafting some guy with a high ceiling isn’t enough, the development of the player is the key and of the utmost important.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6KEYHS3XWH74U3LRIHGWL7XPBA Nate

    Additionally, the fastball-throwing development reduces the trade value of younger pitchers are their stats are not as good as pitchers that can use their full arsenal down low.  Heredia can throw like 8 pitches and NH probably has him throwing 95% fastballs.  Such an idiotic one size fits all approach.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Bailey/1649088980 John Bailey

    Curse of BamBreamO is funny.  Sid cashed in on his one and only big payday and left for Atlanta, you can’t blame him.  But sometimes I still do.

  • Lee Young

     It’s all my fault for leaving Pittsburgh in Oct ’79. Sure, we won the WS,but since then we have had the druggie 80s, the heartbreak 90s, and then the losing streak.

    Now that I am retired, perhaps I need to move back, to save the Buccos?

    Curse of the Foo, indeed.

  • James S

    The curse of Barry Bonds was having that @$$hole in the clubhouse at all.

  • leowalter

    Nate : I don’t care if you have 7 differnt pitches such as Yu Darvish supposedly has.If you can’t command the strike zone,you are going to get lit up in MLB. ALL orginizations stress prospects working on their command first,pitch selection afterwards.

  • Steelstealth

    Barry Bonds was a great player before the physical transformation we saw with the Giants, but he wanted to leave Pittsburgh, and wasn’t exactly a friendly person when he wore a Bucs uniform. I think we should avoid talk of any “curse”, or imagined dark cloud, because it smacks of a mediocre franchise like the Chicago Cubs or Cleveland Indians. The more the fan base believes uncontrollable forces are at work, that doesn’t help the home team.  

    True, this losing streak(taken over from the Phillies), has been beyond frustrating as fans. No doubt there have been several cases of bad luck, and that only adds to the frustration level. But much of the damage has been self-inflicted, like bad management decisions.    

    19 years is a long time, but we should always remember this franchise has a rich winning tradition, ranking among the top one-third among current cities. It’s a proud history which includes some of the greatest players ever, and more batting champions than the Yankees. In fact, only the Yankees, Cards, and Red Sox have won more World Titles for their respective cities than the Bucs. The vast majority of current MLB teams would love to have a storied tradition like the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

    So while we’re all anxious to finally end this embarrassing record(the Orioles are close behind), looking at the big picture helps. While those great players and teams can’t come back from the past to help now, this heritage is still an important part of this franchise. The iconic “P” on the cap of today’s Andrew McCutcheon is identical to the cap worn by Roberto Clemente. We just don’t want to toss away tradition as if it’s old technology. Instead, let’s continue analyzing the current situation, while holding the organization accountable. Ending the streak is doable, necessary, and the club must find a way to make it happen soon. At the end of the day, it will be the actions of the club which will be the difference, and that will be stronger than any perceived “curse”.