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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