The year is 1997. Bill Clinton is President. Titanic is due to come out at the end of the year. Andy Grove is Time’s Person of the Year. “Wannabe” by Spice Girls is charting at number one. Seinfeld is the most popular television show. Meanwhile, on the North Shore in Pittsburgh, the Pirates were getting set to field a baseball team at Three Rivers Stadium, due up for four more years of service before PNC Park replaces it.
It’s March 31 and beginning the next day, on April 1, the “Freak Show” Pirates are set to begin the new baseball season with a west coast swing, two in San Francisco, three in Los Angeles, and three in San Diego.
Manager Gene Lamont is in his first year at the helm of the Pittsburgh club, while Cam Bonifay is in the middle of his general managerial duties. Kevin McClatchy is in his second year owing the Pirates, now five years removed from their last playoff appearance – and winning season.
The total payroll for this newly minted club, full of rookies and cheap veterans, topped out at a whopping $9 million. That’s right, only seven figures. It’s not like the current iteration of the Pirates spend much money – a gripe that the majority of fans have – but in an attempt to put it in some perspective, Chris Archer is set to make $9 million this year. (In case you were wondering, Archer was worth 0.7 fWAR a year ago in a market where one win is worth about $4 million.)
For further comparison, the team they were competing against for the National League Central division title, the Houston Astros, had a payroll of nearly $33 million. The Cincinnati Reds had the highest Central payroll in ’97, totaling a shade over $46 million (they finished third and three games back of the Pirates).
The 1997 Pirates was a team that wasn’t expected to contend in any real sense of the word. Fortunately for them, however, the rest of the Central was inept. But because not much was expected of them, add in the fact that they’re young and excited to play baseball, anything could happen – at least that’s what the movies tell us.
The oldest regular that season was the former Milwaukee Brewer Dale Sveum, who was in his final full season. He was the only player that that cracked 30 that appeared in more than half of the games that season.
What the Pirates did end up getting was strong offensive years from a host of different players. Tony Womack had the only All-Star season of his career, due largely in part to his aptitude on the base paths. The 27-year-old stole 60 bases during that campaign.
A young catcher named Jason Kendall was in his second season and was coming off a rookie year in which he was an All-Star and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. He carried an OPS+ of 114 over the course of the season, which included an .825 OPS. Those are offensive numbers that practically any organization would fawn over from the catcher’s spot. Mix those numbers in with his defensive acumen behind the plate, which included a 1.2 dWAR and 37 percent caught stealing total, and you’ve got a formidable presence at the “2” spot.
Joe Randa spent his age 27 season in Pittsburgh, a bridge to his next connection, and in the City of Bridges, what better place to be? After his stint in Kansas City, and before making a stop in Detroit before returning to Kansas City, Randa was a Pirate. He had a good year in the black and gold, registering a 111 OPS+, with a slash line of .302/.366/.451. Like Kendall, some of Randa’s defensive metrics suggest strong competence, like his 1.5 dWAR, a far cry from his previous two seasons in which he failed to manage more than 0.1 dWAR; it would also be the second highest defensive contribution of his career. Randa would come back to Pittsburgh in 2006 to appear in 89 games for the Pirates before retiring.
Kevin Young was back in Pittsburgh after having spent the 1996 season in Kansas City. He played in 97 games for the Pirates in ’97 and logged an OPS+ of 120. He was also the team’s leading home run getter with 18. He was a .300 hitter that year, a year in which he finished at a ranked position in the Most Valuable Player race (19th), the only time he ever performed such a feat. That last point is an interesting one because by WAR, Young’s best season by far was 1999 when he registered 5.6 bWAR for the Pirates.
The Pirates’ ragtag pitching staff ended up being serviceable enough, but certainly not stellar. Esteban Loaiza, Jon Lieber, Jason Schmidt, Steve Cooke, and Francisco Cordova started the majority of the games for Pittsburgh. None of them, except Cordova, registered an ERA under 4. Three of those pitchers, however, had an ERA+ of over 100 (Loaiza, Cooke, Cordova), suggesting at the very least that they were overall a bit above average.
It was the bullpen that made the real difference that year, which is something fans have been familiar with in more recent years. It was comprised largely of Rich Loiselle, who logged 29 saves that year with an ERA+ of 141; Marc Wilkins and Ricardo Rincon were staples, appearing in 70 and 62 games, respectively, while posting an ERA+ of 118 and 126. Clint Sodowsky and Matt Ruebel round out the primary relief pitchers on the season. Sodowsky’s 120 ERA+ tracks with the rest of the relief staff, while Ruebel’s 69 mark falls well below his counterparts.
This team was stitched together to try to get through a season, not compete. They were a Pirates’ placeholder, the team that was supposed to do their part to bridge the organization into a more winning atmosphere. The team ended up doing a lot more than that. They were by no means the best team in the National League – they weren’t even the best team in a floundering division. But they did do enough to remain competitive in that division.
At one point in the final month of the season, September, the Pirates were only 1.5 games back of the Astros, which came on September 2. They hung around Houston for the majority of the month but struggled to make up the final bit of ground.
Near the end of the season, the team remained 3.5 games back for an entire week. It wasn’t until the final three days of the season when the Pirates finally fell off, dropping back as far as six games, and settling five games back at the conclusion of the season.
In Gary Morgan’s 2019 Sports Illustrated article, he notes the ’97 Freak Show Pirates as a beacon of false hope. After that season, many thought Pittsburgh was closer to being competitive than they actually were. In 1998, the Pirates went 69-93, and finished at the bottom of the division, a place they would come to know well for the most part until 2013.
Not known during the ’97 run was that would be the final time the Pirates were competitive in any meaningful way for the next 15 years. From those years stemmed ineptitude at the front office, a fledgling team year after year, and a steady export of any talent before nearly every trade deadline.
Finally, after years of futility and wasted talent, the Pirates emerged as contenders in the mid-2010s. After a short run of showing what baseball in Pittsburgh could truly be, the Pirates dwindled back to their average to well-below ways in 2016 and beyond.
But with a new “player-centered” environment operated by general manager Ben Cherington and new manager Derek Shelton, the Pirates might be back on the right track. Only time will tell, and during the recent global developments, all we can hope for right now is that baseball will return; once it does, perhaps the team’s development will take off and won’t provide a “beacon of false hope” like the 1997 Freak Show Pirates.