The Pittsburgh Pirates have been blessed with an abundance of successful teams throughout franchise history, tied with Cincinnati for seventh in the sport, winning five World Series crowns.
Granted, the early and middle portions of Pirates baseball has garnered the team’s championships, the years after 1979 provided memorable teams who just missed the plateau of baseball’s greatest stage.
The Bucs have only made the playoffs six times since winning their last World Series, failing to win a playoff series and only advancing to the next round after winning the 2013 Wild Card Game. Pittsburgh has achieved a winning season on seven occasions during the span, also finishing 82-79 during the 2018 campaign.
Two spurts of three-year runs to the postseason signaled the only signs of success the small-market franchise accomplished following Willie Stargell’s “We Are Family” Pirates.
From 1990-1992 and 2013-2015, baseball captivated Pittsburgh summers, as fans packed into Three Rivers Stadium and PNC Park to witness some of the best teams to never win a championship.
Two years stand out the most out of the six total: 1992 and 2015. Not only were they the final year of the championship windows, but signaled a changing of the guard as to what followed.
Twenty years of losing accompanied the missed opportunities of 1992 and a complete rebuild spun into effect following 2015.
Looking back on the years themselves rather than what came after paints a picture of the two greatest Pirates teams to fall short.
1991 and 2013 were both terrific regular seasons, especially breaking the curse in 2013 and making baseball relevant again on the North Shore, but 1992 and 2015 were the most dominant seasons in recent history.
Who is the best team to NOT win a championship?— Ben Verlander (@BenVerlander) February 16, 2022
I’ll start: 2014 Detroit Tigers
The Pirates entered the 1992 season knowing the end was potentially near, as Barry Bonds was set to hit free agency at odds over his contract. A team lined with stars from soon-to-be-named two-time MVP Bonds and manager Jim Leyland to Andy Van Slyke, Jay Bell, Doug Drabek, and others finished 96-66, won the NL East and faced the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS. Bonds and Van Slyke also started in the All-Star Game.
Atlanta jumped out to a 3-1 series lead before the Bucs stormed back and led 2-0 entering the 9th inning on the road, hoping to go back to the World Series for the first time in 13 years.
Pittsburgh famously blew the lead and gave up three runs in the bottom of the ninth, capped off by a Francisco Cabrera liner to left. Bonds could not make the throw home in time to catch former Pirate Sid Bream at the plate despite pleas from Van Slyke to move up in the outfield.
Bonds opting to bet on himself rather than listen to his center fielder cost the Bucs their best chance at a championship since.
The 2015 Pirates were loaded with talent and depended on a steady starting rotation and timely hitting. Led by Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez, Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett, and the deadline acquisition of J.A. Happ, the Pirates lost the NL Central by two games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Burnett, Cole, McCutchen, and closer Mark Melancon all made the 2015 All-Star Game.
St. Louis (100-62), Pittsburgh (98-64), and the Chicago Cubs (97-65) concluded the greatest season in division history and one of the best top-three finishes baseball has ever seen.
The Pirates hosted and lost to a buzzsaw in Jake Arrieta and the Cubs after the eventual Cy Young winner posted an astonishing 0.75 ERA in the second half and carried his success into the 2015 one-game wild card.
2015 marked the best team by wins Pittsburgh had posted since 1991, and they were utterly dominant at PNC Park. Different players stepped up nightly and contributed to the overall success.
Winning 98 of 162 games and being forced to play only one more to decide your playoff fate is frustrating enough, but was heightened by the belief of many the 2015 team would have won the World Series if given the chance to play five or seven games to decide it.
The roster was constructed for a long and pitcher-friendly series and faced an uphill battle from the first pitch, with Arrieta channeling his inner Bob Gibson.
Witnessing the 2015 Pirates but not the 1992 team, I believe Clint Hurdle’s Bucs are the best team in franchise history to fail to reach baseball’s ultimate mountain top. The atmosphere of PNC Park electrified the city, and a lovable clutch star in Cutch attracted national attention and matched up well against the eventual champion Kansas City Royals.
Pittsburgh became a baseball town again and devastated the fan base to a similar level as 1992 and a “what if” scenario if things were different. The reality does not change but the 2015 team had minimal flaws and was an emotional thrill every game.
The task now falls on Ben Cherington and Derek Shelton’s shoulders to reconstruct the roster back to playoff capabilities and move over the hump 43 years in the making.
Editor’s note: The 1902 Pirates finished 103-36, however, there was no World Series that season. The 1903 team finished 91-49 and lost to the Boston Americans in the Series, but a lot of those old teams are hard to analyze in an article, so we kept it to the modern game. Other notables were 1927, 1962, 1972, 1977, 1990, 1991.
Who is the best Pirates team to never win a World Series?
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