By John Perrotto
July 25, 2015
From time to time, someone will ask if I ever thought about writing a book about my experiences of covering the Pirates throughout their entire streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons from 1993 to 2012.
That, of course, remains the standard of sustained futility for major North American professional team sports.
I have a stock answer for such queries: Readers would think I made up half the material, because two decades of bad baseball contained many moments when truth truly was stranger than fiction.
One of the most vivid moments of that 20-year span came on the night of July 22, 2003, when the Pirates were playing the Houston Astros at PNC Park. My cellphone rang in the third inning, and it was a member of the Pirates’ baseball operations staff -- I’ll never tell -- who was angry.
Owner Kevin McClatchy had ordered general manager Dave Littlefield to begin shedding payroll. The tipster said third baseman Aramis Ramirez had been traded to the Chicago Cubs and the official announcement would come after game’s end.
My first thought was that this person, despite the tone of his voice, was either playing a prank or trying to set me up to write an erroneous story. Ramirez was a 25-year-old slugger and seemingly a cornerstone in the Pirates’ perpetual rebuilding attempt.
It made no sense for the Pirates to trade Ramirez.
So, I called a trusted Cubs source. He, too, confirmed the trade.
That was the beginning of a night that got stranger once the game ended.
Littlefield held an impromptu press conference in manager Lloyd McClendon’s office. McClendon was seething, and Littlefield stood behind him and, with a straight face, explained the Pirates had traded Ramirez and veteran center fielder Kenny Lofton for an uninspired return of Jose Hernandez, Bobby Hill and Matt Bruback because “we need players.”
I asked, “Don’t you need good players rather the guys you got in this trade?”
Littlefield tried to defend the trade, but whatever he said was so ridiculous that I can’t remember what it was.
Hernandez was past his prime, Hill used profanity in ways I’ve never heard before or since but never made an impact with the Pirates, and Bruback never pitched in a major league game.
Ramirez and Lofton were smiling more broadly than prisoners who had been granted early parole. They were going from the downtrodden Pirates to the contending Cubs.
Lofton, never known for liking the media, was so happy that he hugged an unsuspecting reporter --- OK, it was me --- as he left the clubhouse.
The news came out a few days later that the Pirates had nearly reached the brink of financial insolvency, which is why McClatchy ordered a trade. Right-handed pitcher Kris Benson was the player the Pirates wanted to deal, but he was injured at the time.
Ramirez will return to the home clubhouse at PNC Park on Saturday before the Pirates play the Washington Nationals that night, two days after being acquired from the last-place Milwaukee Brewers in a trade to bolster an injury-depleted lineup.
The Pirates are in an incredibly better situation than when Ramirez left. They have been to the postseason each of the last two seasons and the franchise has never been more profitable.
You’ve got to believe Ramirez will have a smile on his face when he walks through the clubhouse door, just like he did the last time he walked out.