Biertempfel: Visit to Los Angeles in 2007 proved unheavenly for Bucs
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Over the past 20 seasons, there have been more valleys than peaks for the Pirates. There was the 20-0 loss at home against the Brewers in 2010. The Aramis Ramirez trade. Jim Leyland's resignation. “Operation Shutdown” and “Jerry Meals says he's safe!” Bryan Bullington. Chad Hermansen. Daniel Moskos.
One of the lowest points happened exactly six years ago, right here at Angels Stadium. It also was a seminal moment in the franchise's turnaround.
On June 22-24, 2007, the Pirates were swept by the Angels in three very different games. In the opener, the Pirates blew a three-run lead and lost, 5-4, in 11 innings. The next day, they were embarrassed, 10-1. In the finale, they fought back to tie the game in the ninth inning, only to lose, 4-3, in the 10th.
After the middle game, the blowout, the clubhouse doors stayed closed a bit longer than usual. I remember there being a palpable sense of tension when the media finally were allowed inside. Guys were avoiding each other's eyes. Voices were hoarse from shouting.
The season was not yet halfway over, but it had hit rock bottom.
“I (expletive) hate this, and you can put that in the paper,” said pitcher Ian Snell, who gave up five runs in six innings that day. “I (expletive) hate losing. I hate when the team doesn't bring out its full potential. If they want to fine me, fine me. I don't care because this is getting stupid.”
Said Adam LaRoche: “When you lose, everything gets magnified, and you start questioning — questioning yourself, questioning each other.”
The season was finished. That team and its leadership were finished. The Pirates limped out of Southern California with a 31-44 record and ended up 68-94.
A monument to unfulfilled potential, the 2007 rotation included Snell (9-12, 3.76), Zach Duke (3-8, 5.53), Tom Gorzelanny (14-10, 3.88) and Paul Maholm (10-15, 5.02). John Van Benschoten (0-7, 10.15) and Tony Armas (4-5, 6.03) took turns tossing batting practice in the No. 5 spot. At the trade deadline, general manager Dave Littlefield tried to shore up the staff by acquiring $10 million righty Matt Morris.
That didn't work out very well, as you might recall.
Six years later, a lot has changed. The Morris trade was the last in a series of missteps that cost Littlefield his job. Manager Jim Tracy was fired days after the '07 debacle ended. A dozen players from that team are still in baseball — including LaRoche, who last year tied for sixth in the NL MVP voting — but none is with the Pirates.
The 2007 Pirates were the product of an ill-equipped and mismanaged front office and a talent-starved farm system. At that time, the Pirates barely had a presence in Latin America; its headquarters in the Dominican Republic was a crumbling shack. At the big league level, there was too little camaraderie and grit — and no magic — in the clubhouse.
Six years have passed, and the Pirates still have not produced a winning season. But the problems that plagued the 2007 club and that came to a head on that long, hot weekend at Angel Stadium are gone. Now, at least, the franchise is moving forward.
Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.
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