The 1992 Pittsburgh Pirates won a third consecutive division title. They overachieved and worked through considerable adversity to get it done. The lingering legacy of this team is an epic heartbreak at the end, but their road back to the National League Championship Series was anything but easy.
The Pirates had lost rightfielder Bobby Bonilla to free agency. Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek were each on the final year of the contracts. Management read the writing on the wall and looked to start the rebuilding process early. John Smiley, a 20-game winner in 1991, was traded to Minnesota for prospects. It’s the kind of trade you see often at the July deadline when a team is out of contention. It usually doesn’t happen in spring training to a two-time defending division champ.
Pittsburgh, led by manager Jim Leyland, dug in and made the best of it. Drabek, the rotation ace, won 15 games and posted a 2.77 ERA. Randy Tomlin stepped up with 14 wins and a 3.41 ERA. Those two were the steady horses of the staff. Then Leyland went to work and squeezing the most from the rest of the staff.
Zane Smith was limited to 22 starts, but the lefty’s ERA was 3.06. Bob Walk mixed in 19 starts with some relief work and finished with a 3.20 ERA. Another veteran, Danny Jackson was added and his 15 starts produced a 3.36 ERA. And Leyland discovered a 25-year-old knuckleballer named Tim Wakefield, who made 13 starts and posted a dazzling 2.15 ERA.
The bullpen didn’t have a lockdown arm, but it was still respectable. Stan Belinda handled closing duties, with help from Roger Mason and Bob Patterson. It all added up to a staff with the second-best ERA in the National League.
Pittsburgh’s offense was not deep. Andy Van Slyke was the primary support to Bonds, and Van Slyke ripped 45 doubles, en route to a stat line of .381 on-base percentage and .505 slugging percentage. But if you’re thinking that lack of depth meant the Pirates couldn’t score runs…well, think again.
Bonds—at a time when it’s generally believe he wasn’t using performance-enhancing drugs—put up a dazzling season. His stat line was .456/.624. He was walked 127 times. That didn’t stop him from hitting 34 home runs, driving in 103 runs, scoring 109 more and stealing 39 bases.
To point out Bonds won the MVP award doesn’t do his season justice. It has to be said that Barry Bonds singlehandledly took the ‘92 Pirates lineup, put it on his back and over a long six-month season, made it the most prolific in the National League.
Pittsburgh started fast and won 15 of their first 20 games. That included five of six over the Montreal Expos, with whom they would ultimately battle for the NL East title. This was still the era of pre-1994 realignment and playoff expansion. Each league had just an East and West division and winners advanced straight to the LCS.
A brutal 1-11 stretch in May saw the Pirates slip a game and a half back. The St. Louis Cardinals, managed by Joe Torre, were in the lead. But Pittsburgh heated up along with the weather in June. They went on a stretch where they won 10 of 13. They won two series against the Cardinals. By June 23, the Pirates had a comfortable seven-game lead.
Pittsburgh met Cincinnati in a pair of four-game series at old Three Rivers Stadium and old Riverfront Stadium—the cookie-cutter artificial turf parks each team had to play at before getting their new, current ballparks. The Reds were leading the NL West at the time and swept the series in Pittsburgh. The Pirates almost returned the favor, going to Cincinnati and winning three of four. When the All-Star break arrived, Pittsburgh was plus-4 ½ games.
St. Louis began to fade, but Montreal heated up after the break. Pittsburgh hit the skids, losing nine of the first twelve games in the second half. The Expos pulled even and the race was on. The Pirates responded like a veteran team, tested by adversity, often does. On July 30, they went 12-1 in a stretch of games played entirely against the Cardinals and the Mets.
It was some sweet revenge for Pittsburgh against Bonilla, who had gone to the Mets in what proved to be one of the most disastrous contracts in baseball history. More important, it opened up a four-game lead on the feisty Expos.
The next two and a half weeks lacked dramatic moments, but they were decisive. Pittsburgh went 11-6. That included four games with Montreal and by splitting, the Pirates denied the Expos a chance to get any more traction. By the time that stretch was over, the margin was up to seven games and the NL East race was all but over. It ended on the season’s penultimate Sunday when Jackson beat the Mets 4-2. Pittsburgh could spend the last week of the season celebrating and preparing for the NLCS.
The Atlanta Braves had surged past Cincinnati and ultimately won the NL West by a comfortable margin. It set up a rematch of the great 1991 NLCS, where the Pirates and Braves had gone seven games before Atlanta won. In that series, Pittsburgh was a big favorite and seemed in command, with a 3-2 series lead and the final two games at home before it fell apart.
The favorite and underdog roles had flipped this time, but the essentials of the series remained the same. Again, it went seven games. Again, Pittsburgh seemed to have command. It was a stranger journey to control this time—they lost three of the first four, before winning two straight and taking a 2-0 lead into the ninth inning of Game 7. But they were three outs from the World Series with Drabek on the mound.
Thanks to a key error by second baseman Jose Lind, the Braves rallied and ultimately won it on a two-out base hit from little-known Francisco Cabrera. The cruelest cut was watching slow-footed Sid Bream—a former Pirate—beat Bonds’ throw home as he scored from second with the winning run.
The ending was even more devastating, given that everyone knew this was finally the end of the line for this fine three-year run for the organization. Bonds and Drabek were gone after the season and for all of Leyland’s managerial skill, there was nothing left to work with.
The ending would have been even more devastating had Pirate fans known that not only were they now rebuilding, they were entering a 20-year run in the baseball wilderness. Not until 2013 would they have so much as a winning season, much less make the playoffs. But the overachievement of the 1992 Pirate team at least made for some warm memories in the long baseball winter.