The city of Pittsburgh saw some great baseball (as well as some great football) at old Three Rivers Stadium. On the diamond, they won nine division titles and two World Series championships. The 2000 Pittsburgh Pirates season would be the last year of baseball for the artificial turf facility. The ’00 Pirates didn’t resemble those great teams of the past at all–they were unfortunately similar to what the franchise had produced recently.
Pittsburgh was on a run of seven straight losing seasons since their last division title run in 1992. Gene Lamont had been the manager for the three most recent of those seasons, although two—1997 and 1999—had seen the Pirates get pretty close to .500. So there was no reason to dismiss their chances out of hand before the 2000 campaign even began.
The Pirates had some excellent players in their everyday lineup. Jason Kendall was a rising star at catcher and he would hit .320. Brian Giles had a fantastic year in centerfield, with a stat line of .432 on-base percentage/.594 slugging percentage, 35 home runs and 123 RBI.
Pittsburgh picked up 34-year-old John Vander Wal in the offseason and the journeyman vet had a terrific season himself, with a .410/.563 stat line, 24 homers and 94 RBI. Wil Cordero rounded out the outfield. In his 89 games with the team prior to being traded, Cordero’s stat line was .336/.506.
Warren Morris was a tough and respectable second baseman who posted an OBP of .341. Adrian Brown was a reserve outfielder that got substantial time and finished with a .373 OBP. What got the Pirates in trouble was a lack of production at the corner infield spots. Kevin Young didn’t do a lot at first base and while third baseman Aramis Ramirez would eventually blossom, he was only 22-years-old and taking his major league lumps in 2000.
The end result was the Pirates finishing ninth in what was then a 16-team National League for runs scored. That could have been managed if they had pitching. But they didn’t.
Kris Benson was pretty good, making 32 starts and finishing with a 3.85 ERA. But he was only able to go 10-12. And more to the point, he was the ace. Todd Ritchie, Jimmy Anderson and Francisco Cordova all struggled. Young arms in Bronson Arroyo and Jason Schmidt would eventually become good, but it wouldn’t be this year and their success would come with other teams. Mike Williams saved 24 games, but his 3.50 ERA was high for a closer. Pittsburgh’s staff ERA ranked 12th in the National League.
The Pirates stayed respectable for a good part of an early season that included winning five of six on a road trip to St. Louis and the north side of Chicago. Their record was 18-21 when the eventual division champion Cardinals came to Three Rivers for a weekend series starting on May 19. Pittsburgh won the opener 13-1 behind four hits and a home run from Kendall and Benson’s complete-game three-hitter. But that was the last time the Pirates got as close as two games of the .500 mark.
Pittsburgh lost the final two games of that home series with St. Louis, then dropped six of seven. By Memorial Day, the Pirate record was 20-28. They were in third place in the NL Central, 7 ½ back of the Cards and also trailing the Cincinnati Reds. Pittsburgh was seven back in the wild-card race.
They swept the mediocre Florida Marlins out of the holiday weekend, but then hit the skids in June, a month they lost 16 of 27 games. A particularly rough trip against the eventual NL pennant-winning New York Mets saw Pittsburgh lose three straight by a combined score of 31-10. By the All-Star break the Pirates were ten games under .500 at 38-48, 12 ½ back in the division and ten back in the wild-card race.
Teams making a strong second-half run in the wild-card picture is certainly not uncommon. Although living in Pittsburgh at the time, I can safely say there was absolutely no buzz about this team doing anything of the sort. And if anyone was, the events of the early second half squelched them.
The Pirates lost three straight to a contending Cleveland Indians team, and shipped Cordero to Cleveland by the end of the month. A disastrous August saw Pittsburgh go 8-21. By Labor Day, they were 56-79, dead last in the NL Central and tied with Terry Francona’s Philadelphia Phillies for the worst record in the National League.
To their credit, Pittsburgh didn’t throw in the towel. An up-and-down September saw them win more than they lost. That included a six-game sweep of a Western road trip and another three-game sweep in Philly. The Pirates’ final record was a meager 69-93, but they did edge out the Chicago Cubs to avoid last place in the NL Central and also finished higher than the Phils and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals).
The organization prepared for a new era in PNC Park. While the park, a model of cutting-edge traditionalism in its architecture, would be a massive upgrade for the cookie-cutter style of Three Rivers, it took some time for the caliber of baseball to catch up. The Pirates had twelve more losing seasons in succession before turning their fortunes around.