By John Perrotto
PITTSBURGH -- It looked like the scene from the opening of a horror movie on the day the Pittsburgh Pirates set a record that only the most cold-hearted person would wish on a professional sports franchise.
Dark skies, fog and a steady misty-type rain shrouded PNC Park on Sept. 7, 2009 when the Pirates lost to the Chicago Cubs 4-2 for their 82nd defeat of the season. The loss assured the Pirates of their 17th consecutive losing season, the longest such streak in major North American professional sports history.
The Pirates have tacked on three more sub-.500 seasons since. They have piled up so quickly that it has become almost too difficult to keep track.
"What is it now?" Pirates relief pitcher Jared Hughes said. "Twenty years?"
Yes, 20 years. A generation.
The streak hangs over the entire organization much like the fog shrouded PNC Park on that ugly Labor Day four years ago.
"It's hard not to know about it when the guy in aisle No. 6 at Giant Eagle tells you how much he wants us to have a winning season," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said with a smile. "There is 20 years of angst that has built up amongst our fan base and I respect that. We have such a terrific fan base and it's been hard on them to live through this."
Nobody understands that more than Pirates second baseman Neil Walker. He is Western Pennsylvania born and bred, having grown up a Pirates' fan and eventually becoming their first-round draft pick in 2004 during his senior year at Pine-Richland High School in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh.
"It's been frustrating, both as a fan and as a player," Walker said. "Nobody wants their team to lose. You always want to root for a winner or play for a winner. It's been hard sometimes. I'll go to Steelers games and people will bring up the losing seasons and tell you the Pirates [stink]. This organization has been through its share of bad times and nobody is going to be happier when the streak ends than me."
Barring a collapse for the ages, the Pirates figure to finally break that streak in the very near future. They won their 78th game of the season Friday night and need just four wins in their final 28 games to finish over .500. Even the wariest of Pirates' fans, who remember the Bucs losing 35 of their last 50 games last season to wind up with a 79-83 record, has to feel optimistic this time.
Yet the Pirates aren't planning a celebration when they get to their 82nd victory, which is likely to happen during their nine-game road trip to Milwaukee, St. Louis and Texas that begins Monday. There won't be a champagne toast in the clubhouse or anything else of the sort.
"It will mean something because I think we all understand the importance of it," said Hughes, who has been with the franchise since being the Pirates' fourth-round-draft pick in 2006 from Long Beach State. "But there is something so much bigger going on right now."
Indeed there is, as the Pirates are also in prime position to reach the postseason for the first time since 1992, which coincides with their last winning season. They began play Saturday tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League Central lead and held a six-game over the Arizona Diamondbacks for the second NL wild card.
The pennant chase has overshadowed the chase for a winning season.
"There will most definitely be a smile on my face when we win that 82nd game and I know it will be for the fans," Hughes said. "But there will be an even bigger smile on my face when we win the NL Central and I'm sure as much as the fans will love having a winning season the best deal for them and for us would be winning a championship. Why stop at a winning season? Our goals are higher than that."
General manager Neal Huntington has been saying the same thing since replacing Dave Littlefield late in the 2007 season. Many times those word rang hollow, such as in 2010, when the Pirates bottomed out at 57-105.
However, the Pirates have improved in their three seasons under Hurdle, going 72-90 in 2011, 79-83 in 2012 then coming within one game of last season's win total on Friday night with a 5-0 whitewashing of the Cardinals.
The Pirates tried to bolster their chances of making the playoffs with two trades over the past week. On Tuesday, they acquired right fielder Marlon Byrd and backup catcher John Buck from the New York Mets in exchange for two prospects, and on Saturday they grabbed Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP, from the Twins in exchange for outfielder Alex Presley and a player to be named later. What might have been more significant than the trades was Huntington's rationale for making them.
"Our goal is to push this club forward and play deep into October, just not get there," the GM said.
Clearly, the expectations have been raised in Pittsburgh. For so long, a winning season was the Holy Grail for the fans and even many people inside the organization, whether they would admit it or not. Now, it would be a disappointment to everyone if the Pirates' biggest achievement of 2013 would be to finish with more wins than losses.
Times have certainly changed.
"A winning season isn't all that significant to the guys in our clubhouse," Pirates star center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "We look at it as a steppingstone, a sign that we're moving in the right direction. Once we get there, it will be good to get it out of the way but we'll move on to the next thing.
"Honestly, it will be more of a relief than anything because we won't have to hear about the streak and 20 years anymore."
John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.