Walking the plank

The biggest and most important story in sports has nothing to do with replacement officials in the NFL, the lockout in the NHL, the chase for the cup in NASCAR or every waking moment of Tim Tebow.

No, what every red-blooded American sports fan should be paying attention to is the plight of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are desperately trying to avoid their 20th consecutive losing season, the longest for any professional sports franchise.

Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen was a legitimate MVP candidate in the National League for much of this season. But as the Pirates have struggled, so has McCutchen.

The once-proud Pirates have been a parody of themselves for two decades, since playing in back-to-back-to-back National League Championship Series from 1990-92.

The losing started in 1993, when the Buds were 75-87. And it has continued to this day.

Pity the poor Pirates.

On Aug. 8 – just 41 days ago – the Pirates were sitting pretty at 63-47 and trailed the first-place Cincinnati Reds by just 2.5 games in the National League Central.

It looked there was a strong likelihood that not only would the Pirates break their embarrassing string of losing seasons but also reach the National League playoffs as at least a wild-card.

But now all of that hangs precariously in the balance. The Pirates, who lost 6-0 to the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday night and continue a series with the Brew Crew in Pittsburgh tonight, are 3.5 games out of the second wild-card position and have gone 11-26 since Aug. 8.

Pity the poor Pirates.

This is, after all, a proud franchise and one that is still 109 games above .500 (9,956-9,847) during its 120-year history. The Pirates were winners in 19 of 26 seasons from 1958-1983. They have produced a bunch of Hall of Famers and some of the most iconic players in baseball history, including Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Pie Trayor, Lloyd and Paul Waner, Ralph Kiner and Arky Vaughan.

The Pirates play in one of the best stadiums – PNC Park – in all of baseball. I’ve been to a bunch of ballparks in my life and PNC might be the best.

And Pittsburgh hasn’t abandoned its Pirates. They led the National League Central deep into the 2011 season before a 21-46 collapse left them at 72-90 for the season.

Nobody loses like the Pirates.

I went back and checked to see how much sustained losing there has been for some of the other top franchises in MLB and was surprised to find out that the New York Yankees, for instances, have had only 10 losing seasons – total – since 1919.

The Los Angeles-Brooklyn Dodgers have had no more than two consecutive losing seasons since having six losing seasons in a row from 1933-38.

The San Francisco-New York Giants have never had more than four straight losing seasons.

The St. Louis Cardinals had nine consecutive losing seasons from 1902-10, but haven’t had more than three losing seasons in a row since and have endured back-to-back seasons only twice during the past 53 years.

Now the Philadelphia Phillies did some epic losing in the first half of the 20th century. Epic losing that would even grab the attention of downtrodden Pirates fans who probably feel like this streak is never going to end.

From 1918-31, the Phillies suffered through 14 consecutive losing seasons. They did have a winning season in 1932, but then went through a 16-season losing streak from 1933-48. That’s 30 losing seasons in 31 years and there’s never been anything quite as bad as that.

The Phillies eventually came out of it. And so will the Pirates. I think.

As Pittsburgh grasps to its 74-73 record, with losses piling up and postseason chances diminishing, think a nice thought for all the Pirates fans out there who must wonder what it feels like to follow a winner.

Thank goodness for the Steelers and the Penguins, highly successful franchises in the NFL and NHL. At least Pittsburgh sports fans don’t suffer year around. Just during one baseball season after another, after another.

Pull for the Pirates to finish above .500. They have endured enough misery. This losing must end.