By Joe Rutter
Watching the Pirates spray champagne all over the Wrigley Field visiting clubhouse Monday night was a novelty for many fans, especially those too young to remember when the team previously clinched a playoff berth in 1992.
Yet, it wasn’t the first time in the past 21 years that bubbly touched the lips of Pirates players in that clubhouse.
Only the most astute Pirates fan would recall that champagne was uncorked in 2002 after the Pirates won their 72nd game, thus avoiding 90 losses in that rain-shortened 161-game season.
It was the second season in Lloyd McClendon’s tenure, and he ordered champagne for his players after they improved by 10 wins over the 2001 team’s 62-100 debacle.
The atmosphere wasn’t the same as Monday night when lockers were taped down and players wore goggles while drenching each other with sparkling wine. In 2002, the champagne was quietly distributed in paper cups, with McClendon providing a brief toast:
“Bad times don’t last, but good men do,” McClendon said.
McClendon looked ahead to the next celebration and promised it wouldn’t come simply if the Pirates improved by 10 games in 2003, thus assuring a winning season. (Which, of course, didn’t happen).
“The next time we pop champagne,” McClendon said, “it will be for real.”
It took only 11 more years, several managers (Pete Mackanin, Jim Tracy, John Russell and Clint Hurdle) and countless roster turnover for it to happen.
It was fitting that the Pirates celebrated in the cramped quarters of the Wrigley Field visitors clubhouse, easily the smallest locker room in the National League, if not all of baseball.
It was in Chicago that some other late-season historical items transpired during the 20-year losing skid:
= In 1996, Jim Leyland’s last game as Pirates manager was an 8-3 victory at Wrigley. Four nights earlier, Leyland was given an emotional sendoff at Three Rivers Stadium, but the finality hit after the Cubs game.
“It has been a tough time for me,” Leyland said that day. “It has been tough on my family and for a lot of people. I’m glad that part is over.”
Leyland did not get the ball from the final out as a souvenir. Left fielder Trey Beamon caught the fly ball that ended the game and, without thinking, chucked it to a fan in the seats.
Leyland didn’t seem to mind.
“Other than your hometown, Wrigley Field with all its tradition and ivy-covered walls is a great place to go out,” he said.
= In 2001, the Pirates lost their 100th game on the next-to-last day of the season at Wrigley. The Pirates actually had shown improvement in September, but became unhinged when the season was shut down for a week by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Cubs starter Julian Tavarez, two years before he pitched in the Pirates bullpen, had a no-hitter until one out in the eighth inning when the light-hitting and imminently forgettable Mendy Lopez broke it up.
It sealed the first 100-loss season for the Pirates since 1985 and gave them the worst record in the majors, edging Tampa Bay.
“Whether it’s 99 or 100 or even 90, anytime you lose, it’s tough,” McClendon said at the time. “I’m not putting any significance on 100. I can’t dwell on things like that. I have to move forward.”
So did a Pirates employee who shall remain nameless. Sitting in the clubhouse that afternoon, holding a beer in his hand, the employee looked at reporters with a smile and said, “Win or lose, there’s always booze.”
Needless to say, he wasn’t brought back the next year.
= In 2003, the Pirates watched as former teammates Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton celebrated winning the NL Central title as members of the Cubs. Ramirez and Lofton came aboard in the infamous July 2003 trade when the Pirates had to start shedding contracts because they were afoul of MLB’s debt-to-equity ratio.
“I’m envious,” McClendon said after the game, as sounds from fans celebrating on Clark and Addison streets could be heard in the tiny clubhouse. “I want my young guys to see that and see what we’re playing for and what it’s all about.
“Hopefully, we’ll be doing that very soon.”
A decade later, they finally did.
(Trib Total Media assistant sports editor Joe Rutter covered 13 years of the Pirates’ losing streak, from 1993 until 2005)