Walker has unique perspective on Bucs' drought
Pittsburgh native has been a part of 20-year losing run as player and fan
PITTSBURGH -- Neil Walker understands the plight of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He has lived it.
More than being the second baseman for the Pirates, he's a Pittsburgh native. He grew up a Bucs fan.
Walker was 7 years old on Oct. 14, 1992, when Atlanta rallied in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series on a two-out, two-run Francisco Cabrera pinch-hit single, with Sid Bream sliding into home ahead of a Barry Bonds throw to the plate to cap a 3-2 Braves win over the Pirates.
"I was so upset after that game," Walker said. "So close, and then ... "
Little did Walker, or anybody else, realize what was ahead for the Pirates, a team which won three consecutive NL East titles from 1990-92, but never advanced to the World Series. Pittsburgh hasn't posted a winning record, much less won a division title, since.
The 20 consecutive losing seasons is the longest streak in the history of North American professional team sports. And Walker has been an active part of each of the last four. He made his big league debut in September 2009, and he has been the Pirates' starting second baseman the last three years
And Walker wants to be part of the Pittsburgh team that starts the upward trend for the Pirates to regain that status.
The franchise played its first NL game on April 30, 1887, and is one of the oldest clubs in professional baseball. Forty Hall of Famers have had ties to the team. And despite the struggles of the past 20 years, the Bucs' all-time winning percentage is .503. Pittsburgh has won five World Series championships.
The Pirates, however, have not been to the postseason since 1992, the longest drought in the NL and second longest in the big leagues. Kansas City hasn't played a playoff game since '85.
Pittsburgh lost 105 games during Walker's rookie season in 2010, the third most in franchise history, and is a combined 208-278 in his three full years in the big leagues.
The Bucs' first-round Draft choice and the 11th player taken overall in 2004, Walker's ties to the team run deeper than his playing career.
"Three Rivers [Stadium] was my second home," Walker said of the Pirates' home prior to the opening of PNC Park in 2001. "My dad is a member of the Pirate alumni."
Tom Walker was a right-handed pitcher who played in the big leagues from 1972-77 with Montreal, Detroit, St. Louis and the California Angels. He finished his career in '78 with Pittsburgh's Triple-A team, and early in his career, played winter ball in Puerto Rico with Bucs legend Roberto Clemente, who talked him out of accompanying Clemente on that fatal flight of mercy on Dec. 31, 1972.
"I'm aware," Neil Walker said of the Pirates' storied history that has been overshadowed by two decades of failure. "I know about Clemente, Willie Stargell and 'Maz.'"
"Maz," as Hall of Fame second baseman Bill Mazeroski is known, worked with Walker on making the transition to second base. Signed as a catcher, Walker didn't move to the infield until his fourth year in pro ball.
"Regardless of what has happened the last 20 years, the Pirates are one of the best organizations in the history of baseball," Walker said.
And while outsiders talk about the late-season fades the Pirates have suffered in the past two years, Walker sees them as providing promise for the future. The Bucs were in first place as late as July 25, 2011, but won only 19 of their final 62 games, slipping below .500 for good at 54-55 on Aug. 3 that season. A year ago, Pittsburgh led the NL Central as late as July 18, was a season-best 16 games above .500 on Aug, 8, but lost 36 of its final 52 games
What frustrated Walker is the Pirates lost 24 of the final 35 games. He started only six of those games because of a lower back problem that was the focus of his offseason workouts.
"This game can throw you curves," Walker said.
Pittsburgh, however, continued to rework its roster, looking to add depth. In addition to the July 24 acquisition of lefty Wandy Rodriguez from Houston last season, the offseason additions included left-handed starting pitcher Francisco Liriano, right-handed reliever Mark Melancon and catcher Russell Martin.
"The last two years have not ended the way we want," said Walker. "We played a lot of good baseball, but did not get done what we needed to get done.
"Our motto this year is, 'Finish every pitch. Finish every at-bat. Finish every inning.'"
And if it all goes the way Walker hopes, the Pirates will finish the two decades of failure.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.