“This is a growing process for us. We’re not going to turn this thing around in one year. We have a five-year plan that will probably get us to the playoffs in two years.”
–Kevin McClatchy, 3/24/1996
During my teenage years, I sporadically collected newspapers in a pile in my bedroom. This collection, which now resides somewhere in my parents’ attic, is made up of about 98% sports-related publications. There is an issue of the Post-Gazette from September 12, 2001. I have a paper reporting that the body of John F. Kennedy Jr. was recovered, but only because David Cone pitched a perfect game the same day. Every post-game issue from the Steelers’ 1995 Super Bowl run is there. There are several sections from Mario Lemieux’s first retirement. And buried somewhere in that collection is the sports page from the December 14, 1996 issue of the Post-Gazette. The headline simply reads, “Final shoe drops.”
One day prior, the Pirates finished cleaning house by trading Jeff King and Jay Bell to the Royals. This followed trades of key players Danny Darwin, Denny Neagle, Orlando Merced, Carlos Garcia and Dan Plesac. Contrary to popular belief, this was the only attempt at rebuilding the team before Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington arrived in late 2007. It was also the first time that my young heart was broken by a Pirates trade. The Pirates had a disastrous 1996 season, and Kevin McClatchy ordered payroll to be slashed to the bone. Cam Bonifay sent players packing left and right, and the Pirates entered 1997 with a $9.1 million payroll and Baseball America’s top farm system. The rebuild was fully underway.
As we all know, things never worked out. Seeing as the Pirates are currently about halfway through their first significant rebuild since the 1996 dismantling, it is important to look back and determine what went wrong. Over the next few weeks, I am going to break down the different aspects of the attempted rebuild and look at how things fell apart.
The first five-year plan was an obvious failure, causing more than a decade of public mockery. It remains to be seen if the next attempt is any more successful.