One of the rules of life is that everything changes. No matter how long something stays at a certain level, one day its position changes. People get older, theories evolve, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. However, if you were from Pittsburgh, it might seem as if this rule were not true. You knew that the Steelers were always going to contend and the Pirates, well … would be the Pirates. But this season in the Steel City, it looks as if things are finally shifting.
Since 1992, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been one of the most inept franchises in all of North American professional sports. Since the days of Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Doug Drabek ended, the Pirates have failed to qualify for the postseason for 20 seasons. In major league history, only the Kansas City Royals at 26 seasons and Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals at 30 seasons have had longer periods of futility.
Since Bonds left for San Francisco in 1993, the Pirates have been terrible, never posting a winning percentage above .488 and going through six different managers during that time frame. However, change comes even for teams like the Pirates. Since the debut of center fielder Andrew McCutchen in 2009, the Pirates have steadily been improving, finishing out of the basement of their division in three of the last five seasons after finishing last in four of the five years before McCutchen arrived. This season the Pirates have already won 90 games, their starters are fourth in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings, and McCutchen is an National League MVP candidate with a .405 OBP and 7.8 wins above replacement.
As important as McCutchen has been, the team has also benefitted from a stable front office led by team President Frank Coonelly, General Manager Neal Huntington and Field Manager Clint Hurdle. All have contributed to changing the culture of the once downtrodden franchise. In April of this year, Hurdle said, “to build a winning a team and a successful organization, you must create a culture of greatness. It is the most important thing a leader can do because culture drives behavior, behavior drives habits and habits create the future. As the leaders at Apple say, ‘Culture beats strategy all day long.’” This season in Pittsburgh, a new, winning culture has taken the team to the postseason for the first time in two decades.
To the west of PNC Park, another Pittsburgh franchise plays its games. The last 20 years have produced far more success for this team. Since the Braves’ Sid Bream was called safe to knock the Pirates out of their last postseason in 1992, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had only two head coaches, made the playoffs 13 times, won two Super Bowls, played in four and had only three losing seasons. However, since losing to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers are only 20–16 and this season are ranked 30th in total offense. Already, injuries to players such as All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and veteran linebacker Larry Foote have decimated the once mighty Steelers. Once known for their toughness, the Steelers’ average age on defense is the oldest in the entire league, at just over 29 years of age. In addition, the Steelers have committed over $35 million over the next three years to a quarterback who has started a full 16-game season only once in his 10-year career, and only the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers have more salary cap commitments for 2014.
At 0–3, the Steelers have an uphill climb to make the postseason this year. Since the modern playoff system was implemented in 1990, only three teams have qualified for the playoffs after starting 0–3. Things will not get any easier for the Steelers, as three of their next five games are against teams that made the playoffs last season. Looking further out, the team is in real trouble. For the past five seasons, the Steelers have mostly contended with Baltimore for supremacy in the AFC North. However, the Steelers now also have to contend with an upstart Cincinnati squad with electric playmakers in A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard, and Tyler Eifert. If the Bengals continue to improve upon their past two playoff seasons, Pittsburgh’s path back to the postseason will be all the more difficult.
A team that has been a mainstay for so long suddenly looks like it may be heading towards an era of mediocrity at best. It is as if the Pirates and Steelers are in the process of changing places. Everything changes in life; this goes for Pittsburgh sports as well.