Ronny Cedeno (from left), Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutchen and Xavier Paul have the Pirates on the right track. | Jared Wickerham~Getty Images
Updated: October 29, 2011 12:35AM
PITTSBURGH — No one saw it coming.
With every step Sid Bream labored out rounding third, the Pittsburgh Pirates were one step closer to irrelevance.
The throw from Barry Bonds in left field . . . the slide . . . the celebration after the safe call. Then fade to black.
A proud franchise disintegrated into a baseball punch line.
Not just nationally but in their own city.
Bream’s infamous “mad dash’’ from second base in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series between the Atlanta Braves and Pirates was 19 years ago. In the ‘‘City of Champions,’’ it might as well be an eternity.
With the Braves trailing 2-1 with two outs in the ninth, David Justice at third and Bream’s unsturdy legs at second, Francisco Cabrera singled to left in what would prove to be the game-ender.
It was so much more.
The Pirates went into a tailspin of ineptitude. Whether it was bad ownership, bad decision-making, bad managers, bad players or all of the above, the 18-year stretch without a winning season is a record for all four major North American professional sports.
That’s a plaque you don’t want hanging in the office.
That’s also why the revival has been so sweet for suffering Pirates fans this summer. Whether it’s scoring two runs on an infield single against the Cubs in the third inning Friday night or a tell-it-like-it-is manager in Clint Hurdle, PNC Park is the “it’’ place for the first time since it opened in 2001.
And Pirates fans aren’t the only ones taking notice.
“Anytime you win ballgames and you’re in the pennant race like they are now, fans are going to show up,’’ Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez said. “I’m happy for them. It’s been a long time since they’ve been in contention this late in the year, and they’re right there. They have what it takes. They have the pitching to win a pennant race.’’
Words Ramirez never thought he’d say, especially after he spent five-plus seasons in what was the baseball version of Shawshank. He came up in the Pirates’ system, served his hard time and was finally granted freedom in a 2003 trade to the Cubs.
“It was hard,’’ Ramirez said of playing in an organization that had no chance by April. “Especially at the [trade] deadline. They were always going to start trading guys, and you didn’t know what kind of team you were going to have after July. It’s just tough. At this point now, they might be the team that’s acquiring guys to get better. You never know.’’
The Bucs entered the weekend the closest they’ve been to first place this late in the season since 1997. They finally seem to have a plan in place under general manager Neal Huntington after he spent the first three-plus years cleaning up the mess he inherited.
Coincidentally, a plan that the Ricketts family could be asking Cubs general manager Jim Hendry to try to duplicate. The idea of building an organization from homegrown talent has been around since players started using leather gloves. Executing it? That’s where GMs either earn contract extensions or find themselves on ESPN as commentators.
“You always try to do that,’’ Hendry said. “I think anybody in baseball would tell you that their first and foremost plan of attack is always to draft and sign your own amateur players and turn them into big-league players.’’
The trick for a team that’s able to do that? Sustaining it.
Look, moneyball was cute for a few years, and even earned an overrated GM such as the Oakland Athletics’ Billy Beane a best-selling book and a soon-to-be-released movie. Then pitchers Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito moved on, and Moneyball went to paperback in more ways than one.
Cubs manager Mike Quade was the first-base coach for the A’s from 2000 to ’02, and he knows first-hand that small-market teams can catch lightning in a bottle every so often, but keeping it contained is where it gets dicey.
“[The young talent] not only has to be lights-out, but they have to be lights-out right away,’’ Quade said. “If it takes them three years to get their feet on the ground, you’re talking about arbitration, and then all of a sudden, it’s like a college team with the turnover every four years.’’
The advantage Hendry has? He’s not running a small-market team. If he can get the table set with in-house talent, adding the expensive fine china will come easy. What Hendry also holds onto is the fact that the Central Division is still there for the taking with one good offseason.
“You never feel like you’re too far away from getting back in it,’’ Hendry said.
Hendry’s right; it can happen overnight.
Unfortunately, it also can take 18 years.