Bucs haven't been .500 since Bonds left

Jason Bay, the face of the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise, was 14 when the Pirates last finished a season with a winning record.

That's how long it's been since the Pirates have been competitive.

There are young teenage fans in western Pennsylvania who have never seen Pittsburgh win more games than it loses. Three Rivers Stadium has come and gone without the Pirates being above .500.

It might not seem a lifetime ago, but for some, it's close. Close enough to make Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker and Barry Bonds seem like ancient figures.

"It's taken longer than we would have liked," concedes general manager Dave Littlefield, who replaced Cam Bonifay as Pirates GM in July 2001.

At this rate, Pittsburgh is dangerously close to making history, the kind no franchise wishes to make. With 14 consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates are just two more years away from tying the Phillies for the longest futility string.

From 1933 to 1948, the Phillies posted one losing season after another. Naturally, the Pirates want no part of matching them.

Finally, however, there's reason to believe they won't. The Bucs were 37-35 after the All-Star break last year, providing a measure of optimism in Pittsburgh.

Other small-market teams have overcome obstacles. Why not the Pirates?

"Really," shortstop Jack Wilson said, "for one of the first times since I've been here, it became a situation where we expected to win when we took the field. It hasn't always been easy. It's tough when you know you're outmanned and you pretty much have to play a perfect game to beat a good major league team. You can't sustain something like that.

"But I felt we turned a corner in that regard late last season. We started showing we could compete on a regular basis."

The National League Central, where the Pirates frequently have occupied the basement, is a division up for grabs. The St. Louis Cardinals are defending World Series champions, but they won just 83 games last season and suffered losses to the pitching staff.

Beyond the Chicago Cubs, who spent lavishly on free agents (Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis) and the Houston Astros, the rest of division spent prudently.

The Pirates have the third-smallest opening day payroll ($38,604,500) in the National League, behind only Washington ($37,347,500) and Florida ($30,507,000).

After some trial and error, Littlefield has built a nucleus that is both improving and affordable. Beyond veteran pitchers Damaso Marte, Shawn Chacon and Tony Armas, every other member of the roster is under the team's control for at least the next three seasons.

Littlefield's drafts have been spotty, but he has augmented the club with good trades for Bay, NL batting champion Freddy Sanchez, outfielder Xavier Nady and first baseman Adam LaRoche.

Gone are the days when Littlefield had to patch and fill with veteran free agents such as Reggie Sanders, Joe Randa, Jose Mesa and Jeromy Burnitz to occupy roles the farm system couldn't.

"There's been no change in philosophy," Littlefield said. "Player development is essential to what we do. But for a while, to be able to field a competitive team, we signed some short-term free agents. Gradually, we've weaned ourselves of that."

Despite Pittsburgh's 14 straight losing seasons, Littlefield isn't worried that a losing culture has become rooted into the organization. Thanks to roster churn, the Bucs' recent history is just that -- history.

Littlefield, on left-handed starter Zach Duke, who has 18 wins in his first two seasons: [He] doesn't care about what happened in 1998."

While the Pirates wait for improvement, they can't help but wonder how much longer fans will wait. Attendance last year (1.86 million) was bolstered by the presence of the All-Star Game. The team drew 2.4 million in the first year of PNC Park, but the decline at the turnstiles since then has been alarming.

"If the team you're rooting for hasn't been to .500 in 14 seasons," Littlefield allows, "there's going to be a degree of frustration. But they've been supportive. And I think they're just waiting for a reason to get behind us."

A young, mostly homegrown starting rotation consisting of Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny should only get better. Bay, Sanchez and LaRoche should provide a formidable middle of the order.

Finally, hope exists. The losing seasons might not end this year, but progress will be made.

"I think there is reason for optimism," Wilson said. "We're going to have a better team this season. We're going to be competitive. There isn't any reason we can't play with any of the other teams in the division."

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.