Pirates feverby Brian Lutz
July 30, 2012
Go ahead, tell them all about it. About the prized prospects traded away for nothing. About the pathetic crowds in May and June. About the last-place finishes, the 90-loss seasons, the foolish draft picks, and the inescapable culture of losing.
Tell them what you’ve seen: players jogging to first base; bunting with two strikes; stealing third with no outs; backing up the wrong base; missing the cut-off man. Little league mistakes. One time, a guy got tagged out during his home run trot after he thought the ball cleared the fence. (It didn’t.) Another time, two guys got caught on the same base, and both were tagged out. Hey, at lease there weren’t three.
You’ve seen free agents come aboard and sulk all summer long, as if they’ve been demoted to the minors. You’ve seen one exasperated manager after another fail miserably before burning every bridge on the way out of town. You’ve seen owners spend money on everything except serviceable major league baseball players.
You’ve seen shelves full of bobbleheads rendered forever inaccurate, bobbling into eternity with black and gold caps on their bobbling heads.
You’ve seen jerseys become obsolete only months after they were stitched.
You heard they once fired a pierogi.
You know nothing of wild cards, or pennant races, or baseball in October.
You’re a Pittsburgh Pirates fan.
Nobody told me I was in a competition. If there is a competition, somebody better let me know. If there is a competition, they better eliminate me out of the race and go ahead and do what they’re going to do with me. I ain’t never hit in spring training, and I never will. If it ain’t settled with me out there, then they can trade me. I ain’t going out there to hurt myself in spring training battling for a job. If it is [a competition], then I’m going into ‘Operation Shutdown.’ I haven’t competed for a job since 1991.
-former Pirates outfielder Derek Bell, spring training, 2002
For a large portion of your life, the Pirates have been a very bad baseball team. Everyone knows that no other franchise, in any major professional sport, has gone so long between winning seasons. No matter how bad things ever got for the Los Angeles Clippers, or the Detroit Lions, or even the Kansas City Royals, they could always look towards Pittsburgh’s North Shore and say, “Hey, at least we aren’t them.”
You know that the Pirates, after years and years of losing, slowly and deservedly became somewhat of a joke in baseball circles. They were fleeced by other GMs in trades. Top-tier free agents completely ignored them. Everyone knew they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—spend the money required to field a decent team.
With Major League Baseball remaining the last professional sports league without a salary cap, the Pirates have always had a built-in excuse. It was baseball’s unfair and titled economics that sunk them. Sure, that didn’t stop other small-market teams like the Minnesota Twins or the Cleveland Indians or the Oakland A’s or the Tampa Bay Rays from finding various levels of success. But the Pirates, well…they just couldn’t compete. It just wasn’t fair.
It was the indifference to winning that defined the Pirates’ long streak of losing seasons. They wanted to win, they just couldn’t. It had nothing to door with poor scouting or an absence of leadership or a lack of commitment. When all else fails, blame the system.
Meanwhile, this is who you were stuck with. This was your hometown team; you had no choice.
You had to root for the endless parade of forgettable players: Chris Duffy, Warren Morris, Tike Redman, Ronny Paulino, Midre Cummings, Ross Ohlendorf, and others.
You had to support all those awful free agent signings: Pat Meares, Jeromy Burnitz, Joe Randa, Akinori Iwamura, Lyle Overbay and others.
You remember all those underachievers picked up through trades: Matt Morris, Adam LaRoche, Ronny Cedeno, Pokey Reese, and others.
You remember all the popular players traded away: Jeff King, Jon Lieber, Brian Giles, Sean Casey, Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez and others.
You remember the parade of high draft picks who never panned out: Chad Hermansen, J.J. Davis, Kris Benson, Bryan Bullington, Jon Van Benschoten and others.
You remember Derek Bell and Raul Mondesi, the two outfielders who have come to symbolize the ultimate era of losing.
You remember when 23-year-old Aramis Ramirez was traded.
You remember when 27-year-old Jose Bautista was traded.
You don’t remember who the Pirates got back in those trades.
Ron Wright’s going to hit a lot of home runs.
-former Pirates GM Cam Bonifay, discussing Ron Wright (who did not hit a lot of home runs), one of the prospects the team received when they traded 27-year-old star pitcher Denny Neagle
Now, it's summer 2012. Good teams come to PNC Park and lose. A superstar—an MVP candidate—plays in Pittsburgh. The manager is praised and loved throughout the city. There is homegrown talent up and down the roster. The pitching staff is among the best in baseball. A pennant race is here and now. The team rallies, hustles, never gives up, plays hard in every game. These are the Pirates you’ve been waiting for your whole life.
You proceed with caution, because Pirate fans know more than anyone else not to get their hopes up. Never do you give the benefit of the doubt to anyone or anything associated with this franchise. Decades of losing and poor play will always have you waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Plus, you’ve heard this song already. Remember 2011? Big crowds. First place in July. A team that captivated the city, made believers out of the skeptics.
And then…they fell to earth in the most Pirate-like fashion, by losing 42 of their final 60 games. Yes, it was one of the worst August-September finishes in baseball history. The final tally was 90 losses, the seventh straight season with at least that many. Not to mention the 19th straight season they finished…well, you know.
Did you think he was going to be safe?
-former Pirates manager Jim Tracy, brusquely responding to reporter who questioned him about right fielder Jeromy Burnitz halfheartedly jogging out a ground ball
You know what the Pirates are not. They are not a Mickey Mouse expansion team that once wore teal or purple. They are not a mercenary franchise that has moved from city to city. Does anyone care that the Columbus Blue Jackets now have six consecutive losing seasons? Does anyone care that the Charlotte Bobcats only won seven games last season?
In Pittsburgh, you know they care. The Pirates have been here every summer since 1882. They played in the first-ever World Series. They fielded the first-ever lineup featuring all minority players. They beat the big, bad Yankees of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in the perhaps the most dramatic finale in baseball history.
Iconic Hall of Famers Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and others have worn the black and gold. The Pirates have played in seven World Series and won five. The city’s old-timers will tell you that the Pirates were the toast of Pittsburgh long before the Steelers were good and long before the Penguins existed.
It’s not like the Pirates have never fielded poor teams. The post-World War II years were particularly brutal, as they finished last or next-to-last ten different times. In the 1980s, they were the scorn of baseball thanks to what became known as the Pittsburgh Drug Trials. And who can forget the 1890 team that lost a club-record 113 games?
Still, the current losing streak will forever be the franchise’s biggest black eye. With the current Pirates soaring to new heights—best home record in the majors! 13 games over .500!—it is easier to separate the present from even the very recent past. But when the Bucs were mired in mediocrity, the players were disillusioned, unlikeable, and it looked like they didn’t always play hard. For most of the last two decades, the biggest gripe was not that they didn’t win 82 games; it was that they didn’t seem to care.
Welcome to Hell.
-former catcher and team leader Jason Kendall’s sardonic welcome message to new teammates
|Pirate Fever--Catch It! (Getty Images)|
The Pirates of 2012 care. They are proud to wear the black cap with the yellow “P.” Beginning last year, and carrying into this season, they have formed a connection with the city that hasn’t existed seen since…well, you know.
You root for this team like you have for no other. You’re pumping your fist, you’re doing the “Zoltan” sign, you’re raising the Jolly Roger. You look at these players, and you feel like they desperately want to break a streak they have little to do with.
Here’s Andrew McCutchen, face of the franchise, undisputed team leader. He hasn’t become the superstar everyone expected to be—he’s better. He’s not just in the MVP discussion, he’s a front-runner. He leads the major leagues in batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS. He’s a legitimate threat to win the triple crown. He’s the Pirates’ best player since…Bonds? Stargell? Clemente? Of all the reasons to believe in this team, he’s number one by a mile.
There’s Neil Walker, who rooted for the Bucs while growing up in the Pittsburgh suburbs. He was drafted by the Pirates straight outta high school. He struggled through the minors, changed positions a couple of times, and broke through in 2010 after everyone called him a bust. He’s now batting over .300 and is a fixture at second base.
There’s Pedro Alvarez, who’s been declared a bust 37 different times since he was called up to the majors in 2010. The second overall pick in the 2008 draft, he’s overcome injuries and some brutal slumps to provide the power bat the team has so desperately needed for so long and hasn’t had since…Bonds? Stargell? Kiner?
There’s A.J. Burnett, staff ace and mentor to the younger pitchers. Someone who was actually, genuinely happy to be a Pittsburgh Pirate, having escaped the media blitz in New York. Someone already so well-liked that he was recently given a standing ovation…after giving up 12 hits and six runs.
You know them all. James McDonald, blossoming into an All-Star caliber pitcher. Joel Hanrahan, punctuating every win with a lights-out ninth inning. Jason Grilli, having his best season at age 35. Michael "Fort" McKenry, collecting big hits all summer long. Manager Clint Hurdle, chomping that bubble gum every night, pushing all the right buttons, molding his team into something he must know has a chance to be special.
I won’t play another game this season. I can’t concentrate well enough to play baseball. I don’t want to become a distraction for the team. This is what’s best for the Pirates, for myself and my family.
-former Pirates outfielder Raul Mondesi, who was released by the last-place Pirates shortly after saying this, only to sign with the first-place Anaheim Angels eight days later
There’s Andy Van Slyke. He’s sitting down in the middle of the outfield, arms resting on his bent legs, cap sitting high on his head. His face wears a dazed expression of shock and disbelief, as if he’s watching the Germans march into Paris.
What he’s watching is the Atlanta Braves’ jubilant postgame celebration following their dramatic comeback in Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS. The Pirates led 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth and were one out away from a World Series berth before it slipped away. They will not be this good, or this relevant, for—at least—the next 19 ½ years.
Maybe he knew.
Fake Bob Nutting (played by local comedian Randy Baumann): “Come on down to the ball yard today, plenty of tickets available!”
Comedian Jim Krenn: “Bob, the game is sold out.”
FBN: “Haha! Don’t be silly, Jim. Pirate games are never sold out.”
JK: “It’s the home opener. That game is always sold out.”
FBN: “Really? Hmmm… New business plan: More home openers!”
-Pittsburgh’s old WDVE Morning Show, poking fun at Pirates owner Bob Nutting
In Pittsburgh, it’s known as the Jerry Meals Game. It featured one of the worst calls you’ve ever seen. Many notable baseball writers, including ESPN’s Buster Olney and Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, used the play as an example of why baseball needed to revamp its instant replay system. The New York Daily News declared it the worst call in baseball history. Bucs skipper Clint Hurdle said afterwards, “The game tonight deserved better that that.”
It had all the makings of a midseason classic. The Pirates, a game out of first at the time, battled the Wild Card-leading Braves for 19 innings and nearly seven hours. In the bottom of the 19th, Atlanta’s Julio Lugo appeared to be tagged out trying to score on an infield grounder. Inexplicably, he was called safe. Home plate umpire Jerry Meals would later admit that he missed the call.
The Jerry Meals Game became the axis upon which the Pirates' 2011 season pivoted. Despite winning the following night in Atlanta, they dropped their next ten games to fall out of playoff contention for good. Despite the trading-deadline acquisitions of Ryan Ludwick and Derek Lee, the Pirates would win only 19 games for the remainder of the season.
The Jerry Meals Game occurred on July 27, 2011, just about one year ago from today. Once again, the Pirates are in the thick of the NL Central and Wild Card races. Once again, the young Pirates are soaring to heights not seen in two decades. Best home record in the majors! A strong 14 games over .500! Once again, the Pirates have you believing.
Nobody needs to tell you how important the remainder of this season is. The excitement has now reached a fever pitch. The trading deadline is days away. Top prospect Starling Marte has been called up and homered on the first pitch he saw in the majors. A huge showdown in Cincinnati begins on August 3. The Pirates and Reds, two powerhouses battling—just like the good old days, which you are not old enough to have witnessed.
All of the clichés that define winning teams can be applied to the Pirates of today. They win with style. They play as a team. They are “hitting on all cylinders.” They are “putting all the pieces together.” You, along with many others, have been waiting for this for a long time.
And even if the Bucs don’t make it to the postseason, or get that elusive 83rd win, maybe it won’t matter. Because you believe that these Pirates will not let you down. You believe that these Pirates will fight to the end; that they will go down swinging. Win or lose, they will make you proud. Maybe that’s all you ever really wanted.
Brian Lutz is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. You can email him at lutzb25 AT yahoo DOT com.