Pirates fever

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

***

image
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.

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Comments

  1. Samantha Webb said...

    Brian, I admire your passion and your knowledge.

    What are your thoughts on the additional 2 wild card spots? I personally hate it, but I suppose it could give a team like Pittsburgh a chance at a postseason, which is exciting. However, how unfortunate would it be if the Pirates actually earned the “1st place wild card” but then was robbed of the postseason by losing a one game playoff (and to Atlanta of all teams?)

  2. brian said...

    I don’t like the extra wild card either.  A one-game playoff is basically like saying that the 2 teams tied for the real wild card spot, even though one may have a much better record than the other.  If it were up to me, I would make each league go back to only 2 divisions, then have 2 wild card spots to play the division winners.

    The prospect of another soul-crushing loss to the Braves is far more unpleasant.  Seems like its almost destined to happen.

  3. tony said...

    One quick correction.  Akinori Iwamura was not a free agent signing.  He was acquired from the Rays in exchange for Jesse Chavez.  The Rays then turned around and sent him to the Braves in exchange for Rafael Soriano who went on to save 45 games for the Rays that year.

  4. brian said...

    Yea that’s right…I mistakenly thought that was a sign-and-trade. The Pirates failed to wait until Tampa declined his contract option (which they were going to do anyway).  So not only did Pittsburgh have to pick up that option, they allowed Tampa to avoid a buyout.  Typical Pirates.

  5. Mike S. said...

    I think the extra wild card is the best thing in years.  There hasn’t been enough distinction between winning the wild card and winning the division.  The extra wild card makes a division title far more valuable, and that’s a good thing.

    The only thing better would be getting rid of the WC, but since that’s not going to happen, this is the next best thing.

  6. brian said...

    Haha John Russell probably woundl’t have argued that call.

    I would say if you watch all the videos of the play, it’s very difficult to conclude that he was not clearly tagged in the knee.

    Another interesting thing about that play is that the batter stumbled badly and fell down on his way to first base.  You can see pitcher Daniel McCutchen frantically trying to get McKenry to throw down to first, which would have negated the run.

  7. bucdaddy said...

    That’s why, IMO, McKenry went with the swipe tag, in the hopes he could turn the DP. Otherwise he’d have just buried the tag on Lugo, and there would have been no question.

    Brian, I wish I could find it now, but it’s pretty clear to me from a video I’ve seen that McKenry either tagged him on the upper thigh or he didn’t get him at all. It’s far from clear in any case.

  8. Tom said...

    Meals admitted blowing the call, but said that he thought that he got “ole’d” by McKenry.  That is to say that he thought that the catcher swiped without touching the runner.  I guess it happens, but when the play is that far up the line (3-5 feet) the benefit of the doubt – and he admits that he was not certain – goes to the catcher and not the runner.  Personally, I thought then, and still believe, that Meals had a hot date, it was after midnight and he couldn’t keep the woman waiting forever, so…

  9. Hobartharry said...

    Great wonderful article. Except for one reference, that being to Pokey Reese being an ‘underachiever,’
    Pokey almost single-handed kept the Bucs around that one year. He was a team player and would fit in well with today’s team.
    In no way should Pokey be remembered in the same vein as Derek Bell.

  10. brian said...

    Thanks for reading and I appreciate the comment.  Pokey was a nice player and maybe wasn’t as bad as some of those others.  He was in his prime when the Bucs got him but his play declined compared to his years with the Reds, where he won 2 gold gloves and was famously the player they wouldn’t give up in the Ken Griffey Jr. deal.

    (Also, I made a mistake there…Pokey was a FA signing not a trade, and Iwamura was acquired by trade rather than FA.  Those two should be switched.)

  11. Buccofan said...

    Just one thing—you have the wrong Jason for the “Welcome to hell” quote.  At one point, someone wrongly attributed this to Kendall and now it’s been repeated a million times.  A little unfair to Kendall.

  12. John said...

    Your mention of Roberto Clemente brings back a memory of a play he made which I will never forget. I remember at age 7 or 8 (I am 53 years old now) sitting in the right field stands at the Old Forbes Field when of course Clemente played right field for the Pirates. Based on the color of the opposing teams uniforms the Pirates from what I remember were either playing the Cardinals or the Phillies. The opposing team had a runner on first base and the batter hits a gap shot between Clemente and the center fielder. Clemente caught the ball on one bounce after it hit the fence, stood at the fence a threw a perfect strike on basically a line drive type of throw to the Pirates catcher for an out as the runner on first base was trying to score. I remember saying to myself after that play what a throw all the way from the fence to home plate and the runner is out trying to score from first base! No offense to todays major league baseball players but I don’t believe there is a major league player in the league today that can make that kind of a throw. They at best would be lucky to make a good throw to the cut-off man.
    A shame he passed away in that plane crash on a humanatarian effort on New Years Eve in either 1972 or 1973, don’t remember which.

  13. brian said...

    John, good story about Clemente.  I always liked outfielders with great arms.  Do you remember the famous throw from Jose Guillen in 97 or 98?  He dropped a ball at the right field warning track, then threw a guy out at third base.  I also remember reading that Clemente used to throw guys out at third quite a bit.

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