A Season in the Books

I’m sitting here watching the Pirates’ One-hundred-and-sixty-first game and contemplating how my baseball experiment went. I decided to give the Pittsburgh Pirates, as well as the entire sport of baseball, a chance to make me care. I, no doubt like many other Pittsburghers, lost interest in the Pirates as they mounted year after year of dismal, hopeless, losing seasons. This season, I watched baseball with an intent to learn and appreciate as much about it as I could.

I last went to a professional baseball game around 1993 or so. At Three Rivers Stadium. The only thing I remember about it is that soon after, every player I had a baseball card of had been traded or left the team. The Pirates were never on national television. There was no way to watch them or keep up with the team in the early internet days, aside from the score. And that was available in the newspaper. ((The Washington Post, in my case.)). And they kept losing. And they kept trading away anyone of actual value for prospects with potential value. These prospects either didn’t pan out, or were traded away to repeat the cycle. So the losing continued, and I just stopped caring.

My opinion was that the ownership didn’t seem to care. They got their brand new stadium, the best ballpark in the major leagues, and still couldn’t field a competitive team. They couldn’t build one and refused to buy one. ((Market size and spending in baseball is an article for another day.)) It was the always the most beautiful park in the game, at least until the first pitch was thrown.

I’d gone to a few Pirates games over the past two years. I went to two in 2009 while I was in town for the Stanley Cup Finals. The Pirates managed to split the games I went to, and then the Stanley cup made a surprise appearance at the third game, which I skipped. Oops. In 2010, I managed to make it out to another game, the second game after Pedro Alvarez was called up. Without going back to look at the box score, I can mention that my only memory of the game was winning free tickets to another game and replying, “Oh no…” because I was hoping for the water bottle. I was also wearing a Penguins shirt to the game, like many other fans.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to Pittsburgh for any games this year, but I’ve watched almost every game. It wasn’t until mid-August, when any chance of a successful season was long gone, that I lost interest. On the whole, I think I’m pretty happy with the experience. My personal opinion of baseball changed. When you understand the sport, it’s much easier to watch and not get bored. There are, however, many points in a game where it does get a bit boring. The upside to all of this is that I’m no longer only waiting to see a home run. There was even a point where I contemplated becoming more of a fan of baseball in the long run than football. ((Due to the NFL’s constant rule changes in favor of high scoring offensive games at the expense of defense and its past. But that’s another article.))

One of the rules I had for myself was that I had to try and learn by watching the games, not reading a book or scavenging Wikipedia. This made figuring out the differences between the American League and the National League take a little longer, and at some point I did have to resort to Wikipedia. I’m also not sure on where I stand on the designated hitter debate either. I can see the argument for the historical basis of having a pitcher bat, especially with Babe Ruth being one of the all-time greats of baseball. Then again, so many pitchers are just horrendous at batting that I can see the argument for a designated hitter in the NL. I don’t know the answer to that, but what I do know is that deciding home field advantage in the World Series through the All-Star Game is moronic.

I learned a lot of the intricacies of baseball, and that makes me appreciate just how fine-tuned it is at the professional level. I know what a 1-6-3 double play is. I understand some of the strategy both on the field and in assembling a lineup. I appreciate hits a lot more now, and like I said earlier, I’m no longer just watching for a home run. The difficulty of getting a hit isn’t quite understood until watching at least thirty or forty games. With over a hundred years of history, various levels of basic and advanced statistics, and being distilled to its bare essentials, baseball is extremely formulaic and therefore doesn’t allow for many unexpected situations. The placement of the fielders, where to throw the ball in a certain situation, or when to bunt or steal is all planned out. So, while this makes it easier for a seasoned fan to know what to expect, it can be a little frustrating for a new fan. Especially sacrifice bunts. Those are infuriating.

One example showing I still have a long way to go is that when the announcers mentioned Monday’s game was at 289 pitches. I don’t really pay attention to pitches aside from starting pitcher’s limits being about 70. Obviously I haven’t watched enough baseball to know how far above normal that is, unlike hockey where I know a trap-playing team can limit the Penguins to about 20 shots or so if they’re executing right, otherwise the normal amount is 30 to 35. So, I’ve got something to pay more attention to next year.

Watching this entire season also confirmed some of my previous thoughts on baseball. For one, it’s way too slow. Batters step out of the box after every pitch. That’s fine. Then they go through their routine, adjusting their gloves, practicing a swing or two, tapping their cleats. Again, all well and dandy. Then the batter steps back in the box and waits. The pitcher takes their time deciding when to pitch. They want the balance of power back in their favor. So they make the batter wait, and wait, and wait some more. Then, if the batter feels that the pitcher has thrown off his rhythm, he can step back out of the box, repeating the entire song and dance. It’s pretentious and tedious. Some games it doesn’t happen much, while others seem to go on endlessly. This is one of the real annoying things about baseball. You can have “quick” three hour games. Rarely. But you can also have these never ending marathons of a game, stretching everything out to over four hours. And if the Red Sox and Yankees are playing each other, get ready for a four and a half hour romp.

Another problem is the refusal to add instant replay to the game on some misguided notion that it takes “the human element” out of the game. The human element will always be in the game. That’s why there’s players. If you’re going to allow instant replay for determining whether or not a home run is really a home run, then logically it should be used on scoring plays when there’s a good amount of controversy. Or, you know, when an umpire clearly makes a mistake. Nothing defined this more than the blown call by Jerry Meals in the marathon nineteen inning game between the Pirates and the braves in Atlanta. Meals took the longest game the Pirates had ever played and ended it early because he apparently had somewhere to be at two in the morning. The announcers couldn’t believe it. The players couldn’t believe it. Fans still can’t believe it. It’s one thing to get over a blown call ruining a perfect game. That amounts to losing being a trivia tidbit. It’s another thing to miss a call that changes the outcome of the game. I can see the argument against instant replay because of how the NFL runs it into the ground, but baseball can use that as the example to avoid. Scoring plays only, the end.

So, I’m generally happy with giving baseball a chance. Except for the actual outcome of the Pirates season. I thought this would be the year they finally turned the corner an ended the streak. This looked like the year where they would not only break .500, but would flirt with the playoffs. They were riding high in first place only two months ago. Then the nineteen inning disaster happened and the entire season went off the rails. Pedro Alvarez had a terrible year going from slump to injury, to bouncing back and forth between the majors and minors, never quite breaking out of the slump. Whether it was the team mishandling him or Alvarez not being able to bring himself out of it, all in all it ended up being a lost season for him. Nobody doubts that Alvarez has the potential to be a star power hitter. The problem is if he will realize that with the Pirates or a different team. I fear it will be the latter.

The Pirates are emulating the Penguins in that they’re creating a core of players that will carry the team, and will fill in missing pieces as they go along. Right now, it’s McCutchen, Walker, and Tabata. Alvarez was part of that core at the beginning of the season, but he’s questionable going forward. Maybe Presley can step in. Additionally, the Pirates are finally breaking the stereotype of the poor, small-market team and are pulling out all the stops to sign their draft picks. That really sealed it for me that the ownership now legitimately cares about winning and not just turning a profit. Maybe it was the sellout crowds from when the Pirates were rolling along and winning, maybe it was part of the plan all along, but it’s about time the Pirates didn’t cower from spending some money. That made the historic failure in the last third of the season a little bit easier to take.

The Pirates are a young team and have great potential. Whether they will realize that potential and achieve something remains to be seen, but it will be an absolute shame if they don’t. Whatever happens, the only question I really have for next year is if the streak will go to twenty.