Postseason Pirates

In 2011, I started watching Pirates baseball again. I somehow decided to give them a chance after having given up on them years previously, half-rooting for the Red Sox in the meantime so that I could casually not expect failure every game. But they weren’t “my” team. When the Sox won the World Series in 2004 and 2007, it just didn’t have any impact to me. Sure, the parade was fun to see in person, but looking back on it, it wasn’t as memorable as the 2009 Stanley Cup parade for the Penguins. They were my team, and I remember almost every second of it. The Red Sox? Great to experience, but meaningless. I had to get back to the Pirates.

Casually reading about them after that, it was painful to become reacquainted with how bad they were. The losing. The hopelessness. Watching players leave through trades or free agency.

Then they made some big changes, and hired Clint Hurdle. I remember his interviews being a breath of fresh air and a different attitude. The new season rolled around and I sprung for an MLB season subscription and watched almost every game.
It ended up being the season known as Collapse I. They had edged towards a winning record and then it all fell apart from mid-July onwards.

Next, in 2012, Collapse II. A new pattern, this one even more painful. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and then it collapses around you. I questioned what I was doing. Would they really change, or was it just a new chapter in the saga of eternal Pirates suffering?

But, then, third time’s the charm. It was all worth it in 2013 when the Pirates not only reached .500, but stormed past it on the way to the playoffs. The Dark Age was over. The Pirates were winners. They’d reached the promised land. And that wildcard game? That is an all-time memory. As McCutchen said, “Two decades of losing were forgotten” in a home run.

However tonight’s Wild Card game goes, it’s better than the twenty years of losing, the giving up on the entire season well-before the midway point, the watching good players get shipped out of town for paltry returns.

Finally, the Pirates are good. Consistently good. Finally, the Pirates are one of the best teams in baseball.

Finally, they can make a run to the World Series.

But they have to win tonight.

Marc Andre Failure

This is without a doubt the worst goal I have ever seen in any form of hockey.

Living Legend

When it was announced Crosby was returning, we all had visions of his brilliance on the ice, dreams of him stepping back on the ice and dominating the entire league at will as he had been through 2010. But we tempered our expectations with reality. He hasn’t played an NHL game in over ten months. He’ll probably need time to settle back in. He’ll have limited minutes, maybe even be held on the bench after a hit just to make sure he’s all right. Maybe he’ll get a point. Two, at the most.

We were wrong.

Sidney Crosby is a living legend. There’s no debate about that. Not after last night. Not after he picked up right where he left off.

This was the most anticipated comeback since Mario Lemieux in 2000, and all he had to beat was three years of retirement. He worked with a trainer, knew what to expect, and was brilliant in his return, meeting all expectations. Crosby, on the other hand, had to overcome the invisible specter of a concussion. There was never any set timeline, he never knew when he would reach the point of full recovery, and even then there would be lingering doubts. What if the symptoms came back? What if he took another hit to the head? What if he just wasn’t the same?

Crosby erased all those doubts last night, and obliterated the expectations of “just” a point or two. From the opening face-off through the end of the game, Crosby was the best player on the ice. And the best player in the world. Again. And he was playing his game. Flying around the ice at high speed, grinding it out in the corners, and driving to the net.

This is what I’ve been waiting for since January. This is what has been missing from the hockey world. Even while the Penguins were flying high without him, the best player not being able to play just left an emptiness on the ice. Something was missing. You always wondered what Crosby would’ve done in a certain situation. Would he have put the team over the top in those close games? Would the unsuccessful power-plays have been better with him? When Crosby had to stop playing and recover from his concussion, every sports fan was robbed of seeing a player dominate his league.

Now we can all see what we’ve been missing. What Crosby adds to the team, the league, and the sport of hockey. The brilliance, the work ethic, and the unparalleled skill. The Penguins have been great to start off the season, and were on top of the league before their southeast swing. Losing to the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning showed that without Crosby, there were some flaws in the team. Nothing could have fixed that faster than Sidney Crosby’s return. ((Or playing the New York Islanders.))

I’m no longer wondering what’s missing from this team. Now I can just watch in awe as they accomplish the unpredictable. I didn’t expect Crosby to get two points, let alone four. I didn’t expect to be on the edge of my seat at the chance of seeing another Sidney Crosby hat trick. I didn’t expect a shutout from Fleury, who was brilliant the entire night. I didn’t expect the power-play to get fixed so quickly. I didn’t expect the team to look like what we’ve all been hoping and wishing for. And that’s what Sidney Crosby brings to hockey: shattered expectations.


There was no football for me this weekend. The Steelers have their bye week and I, naturally, refused to subject myself to any more of the lackluster gridiron offerings of Boston College.

But I did enjoy this.

(via That’s Church)

Action & Reaction

One of the best parts of hockey is that when you see something that takes a great amount of skill, even if it costs your team the lead, you can’t get angry over it. You just sit there in awe and admiration.

And if you’re lucky enough, your team will answer back.

The Return of Hockey

Consider this a rough draft. I needed to just post it and get it out, for now.

I’ve had a love of hockey for as long as I can remember. Whether its playing the game myself, or watching any level of hockey in person or on television, I’m thrilled by every second of it. Hockey returns at the best time of the year. The fluctuating period between summer and autumn. Leaves are just starting to change colors and fall, crackling and rustling along the ground. The temperature is fickle. Some days are perfect for a stroll around the block or a bike ride along your favorite route. Other days remind you that winter is coming with the sharp bite of a cold breeze. Daylight begins dwindling down, the twilight hour arrives earlier and earlier. To me, all are reminders that it’s the beginning of hockey season.

Whether you’re in an empty rink that you have all to yourself, or a sold-out Stanley Cup Final, every sound, every noise stands out and has its own cause and meaning. Hockey has a symphony unto itself, playing out over the course of a game. The dull clunk of a puck when it hits the ice during warmups. The clicks of skates stepping onto the ice. The slices and cuts and carves as players pivot and stop, spraying ice into the air. The echoing crack of a perfect slapshot. The high pitched ping as the puck ricochets off a post. The clicking and clacking of players’s sticks jostling against each other and the ice as they fight for puck and position. The shrill whistles of the referees. The dull thump of the puck hitting the goalie’s pads. Players calling out to one another on the ice. The bass-heavy thumping of players checked into the boards. And the organs, forever tying hockey to its past through old chants and revelries, sometimes interspersed with renditions of newer pop and rock songs. Each arena’s unique signifier of a goal, be it a horn or a siren or something else, equally as loud and consequential. When you’re at home, that sound is the end, be it a glorious win or a devastating loss. ((Although victories are ever more often being accompanied by a particular song of choice, emphasizing a great win.))

Even the crowd is part of a game. Each arena has its distinct sound, some are more open and sounds drift out into the concourse. Others are more enclosed and you can tell when you cross the boundary between at the rink and away from it. The clamor preceding a game; conversations, cheers, screams and whistles all meshing together in an undefined cacophony. It drops off into respectful silence for the start of each anthem, then sometimes sings along, sometimes not. On the last note, the commotion returns and grows until the opening faceoff, and then slowly falls to its normal sustained level at the drop of the puck, following and responding to the actions on the ice for the rest of the night. The constant discord becomes its own character, responding to every moment on the ice. Disbelieving jeers and boos at infractions, real or imagined, by the opposing team. Jubilance greets an opponent’s penalty. A building roar preceding a power play. The rise in volume of the crowd as a player nears the goal, some fans screaming, some simply holding their breath. Despondent moans and groans if the goal is denied or the puck goes wide of an open net. The exuberant roar when a goal is scored, followed by the horn. The even louder cacophony when you win a game. And in the playoffs, everything is amplified. On the upper levels of the Civic Arena, the sections rattled and shook from the cheers of the fans.

Then there’s everything you see. The brightness of the ice. The patterns of the lines around the rink, light blue for the territory of the netminder, red faceoff circles, dark blue lines denoting the neutral zone. The team logo at center ice. The aesthetics of the jerseys. The comfortable familiarity of your home team. Your blood boiling at the sight of rival colors.

Stepping onto the ice is one of the best feelings in the world. The smell of fresh ice right after the Zamboni is finished. There’s nothing like it. Clean and crisp. You breathe in as deep as you can and feel the coldness in your lungs. You take a couple strides and just glide, the boards and glass flying by. Lean to each side and turn, angle and dig in to stop. The boards and glass fly by.

Then there’s the speed. When you’re playing, you’re flying down the ice You have to be able to stop on a dime. And whether you’re playing, or watching, you always have to think ahead to where the puck is going to be. If you’re skating to where the puck is, you’re behind the play. Hockey doesn’t have set plays. You can have a plan for entering the offensive zone, or positioning on the powerplay, but it never works exactly to plan. At its core, hockey is split-second reaction and improvisation. The best players have to be able to temper their instincts with their knowledge of the game.

this is why Sidney Crosby is the best player in the game; he’s among the smartest. Add that to a machine-like dedication to conditioning, diet, and practice and it becomes clear why he’s been able to dominate the league at such a young age. When he began in the league, Crosby was more known for his playmaking skills and had a reputation as the setup man. He would dish out perfect passes to the exact spot his teammates would want the puck at. He racked up the assists, chipping in goals every so often, and won the Art Ross trophy in his second year, the youngest player to ever accomplish that feat.

The Crosby decided he wanted to score more goals. He worked on it for an entire Summer, and the result was dominating the league in scoring, hitting 51 goals and winning the Rocket Richard trophy. This continued in the next season as Crosby put up points at a torrid pace. He had the longest scoring streak in ?? years and was on pace to have a ?? season. he was clear cut the best player the game had seen in almost a decade, and was imitating all the greats in their primes. Then the concussion happened and an MVP season was ended far too short.

This year’s opener has a bit of a dampener on it, however. Sidney Crosby is still out. The Captain is not leading his team on the ice. The best player in the league is not in the game. Yet. As hockey has returned from a long summer, Sidney Crosby is due to return from a long injury. He’ll be back eventually. Until then, everyone will see why it’s such a great TEAM sport. Everyone has their role, and when someone is out, they pull together even stronger.

I love this sport. it’s had some tough times in the past twenty years or so dealing with the neutral zone trap, the lockout, and the loss and an entire season. But it’s recovering. It’s doing better financially than it ever has before. The skill level of the game — at every position — is higher than it ever has been before. Every single aspect of the sport is amazing and I’m glad it’s back. It’s been too long. Drop the puck.

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.