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.

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.

Hope Renewed


So, here we are. The 100th game of the season. The Pirates are tied for first place in the division. They had three players in the All-Star Game. Pedro Alvarez is back from injury and the minor leagues. Tonight’s game is getting national exposure on ESPN. ((Unless it gets rained out.)) It’s been a roller coaster of a season and there’s still a long way to go.

I don’t think anyone expected the Pirates to be at the top of the division right now. I don’t think many even expected them to be this competitive. At the beginning of the season, I didn’t expect the Pirates to be a great team. I didn’t even think they’d be good. My guess for this year was that they’d be playing roughly .500 baseball and that it would come down to the wire towards the final handful of games for which side of center they’d end on. I was merely hoping they would be better than last year, and at best they might end this long, national pastime nightmare of eighteen consecutive losing seasons.

It turns out the Pirates are definitely good enough to end the streak. And they’re possibly good enough to make the playoffs. It’s already a season to remember just for the sheer turnaround that this team has accomplished. If they also end up winning the division, it would be legendary. I’ve watched almost all the games ((Playoff hockey still takes precedence.)) and I’d say that 95% of the time the Pirates are at least competitive in a game. The other 5% are the blowouts where something just seems to be wrong with the team and they can’t turn it around, be it not getting the bounces they need or just an utter lack of batting power. It’s not fun when the Pirates have to battle back if they’re down by four or more runs. It seems pretty difficult. But the Pirates have done so on a few occasions. Which means there’s rarely a time where I’ll stop watching because the situation is hopeless.

And that was the difference this team needed: hope. Clint Hurdle came in and gave the Pirates confidence and hope. Last year, under John Russell, you could see the team giving up when they fell behind in a game. Sometimes, even if it was only by a run, the air would just go out of the sails and the game was lost before it was over. The entire team seemed anemic. When the Pirates reached the top of the division earlier this year, one of the players was interviewed after the game and got asked how this team was so different than the previous years. He replied that they used to go out hoping to win a game, and now they go out and expect to win.

Hurdle said this was his mantra earlier in the season (( Some choice quotes by Hurdle are in this game preview.  You can tell he keeps a level head when it matters, but can fire the team up when he needs to.)) and, judging by their play on the field, the entire team has bought into it. They play games expecting to win. That is a huge change in the mindset of the team, and it’s evident that Hurdle was behind it all. For the first few months of the season, Hurdle had to keep repeating that .500 was not the ultimate goal of the team. He said he wasn’t concerned about it and that he wanted to keep going. And they did.

The offense has definitely improved from last year. Despite Pedro Alvarez having a bad start and then getting lost to injury, rehab, and the minor leagues, the Pirates have rolled along, bringing up replacement players who manage to contribute to scraping out wins. Now Pedro is back, and I think the Pirates will lean on that instead of making a big trade and giving up any prospects before they’re really ready to compete in the playoffs. Likewise what was supposed to be the glaring weakness that would sink the team, pitching, ended up being much better than last season as well. Sure there’s been some blown games, both late and early, but it seems like this year all the players know they can win. They know they have the talent. They know they can succeed.

The team buying into the mindset of expecting to win brought them success on the field. This gets the fans to buy into their team. There’s an entire generation of Pittsburghers that has had no reason to support the Pirates as they’ve watched stars been sold off for useless prospects, terrible draft picks that don’t come close to panning out, and multiple failed five-year plans that lead to nowhere. The Pirates are now turning that corner. Injuries don’t stop this team. Losing streaks don’t derail the season. All-Star snubs don’t phase the leaders. This is the year the Pirates regained their confidence, their dignity, and their fans.