When the Pirates were 18-26, it seemed impossible they would be playing baseball in October. It made sense. Even with¬†a great young core, last year’s 94 wins were built on performances from depth players who were either gone or highly unlikely to repeat their performance.
Yet, as summer came, things started to fall into place. Russell Martin turned in the best year of his career. Neil Walker, too. Josh Harrison hot week somehow lasted four freaking months, and Andrew McCutchen was, well, Andrew McCuthen. And before you knew it, here they were taking the field in the Wild Card game for the second year in a row. At home no less.
The Pirates aren’t the Angels, with an aging core and a barren farm system, carrying an overwhelming sense of urgency into these playoffs.
The Pirates¬†have playoff ghosts, but they aren’t the A’s, with a cabinet overflowing with recent playoff disappointment and heartache. In fact, the perfect way the Wild Card game against the Reds unfolded last year probably tops anything Oakland fans have celebrated in the postseason since 1989.
Despite all of that, despite exceeding¬†expectations, despite the shine of last year, Giants 8, Pirates 0¬†still sucks.
Deep down, I knew the Pirates were unlikely to win the World Series this year. For their surprisingly deep line-up, and top two pitchers clicking at the right time, they’re still a notch or two below the best teams in the league this year. But the playoffs in baseball are a funny thing, and maybe the best part of having your team in the postseason, is that you get to honestly hold on to hope of what might be possible.
It’s hard to have that dashed over the course of a best of five or seven game series. It’s even more jarring to have it happen in what amounts to a play-in game.
When the Pirates made the NLDS last year, one of my favorite things was just that suddenly they were part of the national conversation. The lame commercials with bad montages featured guys in black and gold uniforms. The SportsCenter interviews on off days were with Andrew McCutchen or Gerrit Cole. My favorite baseball podcasts devoted whole segments to breaking down the Pirates strengths and weaknesses as they related to their opponent. I’m sad I don’t get to have that again this year.
It’s still so fresh, so surreal that the Pirates could be in this position, and¬†I get such a kick out of seeing the national spotlight shine on them. Maybe that sounds precious to other fan bases, but it’s the truth. And having been on the other side, where it’s championship or bust, I can say it’s actually not a bad place to be as a fan.
Coming into this year, the concern was that last year for the Pirates was a fluke. That the winning season, and the playoff appearance would end up being the exception, that the Pirates would backslide into mediocrity…or worse. If nothing else, this Pirates team destroyed that fear for good, and forcefully made it clear we were in a new era of Pittsburgh baseball. So, even if tonight’s loss to the Giants stings, that’s enough to carry me into offseason.
When I woke up this morning to clips of Yoenis Cespedes’s “Oh my God, how did he do that?!” throw, the first thing I thought about was Jose Guillen in Colorado in the summer of 1998.
I should probably clarify that this isn’t a pissing contest between which throw was better, or more impressive, or anything like that. Cespedes’ throw conjuring up Guillen just further hit home again the wonderful childish staying power that baseball possesses. Guillen’s throw came in an otherwise nondescript weeknight game, played by two teams that would each finish the season well below .500. There was no YouTube, or even really high speed internet to ravage looking for replays of the throw the next day. Instead, anyone who missed Guillen’s throw live likely spent the next channel surfing, hoping to catch some scraps of it on SportsCenter or maybe the local news. Yet despite all of this, watching the above video, ¬†every detail about the throw is exactly as I remembered it.
What a sport.
Other than when the Pirates gave away Aramis Ramirez in order to make payroll, my nadir as a Pirates fan during the 20 year losing streak came on June 8, 2010. That night, I witnessed Stephen Strasburg’s electric major league debut, in person, with the Nationals then phenom struck out 14 Pirates, leading his team to a 5-2 victory. The whitewashing of an eventual 105 loss Pirates team was bad enough, however, my mood was worsened by the fact that the game came just one day after that year’s MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Just 24 hours earlier, the Nats had used their first round pick to select Bryce Harper. Considered a once-in-a-generation talent, Washington, D.C. baseball fans now appeared to have a pair of young, top-flight superstars around which their team could soon build a championship contender.¬†As always, there were a fair share of Pittsburgh fans in attendance in D.C. that night, and the home crowd wasn’t shy about letting all of us know about how thoroughly their team was going to kick our ¬†team’s ass for the foreseeable future. The fact that in that moment, they were probably right, made it all the worse.
Still, things weren’t completely bleak. One pick after the National’s had selected Bryce Harper, the Pirates had picked a Texas high school pitcher named Jameson Taillon. While not quite in Harper’s orbit, Taillon was still considered a top-flight talent, and the consensus best player in the draft. It was apparent on draft day he would cost a premium to sign. However, bucking the trend of previous regimes, the Neal Huntington led Pirates front office, was poised to commit the resources necessary to sign him.
Amid the jeers at Nats Park, I caught the attention of another Pirates fan sitting nearby and we shared an eye roll. “Wadja think of that draft last night?” he asked. “I’m happy with the pick,” I replied. “Nice to know the team’s starting to take the guy they want, regardless of how much they cost to sign.” “I’m pissed,” he shot back. “The shoulda taken the shortstop [Manny Machado]. This pitcher’s only going to blow out his elbow in a couple years, anyway.”
While fatalistic, it was hard to argue with his sentiment. The Pirates of the ’90s and early ’00s had spent countless high draft picks on pitchers, only to watch their careers derailed by injuries. While Taillon represented the kind of pedigree that few of those other pitchers possessed, you really couldn’t blame a Pirates fan for assuming the worst.
At the time, Andrew McCutchen was enjoying a productive second season in the major leagues. Pedro Alvarez was knocking on the door of the majors, but the cash the Huntington had previously invested in the draft was largely yet to bear fruit. With the lack of impact talent, the thought of Taillon eventually having to go under the knife was chilling.
During yesterday’s game, it leaked out through the media that a second opinion had revealed damage to Taillon’s UCL, and he would require Tommy John surgery. It was disappointing, frustrating, and a lot of other negative adjectives. Taillon rated highly on the list of baseball’s top prospects, and was expected to reach the big leagues later this summer. In the best case scenario, he would have provided a boost to a Pirates team competing for the playoffs. However, in spite of all of those things,¬†the news of Taillon’s injury wasn’t disastrous or franchise altering or all those things it might have appeared to be on that June night almost four years ago.
For starters, baseball as a whole has showed continued improvement in helping pitcher’s recover from Tommy John surgery. ¬†As demonstrated by the timely return of Charlie Morton, the Pirates themselves have showed they’re capable of implementing a plan to help pitcher’s successfully recover from the operation.
Beyond that though, the Pirates talent base is deep enough that the future and present success of the team no longer rests on the arrival of Taillon. The team, of course, made the playoffs last year with Taillon still in the minor leagues. Taillon doesn’t even rate as the Pirates top prospect, that mantle belonging to Gregory Polanco, an outfielder ticketed (knock on wood) to arrive in Pittsburgh later this season. The team’s farm system has depth, too, ranking in the top-five organizationally on most lists, with handful of individual talents, including a couple other pitchers, ranking in the game’s top 100.
So while there’s no reason to feel good about the news of Jameson Taillon’s injury, it’s hard for me to not also use it for perspective on how far the Pirates have come as an organization and a team in just a few short years.
Gerrit Cole is painting the corners of the plate with high 90s fastballs. Pedro Alvarez hit a towering opposite field home run. However, without question, the most impressive athletic display at PNC Park tonight so far has been this fan catching a foul ball off the bat of Matt Carpenter with his popcorn container.
I’m sure Deadsping or SBNation will have a much higher quality video or gif of this up soon, and that MLB will have this video removed in the next 24 hours. For now, however, enjoy below the jump.
Also note that one of the hazards of filming your TV with your iPhone is that sometimes you have to do a second take when your lady friend comments on how bad she feels for the guy who just lost all his popcorn.
The Pirates announced last Friday that as part of their Opening Day festivities, the team’s two living previous MVP winners will be on hand to help present last year’s winner, current center fielder Andrew McCutchen with his award.
One of those two past MVPs is Dick Groat, the shortstop on the 1960 World Series winning team and former All-American basketball player at Duke. A beloved, avuncular figure, Groat has been a long-time resident of Pittsburgh where he’s served as the radio color guy for Pitt Panther basketball games for more than 30 years. The other past MVP who will help make the presentation is Barry Bonds
Let’s get a couple of things straight first. When it comes to despising Barry Bonds, Pittsburgh was well ahead of the curve. Furthermore, the reason for all the vitriol had nothing to do with PEDs. No, Pittsburgh’s disgust with Bonds stemmed from both his prickly, brash personality, and more so, because he skipped town for a bigger payday.
It’s doubtful that anyone, including perhaps Bonds himself, would argue that he was anything other than a miserable jerk while playing for the Pirates. There were blow-ups with manager Jim Leyland. Friction with teammates. Accusations of racism after management gave a big deal to Andy Van Slyke instead of him and Bobby Bonilla (he was probably right, at least in part). Declarations that he was a better player than Van Slyke (he was definitely right). And countless reports of him blowing off charity work or treating anyone he viewed as beneath him (pretty much everyone) like garbage.
Bonds’s disposition was tolerated if not accepted by fans when he was winning MVP Awards and leading the Pirates to the postseason. However, once he made the appalling decision to, you know, get paid fair market value by signing a monster contract with the Giants in 1993, Bonds became public enemy number one in Pittsburgh. In truth, while his off-the-field persona certainly played a role, the contract itself was probably what angered so many Pirates fans.
Free agency in baseball was already old hat, but Bonds’s deal was one of the opening salvos in the big market/small market divide that marked the game for the next decade. Players getting paid like Bonds did in San Francisco, while leaving the team that had drafted and developed them behind were greedy and selfish. They broke the unspoken principles of loyalty and team-first attitude that fans had grown up learning to not only idolize but expect. That Bonds’s big contract in San Fransisco came on the heels of thee NLCS losses where he failed to make an impact only exacerbated the feelings of anger, hurt and frustration towards him in Pittsburgh.
For much of the rest of his career, Bonds was booed when he returned to Three Rivers Stadium or PNC Park. The jeers came lustily and with genuine disgust in the early years, before largely turning into catcalling out of habit rather than any honest emotion. Perhaps it had to do with how bad a product the Pirates were putting on the field in those years, and how it was hard for fans to feel much of anything but apathy. Though there’s evidence the actual answer is much more interesting than that.
In 2007, Bonds made his last appearance in Pittsburgh, less than a week after breaking Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record. With that monumental achievement under his belt and all signs pointing to Bonds retiring after the season, the Pirates honored him with a short video tribute. The small crowd applauded respectfully, and while maybe not raucous, the energy in the park was certainly positive. Considering Pirates fans’ feelings about Bonds when he left town, such a reception even less than 15 years later would have seemed inconceivable.
All signs seem to indicate the reaction to Bonds on Monday will be even more positive. The reaction on Twitter when his appearance was announced was excited, with the general tone conveying how appreciative we all should be in Pittsburgh of being able to witness such an all-time great in his prime. Predictably, maybe even understandably, the local sports media was less than enthused by this impulse.
Perhaps Bonds will still get booed on Monday. The demographic of baseball fans in Pittsburgh certainly skews a little older than those who use Twitter. But really though, that’s kind of a more interesting point. If Pittsburgh was well ahead of the curve on hating Bonds, perhaps this detente in our relationship with him, spurred by a younger generation, is ahead of the national curve, too. It’s a fascinating microcosm for how outrage wanes over the years, and how when put in historical context, things like cocky athletes and massive free agent deals no longer seem like affronts against humanity.
Tolerance shifts, and the next generation that wasn’t so close to transgressions is better about putting them in context, about not letting them overshadow remarkable athletic achievements or letting emotionally charged moral grandstanding rule the day. Pittsburgh’s Twitter’s reaction to the news that Barry Bonds was coming to Opening Day is the best and strongest evidence we have yet that he and Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza and a whole bunch of outstanding baseball players from that era will one day have their plaques hanging in Cooperstown.
ESPN’s 30 for 30 is a wonderful series. The idea of letting different filmmakers explore sports story lines big and small over the last three decades is inspired. The fresh artistic voices have injected life into the sports documentary brand, a genre that can often feel stale or uninspired, especially for passionate fans.
While not every film in the series has worked, the failures are largely the result of grand ambition. The same freedom that makes the series work, giving distinct cinematic auteurs the ability to dive deeply into a piece of recent sports history, no matter how prominent or obscure, can lead to a dud. Sometimes the drama or compelling narrative that appears initially isn’t there once everything gets unpacked.
All of this is why it’s so disappointing that the latest topic ESPN ¬†devoted a 30 for 30 to is the 2003 Alex Rodriguez near trade to the Red Sox and his eventual acquisition later that offseason by the Yankees. The web short, called “The Deal” premiered yesterday. Rather than pulling at the threads of under covered piece of history, it dives full bore into the tired and played out story line that only ESPN still cares about: ¬†the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry.
The Red Sox and Yankees played two wonderful ALCS’s a decade ago. They were contentious too, spurred on by the contrasts of the two franchises histories, with the Yankees extraordinary success often coming at the hands of the tortured Red Sox. After the Red Sox stormed back from the first 0-3 hole in MLB history to beat the Yankees on their way ending an 86 year World Series drought, the rivalry has been mostly noise. Both have had successes and failures, each have one at least one title since, and they’ve yet to meet again in the playoffs. Yet ESPN, probably due in no small part to its proximity to both cities in Bristol, CT, ¬†continues to trumpet the competition between the two as the preeminent MLB story line. It was annoying even when there was substantial heat to the rivalry. Now it just feels tiresome and played out.
It’s telling that one of the primary interview subjects in the piece is Buster Olney. Olney was the Yankees beat writer for the New York Times for much of their late ’90s/early 2000s dominance, before moving over to ESPN and taking on a national focus in 2006. It’s not uncommon to hear Olney accused of Yankee bias, but, his tics involving the team he used to cover is a little more subtle than that. It’s not that he openly roots for the Yankees, or has blinders on when it comes to their faults. It’s just that to him, the Yankees are the center of the baseball universe. A roster move, or quirky comment from a player, that qualify as immaterial minutiae for any other franchise takes on considerable importance because it involves the New York effing Yankees.
Perhaps if the short covered some new ground on the series of events that almost made Alex Rodriguez a member of the Red Sox but instead made him a Yankee, it might be worthwhile. Rany Jazayerli has a worthwhile companion piece exploring how public perception around A-Rod might be different had he ended up in Boston that off-season.
Instead, this is mostly a re-hashing of events that were over-covered at the time: Texas deciding to move Rodriguez, details of a potential deal with Boston for Manny Ramirez leaking, the union spiking Rodriguez’s re-worked contract with the Red Sox, Aaron Boone tearing his knee playing basketball, the Yankees swooping in and trading for Rodriguez. The assumption simply seems to be that because it involves these two franchises, throwing in a couple pithy comments from Theo Epstein and rehashing known events constitutes riveting entertainment.
The Yankees missed the playoffs last year, while the Red Sox won the World Series. Despite a noisy off season, all signs point to New York continuing to slide, while Boston appears poised to keep on rolling. Here’s hoping if that’s the case, the Worldwide Leader in Sports can stop telling us how much we need to care about their rivalry. Though, of course, one of the noisy Yankees off-season moves was signing Jacoby Ellsbury, drafted and developed into a star by the Red Sox and the starting center fielder on two of their championship teams. Suffice it to say, it’s probably not wise to hold your breath on this going away any time soon.
Carlos Beltran left Game One of the World Series after bruising a rib on a fantastic catch to rob David Ortiz of a grand slam. When it was announced that Beltran was done for the night, Sporting News hockey writer Sean Gentille immediately noted that Red Sox fans were going to rip Beltran by invoking Boston Bruins Center Patrice Bergeron.
Bergeron famously played through last spring’s Stanley Cup Finals with a multitude of painful injuries, including a broken rib. Bergeron’s performance instantly became a piece of Boston sports lore and, just as Gentille predicted, the standard by which all other injuries should be measured by Red Sox fans on Twitter.
At their essence, every elimination game contains the same stakes: win and you advance (or claim a title), lose and your season is over short of the ultimate goal. Of course, it’s never that simple, because every team brings its own baggage into games like this. Perhaps they’re an aging, veteran group that likely only has one more shot to claim a title. Perhaps they’re a transcendent team, trying to gut it out through a tougher than expected postseason, trying to claim a spot in the sport’s history. Or perhaps they’re like the 2013 Pirates, an upstart, precocious bunch, who by simply pushing their season this far have exceeded expectations beyond their fans’ wildest expectations.
You know what though? While that final category may be the easiest for fans to accept a loss, the Pirates falling to the Cardinals Wednesday night in Game 5 of the NLDS still sucked.
On their way to becoming far and away the most accomplished National League team of the 2000s, the Cardinals made a ritual of pounding hapless Pirates teams. While the Brewers gave the Pirates a staggering amount of trouble over the last few seasons, St. Louis was always the measuring stick, with games against them the indicator of how far away the Pirates were to being a contender. That’s why the Pirates taking four of five games from them in the heat of a division race earlier this summer was so significant, and why it hurt to come so close to beating them in a playoff series.
This morning, I found myself thinking that if they’d just won last night, I wouldn’t have cared what happened the rest of the season. But then I quickly caught myself. Six weeks ago, all I cared about was the Pirates finally, mercifully winning 82 games. A month ago, I just wanted them to make the playoffs. Two weeks ago, I just wanted them to get a home postseason game at PNC Park. The truth is that when you’re having so much damn fun rooting for a team, you don’t want the season to end before it has to. Had the Pirates advanced to the NLCS, I’m sure I could have found myself thinking that if they just figured out a way to take down the Dodgers, I wouldn’t care what happened next.
The only scary thing is the unpredictability of baseball’s postseason. Making the improvements necessary to take a team from 105 losses in 2010 to 94 wins in 2013 isn’t easy. However, at least the ingredients required to get there aren’t a secret. Build a good, deep roster, and over the course of 162 games, it’s bound to have success. Baseball’s postseason is a much more fickle creature, and there’s no such road map for taking a team from out in five games in the Division Series to World Champions. Ask the A’s or Twins or mid-90s Indians, or 14 of 15 Braves division championship teams about that. ¬†Experienced or not, the 2013 Pirates had a chance at a title and they didn’t pull it off.
Considering the list of things that have gnawed at Pirates fans heading into the offseason over the last 20 years, that’s a remarkable statement on how far this team pushed things forward. Maybe the ultimate destination wasn’t the one of big dreams that for a fleeting moment looked possible, but man, it’s hard to imagine a better journey.
If you’ve ever wondered what 21 years of built up excitement and frustration and anxiety and pure, unadulterated joy sound like, I hope you tuned in to last night’s Pirates/Reds Wild Card game last night, because the 40,000 plus people in attendance at PNC Park gave you your answer. This is why winning the series in Cincinnati last weekend, and guaranteeing this game would be in Pittsburgh was important. The effects of home field advantage in baseball are muted compared to that of, say, football, where the noise from a boisterous crowd can neuter on offense. No, getting home field for this game wasn’t about any sort of strategic advantage. It was about letting Pittsburgh and Pirates fans get to feel what it was like, after two torturous decades, what it felt like to finally, finally have the baseball world turn its eyes to us as we hosted a playoff game.
But dear lord, if it’s possible for any crowd to influence a baseball game, this one surely did. There were raucous boos for the Reds during introductions, the sing-song mocking of Johnny Cueto (Cue-tooo, Cue-tooo) with everyone standing every time starter Francisco Liriano got two strikes on a hitter. The Reds didn’t play their finest fundamental game either, with the usually steady Brandon Phillips booting a double play that allowed the Pirates to tack on an extra run, or outstanding hitter Joey Votto waiving helplessly at Liriano’s sliders off the plate. Most of that is Liriano, who’s been murder on lefties all year, but give the crowd an assist.
There are no guarantees that the product on the field will ever match the madness in the stands, and rightfully so. The Reds are a great team, with loyal fans who have had their own rough go over the last two decades and much more recent painful playoff history. But tonight, it was the Pirates who delivered; pelting a clearly laboring Cueto with two second inning solo home runs, tacking on opportunistically in the middle innings and never looking back as Liriano reduced the lefty-heavy Reds line-up to toddlers playing whiffle ball.
The score wiped away a lot of frustrations for the franchise, but the real story of last night had to be the fans. For a long time, people questioned how anyone could still root for the Pirates, and if Pittsburgh was or ever really would again be a baseball town. The only comeback we had was a passionate, deafening standing ovation the home crowd gave locals Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez during their introductions for the 2006 All-Star Game at PNC Park.
I wonder what those people think of us now.
Because they faced each other in back-to-back postseasons, and because of a certain…dramatic…ending, the Pirates/Braves rivalry of the early 1990s still lingers strongly in the minds of most baseball fans. In this season of ending streaks and reversing trends and giving rise to brighter days of Pirates baseball, nothing would feel better than finally beating the Braves in the playoffs.
But, for ¬†me at least, there’s a close second.
The other playoff series the Pirates teams of the era played in, the 1990 NLCS, has largely ¬†been reduced to an afterthought. Given the way the series shook out, it’s hard to find any fault with this. After the Pirates rallied to take the opener, the Reds stormed back to win three straight, and eventually close out the Pirates in six games. The story of the series was the Reds bullpen, led by “Nasty Boys” Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers, with the latter two being named co-MVPs of the series. That triumvirate was particularly good at shutting down the Pirates big guns Andy Van Slyke, Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds in key situations, short circuiting any potential late-inning Bucs rallies.
That 1990 Pirates team was the one that caused me to fall in love with baseball, getting sucked in as they stormed out of the gate hot, then battled the Mets all summer long before finally winning the NL East crown. I suppose all seven year-old sports nuts probably cares a little too much about their favorite team, assign them way too strong an air of invincibility that can only eventually be irrevocably shattered. But it’s particularly true when it involves a team like the 1990 Pirates, who are talented enough that even more seasoned supporters give them a good chance to win it all.
I don’t remember many specifics of the 1990 NLCS. Despite being riveted to the action, I was physically unable to stay up past the sixth or seventh inning of most night games. A year’s worth of 7:35 starts in the summer doesn’t condition an early elementary body for games that start at 8:30 on school nights. I remember feeling a sense of inevitability whenever the Reds took a lead in the game, and sensing that the Pirates were being outplayed by Cincinnati over this particular stretch of games. However, the macro implications of this situation never sunk in; it was almost as if I though the series was going to stretch on for as long as it took for the Pirates to pull ahead in games won and clinch a trip to the World Series.
Game 6 of that NLCS was particularly tight. Jim Leyland, in a moment of creative brilliance that sadly would never be repeated today, started righty reliever Ted Power, then subbed in lefty starter Zane Smith early to neutralize a strong Reds platoon advantage. I fell asleep with the game tied 1-1, and still confident in my belief that this Pirates team was incapable of being eliminated.
I never saw the Reds take a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning. I never saw the Pirates put the tying run on first base on the bottom of the ninth. I never saw Carmelo Martinez, the stocky, back-up first baseman stroll to the plate as a pinch-hitter ¬†in the top of the ninth and send a Randy Myers pitch rocketing high into the night. I also never saw Glenn Braggs, the Reds right fielder, perfectly time his jump and pull the ball back over the outfield wall, stealing a go-ahead home run and effectively ending the series. All the details were relayed to me by my mother when I woke up the next morning, and I instantly began to cry, more in disbelief than disappointment.
I was wide awake two years later when Francisco Cabrera laced a ball to left field, not only ending another Pirates teams World Series hopes, but also destroying baseball in Pittsburgh for two decades. Glenn Braggs catch and the loss to the Reds can’t match that one for drama or magnitude of agony. For starters, beating Cincinnati that night only would have forced a do-or-die Game 7, not won the series. Still, as I watched that horrible inning unfold in Atlanta in 1992, I knew it was possible the Pirates were going to lose, that the game and the series and the season was going to end in heartbreak, because the Reds had already delivered a harsh lesson on the foolishness of believing in the infallibility of your favorite team.
Well, 23 years later, the Pirates finally get to play that elimination game against the Reds. Hopefully it’s their turn to teach some lessons.