The calendar reads early July, which means there’s plenty of season left in baseball. At any given time now, the emerging Pittsburgh Pirates can stumble, go astray, and, well, drop out of first place in the NL Central, given the team’s prior history to only dominate its division for a few days before it becomes a total loss, in which the Pirates were inhibited from clinching an eventual playoff berth that was never plausible.
Friday night, the home crowd stood, and not one fan in the stands was wearing a paper bag over their head and protesting against a hapless franchise. And as much as there is reason to have firm conviction in Pittsburgh, nine games over .500 for the first time since 1992 with the fourth-best record in baseball, there is a sense that they may not last very long in October. As you probably know, when the Pirates were pertinent to the city and inherited a winning season, Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke and longtime skipper Jim Leyland anchored Pittsburgh. If you can recall the mediocrity and unflattering criticism, which wasn’t too long ago, then you know fans in the Steel City used to relentlessly attack the Pirates and had turned their heart and soul to the Steelers. It will always be a football territory, but now the Pirates bask in an unvanquished season, finally returning to the very top and giving the fans every reason to boast about their baseball team.
A long time ago, Pittsburgh was so horrific, it was painful to stomach — not even Captain Jack Sparrow could spare the Pirates’ lives. Fans felt they were robbed and viewed it as fraud, a marketing sham they thought was run brilliantly by owner Robert Nutting. And nothing was more startling than documents being obtained by the Associated Press that showed Nutting, like a bandit robbing a bank, pocketing a massive amount of money as fans endorsed the franchise. The saddest part of this charade, an inevitable crossroads that demolished the tenor of a once respected major league team and yet was close to falling into debt from a financial disaster, is that the Pirates earned $29.4 million in profits during a span of the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
There will forever be talk of the Pirates’ blockheaded decisions, which they shipped All-Stars Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, Nate McLouth and Jack Wilson away in trades, leaving every fan suspicious as no one quite understood their intentions. About 10 players, such as Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, John Grabow, Xavier Nady, Adam LaRoche, Damaso Marte, Nyjer Morgan, Ronny Paulino and Sean Burnett, were arbitration-eligible before leaving Pittsburgh under free agency. The question as to why the Pirates traded slugger Jose Bautista comes back to haunt them, I’m sure, now that he has swung the bats exceptionally well since his arrival to Toronto. Today, I’m sure, the Pirates regret dealing a slugger with a home-run swing to drive in runs. The idea of them cleaning house was a bit fishy and strange when Pittsburgh had considerably possessed star power and almost eased into postseason mode. It was historic. Moves no one had ever seen in professional sports.
In fairness, aware of the mischances and bad decisions that set the franchise back — dismantling one of the hallmark franchises of baseball — it’s morally wrong to accuse a man of fraud when his organization encountered an economic disaster amid a wicked recession. What sure looks like a promising season happened sooner than expected, but winning or salvaging a division title is no guarantee in Pittsburgh. It’s a mentality to have as the Pirates so often blew division leads when fans actually felt it was their year, their moment to seize control and their moment to advance to the postseason, but the masses spoke too fast and Pittsburgh rapidly fell out of the pennant race. That could happen this season, as well, as you never know about the Pirates — you just never know — and yet the Pittsburgh population is building confidence in a team that relapsed a year ago.
The truth is, unless one believes the Pirates are capable of holding on to convince a long-suffering fan base that they are finally unwavering and strong, no one won’t take Pittsburgh seriously, ignoring the likes of Andrew McCutchen, Clint Barmes, A.J. Burnett, James McDonald and Jeff Karstens. It remains to be seen if the Pirates can keep riding the ship in the right direction and continue to be the best story in baseball, but Pittsburgh is known for captivating an audience and then eventually collapsing to miss the postseason. The crowd was behind the Pirates all the way last season, wishing for the very best considering the team’s fiascoes and struggles in the past, but it lasted no time.
It’s similar, to put it simply, to what the Pirates experienced last July, at a moment when winning seemed logical until Pittsburgh stumbled and lost a seven-game lead. So again, the Pirates have a chance to redeem themselves and erase the dreadful memories of a late-season collapse. There’s no reason for the Pirates to fall apart, but knowing them they probably will find a way to blow it and falter in the next few months, even if they have signed elite players and accumulated talent.
Burnett, who was acquired in a trade from New York for two inferior prospects after he struggled for three seasons in the Bronx, arrived from nowhere and has flourished in one of his best seasons since his days spent in Toronto. It’s been an incredible turning point for the right-handed pitcher, improving his mechanics and returning to form, with much more velocity on his fastball.
This is also happening when McDonald, who ranks sixth in the NL with a 2.45 ERA, is a young player emerging into an ace in the Pirates pitching lineup. Sometimes you have to play behind a veteran because of his expertise and flair, for which McDonald can grasp a better sense of the game and find out what it takes to pitch in the majors. And now, he serves an apprenticeship as a strikeout pitcher with his team, who can build a sound pitching rotation around him. There are turning points in the Pirates’ bullpen with the likes of Juan Cruz and Jason Grilli, who has been a lights-out reliever, managing the setup role. And, no less surprisingly, McCutchen is having an MVP type season and had three hits for the Pirates to lift his batting average to a National League-leading .360 in a 6-5 loss to the Giants in San Francisco that snapped Pittsburgh’s four-game winning streak. The play of the 25-year-old McCutchen is flawless, riding a wave of dominant hitting and compiling monster numbers in his breakout campaign.
It’s funny how this is one of the hottest teams in baseball, and how we are so fast to jump onto the bandwagon, failing to realize this is a team that disappears and cannot ever salvage a lead to qualify for the postseason. Then again, maybe this is their year, thanks to the expansion of Major League Baseball’s playoffs with the extra wild card round. This season, unlike last summer, Pittsburgh is hopeful and reigns as the favorite to dominate the NL central. My first instinct — beyond the realm of possibility — is to believe it when I see it.
The Pirates can make it to the postseason with the addition of a few veterans in Erik Bedard and Rod Barajas. It’s hard to buy into the hype, but as of now Pittsburgh is atop the standings in its division, under the direction of manager Clint Hurdle. The fact that he was part of an improbable run the Colorado Rockies had in 2007 is amazing, as the Pirates are on a tear after Hurdle changed the team’s disposition and gave them optimism. The question, as the Pirates have a reputation for faltering late in the season, is can the Pirates keep a commanding lead and surge in September?
They have been here before, with a chance to make it to the playoffs for the first time in 20 years, the last time Pittsburgh finished above .500 and nearly won Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series at Fulton-County Stadium in Atlanta. And through it all, the Pirates led the Braves 2-0, but then went on to lose 3-2 and Atlanta advanced to the World Series and lost to Toronto. I know. I can recall everything that happened on that night. I was a seven-year-old kid and remember watching that game with my late father. And ever since, I was immersed in America’s Pastime, the great game of baseball, just by watching an instant classic between the Pirates and Braves.
These Pirates are back, certainly, but can we truly believe in them? These Pirates are winning, but how long can it last and will it last? These Pirates are good, but just how good?
If they are still in this current state and winning by September, I’ll start believing.