It’s July 8. Now, understand this blog was written several days ago and, in year’s part or even decade’s past, I would have never wrote about this subject. Not only would it have been taboo, but other than last year, it would have been impossible.
You see, today’s topic is the Pittsburgh Pirates. When I wrote this blog Thursday afternoon, the Pirates were nine games above .500. That’s right – nine entire games. I was able to write today’s blog knowing that even a three-game losing streak won’t put the Pirates below the .500 mark or, for that matter, out of contention for a postseason berth.
Understand that yours truly can’t name the entire Pirates roster right now. Outside of a few minor league prospects, I have no idea who plays or coaches in the lower levels of the organization. For that matter, other than Manager Clint Hurdle and just an assistant or two, I’m no longer certain who all of the coaches are on the staff. Still, I’m excited for the first time what seems like an eternity.
OK, not an eternity. At the same time, it’s been nearly 20 years since the Pirates were not only winning like they are this season, but didn’t do it with smoke and mirrors – including last year- in the few feeble attempts to escape mediocrity. And for anyone that has watched Pirate baseball since Atlanta’s Sid Bream crossed home plate in Fulton County Stadium, they know that describing the Buccos’ baseball as mediocre is criticism of the gentlest nature.
I guess to discuss Pirates’ baseball 20 years later without discussing Sid Bream crossing home plate microseconds before a tag could have been applied and the possibility of the Pirates advancing to the World Series is like discussing Bridgeport football in the last 20 years and not discussing the running game. While I don’t diminish the seriousness of certain things I’m about to mention, there are few things I remember in my life to the point it can still elicit an emotion: 9/11, my daughter graduating from high school, ,my marriage day, Owen Schmidtt’s post-game Fiesta Bowl Speech, and, as expected, Sid Bream scoring for the Braves.
Again, I know fully well there is no comparison between Sid Bream and his sun dial-timed 40-yard-dash speed and the death of nearly 3,000. I'm fully aware there is no measurable comparison, so please restrain from telling me such. At the same time, I know that when I think about 9/11 I have specific memories and feelings that always come to the surface in a very strong manner. Whenever I see Sid Bream moving in what appeared to be slow motion from second and beating out Barry Bonds’ thrown at home, the memories are specific and the emotions are very, very real.
As that fateful day in Pirate history took place, I fell into a heap on the floor at my place of employment. In fact, I found myself in the fetal position for nearly a half an hour after it happened. Not only had I watched my free Game 1 World Series tickets go down the drain, anyone with any understanding of baseball and the very real arrival of the small-market/big-market baseball dilemma knew the Pirates were about to be swallowed up. Little did I know that they’d rest in the stomach of misery for so long.
How long? Twenty years. My daughter has never experienced a winning Pirates baseball season. There was no Facebook. There were no hybrid vehicles; as there was no need with gas at $1.05 a gallon. Hell, it was 20 years ago that Microsoft Works was first introduced. Think about all of that.
It wasn't just that the losing was bad, it was ugly – Phyllis Diller ugly. Because of that, fans that didn’t want to go away did so for the good of their health. My Pittsburgh Pirate-loving soul divorced itself from the game – only occasionally checking in to make sure my decision was correct and didn’t need to be revisited.
There were so many botched moves that you weren’t fearful botched moves weren't going to happen, you just wondered to what level of badness it would reach. Guys like Aramis Ramirez, Jason Schmidtt, Mike Williams, Jeff Suppan, Jason Kendall and others were given away. Of course, if you consider receiving compensation in the form of Arthur Rhoades, Ty Wiggington, Matt Bruback and Tony McKnight among several other forgettable folks as a good exchange then I stand corrected.
Yet, it was nearly halfway through the Pirates’ 20-year swoon they are technically still involved with when the lowest of the lows took place. It was when the Pirates weren’t just the worst team in baseball, but the highly spoken laughing stock of the league. In spring training of 2002, our friend Derek Bell was like so many other retreaded Pirates who had nothing to offer other than a sizable contract and equally sizable ego. The once talented Bell was coming off a banner season where he batted .173 (and do I really need to point out my sarcasm here) and didn’t believe he needed to battle for a starting spot. With that in mind, he laid this gem on the media a little more than 10 years ago today.
“Nobody told me I was in competition. If there is competition, somebody better let me know. If there is competition, they better eliminate me out of the race and go ahead and do what they're going to do with me. I ain't never hit in spring training and I never will. If it ain't settled with me out there, then they can trade me. I ain't going out there to hurt myself in spring training battling for a job. If it is [a competition], then I'm going into 'Operation Shutdown.' Tell them exactly what I said. I haven't competed for a job since 1991.”
The sad irony was that Bell hadn’t competed for a job since 1991 and the Pirates hadn’t competed in anything since a year after that. He wasn’t just the poster child for everything wrong in sports, but he was the Godfather of what was wrong with Pirates’ baseball.
Even the bumbling Pirates had no choice but to kick Bell to the curb. Of course, Bell took $4.5 million of the Pirates’ money with him and moved aboard his yacht, “Bell 14,” a 58-foot Sea Ray that probably produced the same sort of on-sea nausea Bell had created for the very few folks that actually cared anymore.
Ten years and at least two Derek Bell drug arrests later, things have changed. They started to change last year with Hurdle at the helm and what seemed like a team loaded with potential. Yet, the pessimist and the realist in me knew last year’s team went on fumes and adrenaline before tanking late and spiraling into what looked like another typical Pirates’ season.
This year, however, it’s different. Sure, a winning campaign is no guarantee and a postseason bid is still likely against the odds, but this team is talented. This team has good management, a good farm system and has shown the will to not throw away talent.
There’s a foundation in place; one built on the possibility of winning. After 20 years, I’m glad to see the Pirates have built something not only worth watching, but getting a little excited about.