01 October 2012

20 Years...And Counting

Aw, hell.

With 2 runs allowed in the 9th, the Pittsburgh Pirates lost 4-3, for their 82nd loss of the season. What that means is that for the 20th season in a row, the Pirates will have a losing record when the play-offs begin.

Twenty. Seasons.

Twenty. In a row.

As late as August 6th, the Pirates were 16 games above .500, clicking along within striking distance of the division lead and leading a healthy race for the new "wild card" play-off spots. They had a legitimate MVP candidate in Andrew McCutchen and a pitching staff that was holding its own well past the All Star break.


The pitching became erratic. McCutchen cooled off from his scorching .370+ pace and started to feel the wear and tear of being a superstar at the plate, on the field (he routinely tossed his body around to make spectacular catches) and on the basepaths, stealing like a politician. The rest of the team didn't have the depth or experience to break out of slumps. And the losses piled up. Over a 23-game stretch, the Pirates lost 18...then later lost 8 of 10.

Today, as the Bucs celebrated the 40th anniversary of Roberto Clemente's 3,000th--and final--hit, the loss not only cemented a record of futility, it marred the memorializing of a golden moment.

Twenty seasons.

I was so sure this would be the one to end the streak. Unlike some sports fans, I don't live and die with My teams. But I do hurt when they lose. I hate to see the Steelers struggle and believe Me, I hate to see what the Pirates have become. As one of the original National League franchises and one that should have blown by 10,000 victories a few years ago, as of today the team has an all-time record of 9,958-9,856. At the pace they were going up to 1992, they could have been the first, but certainly would have been the second or at worst third team to break the 10,000 mark; they'll make it next year, the seventh team to do so, as they try to break the two-decade long streak.

And I hate to say this, but next year doesn't look good. In 2011, the young Pirates were going great until July. This year, they pushed the envelope to August. But young teams seldom improve three years in a row; not in baseball. The pattern is usually a step forward one year, a leap the second and then falling back in Year Three.

Why? Because young teams don't have the experience to overcome big disappointments. That's where veteran players and established stars come in. McCutchen is a stud, he'll be 26 next year, hitting his prime, but surrounded by players younger than him and those that are older much less successful than he. Who's going to help him?

This is where management comes in. Except for signing McCutchen long term, Pirate management has had the mindset of "Get good money by selling stars and prospects," to the extent that some 14 All Stars on other teams were once part of the Pittsburgh team or system. In baseball terms, that makes the Pirates a farm team.

Will they do better in 2013? I'd need to see three things before I'd feel confident that 2013 is the "Snap the sucking streak" year:

1) Signing 1-2 solid hitters to beef up the offense.

2) A new pitching coach who knows how to develop young arms.

3) Management willing to put itself on the line for a winning team.

Maybe those things will happen while the hot stove league has its heyday. I'll keep an occasional eye on the team's doings and when April rolls around, I'll get the familiar feeling of quiet joy that baseball season always gives Me. And sometime closer to May, I'll look at the standings and see how the Pirates--still My Pirates--are doing.

Wait 'til next year. After twenty years, the waiting is nothing but emptiness.

The Jenius Has Spoken.

[Update: 3 Oct 2012: The Pirates finished the season with a record of 79-83.]

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