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It’s great to have the Pirates back

Sep 24, 2013, 1:50 PM EDT

Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura AP

At some point in the eighth inning, I remember going out to concourse of old Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta and watching Atlanta Braves fans slowly shuffle toward the exits and their cars and another long baseball off-season. It is all well and good to say that baseball fans should stay to the end but there are life realities. There’s school in the morning. There’s work in the morning. Braves fans — not a lot of them, but some — went to face their life realities, and I watched them go.

It was a Wednesday night in October. I was just 25 years old and just starting out in the business. Josh Hutcherson had just been born. Bill Clinton was about to be elected president. It was 1992. And nobody in Atlanta really wanted to stick around and watch the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrate their trip to the World Series.

There was nothing at all strange then about the Pirates being on the doorstep of the World Series. The Pirates were good. They were usually good. They were good every year of the 1970s. They started that decade with Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell and Richie Hebner, they were the Pittsburgh Lumber Company, they pounded teams into submission. They ended the decade with Dave Parker and Willie Stargell and Bill Madlock, they were family. They won two World Series in the 1970s, made the playoffs six times. They had a bit of a lull in the early-to-mid 1980s, but then they got Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke and Doug Drabek and won the National League East three years in a row.

They led 2-0 going into the ninth inning on that October day, and fans streamed for the exits, and none of us had even the slightest inclination that it was all about to end for Pittsburgh baseball.

Drabek, the ace, started the ninth — he had thrown eight shutout innings and Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland was going to stick with his guy. Atlanta’s Terry Pendleton doubled to lead off the inning. Then Dave Justice grounded to second, but Jose Lind botched the play. There were runners on first and third with nobody out. I was back in the auxiliary press box inside the stadium and I imagined the people heading toward their cars stopped and turned around. I know that everyone in the stadium started waving their arms in that Tomahawk Chop. My ears still ring.

Sid Bream walked. That loaded the bases. That’s when Drabek was pulled. Stan Belinda came on to pitch.

Ron Gant hit a sacrifice fly that scored Pendleton. The score was 2-1. Damon Berryhill walked to load the bases up again. Then Brian Hunter hit an infield pop-up that wasn’t deep enough to score anybody. Two outs. Bases loaded. Everybody in Atlanta knows what happened next. Everybody in Pittsburgh knows what happened next. A 25-year-old career pinch-hitter named Francisco Cabrera stepped to the plate. In his career, Francisco Cabrera would hit .254. He would have 89-career hits in the regular season — one of them a memorable home run off Rob Dibble that saved the 1991 season. He had three hits in the postseason — one of them was this one, the most famous hit in Atlanta Braves history, I guess.

Cabrera rapped a single to left field, toward Barry Bonds, to score the tying run. And then Sid Bream barreled around third and headed for home. Bream was absurdly slow and also injured. He was perpetually injured. In my mind’s eye, I see him running on crutches. Bonds’ throw home was pitiful. It rolled toward the plate. Bream’s slide eluded the tag of catcher Mike LaValliere. The throw would become infamous. The slide would become famous. The Braves won and would go to the World Series. The Pirates lost and would disappear from view for the next 20 years.

Looking back, the dismantling of the Pirates really was sudden and shocking. They had won three division titles in a row. Then Barry Bonds would go to San Francisco. Doug Drabek left for Houston. Mike LaVallierre would be released. Andy Van Slyke would never have another healthy season. The error man, Jose Lind, was dealt off to Kansas City. The Pirates did what bad teams do. They signed veterans past their prime. They signed a 39-year-old former Pittsburgh hero named John Candelaria and a 38-year-old Lonnie Smith. And the horror began: 87 losses that first year. The next year, they brought in a 38-year-old Lance Parrish. The next year, they released pitcher Tim Wakefield just as he was about to be good. They kept losing.

They traded away hometown heroes Jay Bell and Jeff King to save some money. They kept blundering the draft. This is pretty striking three year stretch in the draft:

In 1997, they took first baseman J.J. Davis in the first round — the next first baseman picked was Lance Berkman.

In 1998, they took lefty pitcher Clinton Johnson — the next left pitcher selected was CC Sabathia.

In 1999, they took right-handed pitcher Bobby Bradley — the next righty pitcher taken was Ben Sheets.

The Pirates had losing records ever year. They moved into beautiful PNC Park in 2001. They celebrated by losing 100 games. They celebrated THAT by taking righty pitcher Bryan Bullington with the first pick in the draft — even with Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain on the board. They kept on losing. In the mid 2000s, they lost 95, 95, 94, 95 and 99 in succession. The 2010 Pirates were a disaster, the worst Pittsburgh team in more than 50 years. They scored the fewest runs, gave up the most runs, lost 105 games and seemed as doomed as a team can seem. Only the Marlins in the National League drew fewer fans.

That was the heartbreaking part because Pittsburgh — like my own hometown of Cleveland — has a wonderful spirit, and that ballpark might be my favorite in all of baseball. But it was depressing inside. Bad baseball. A despondent fan base. I remember going to the park in 2011 when the Pirates, against all odds and logic, were tied for first place late in July. It was getting exciting. They promptly lost 28 of their next 37 to crash to earth. I remember going to park in 2012 when the Pirates, against all odds and logic, were 16 games over .500 in early August. It was getting exciting. In one dreadful stretch lost 23 of 30 and finished with a losing record for the 20th straight season.

And so this year has been wonderful because, once again, their success seemed a bit illogical and dangerously fragile. They have counted on a 29-year-old pitcher Francisco Liriano, who most people around baseball had written off. They have counted on slugging Pedro Alvarez, who swings and misses about as much anybody in the game.* They have counted on 36-year-old Jason Grilli to be a closer for the first time in his long and erratic career, on A.J. Burnett at 36 to keep putting the Yankees years behind him, on mega prospect Starling Marte to emerge and superstar Andrew McCutchen to get even better and play like the league MVP.

*According to Fangraphs, here are the top swing-and-kissers of 2013:

1. Chris Carter, Houston: 34.5% miss percentage.

2. Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh: 34.4% miss percentage.

3. Dan Uggla, Atlanta, 33.0% miss percentage

4. Mark Reynolds, Yankees, 32.6% miss percentage

5. Mike Napoli, Boston, 31.8% miss percentage.

And all those things happened, the Pirates were in first place in late July again, and then came the second mini-miracle: They did not collapse. They lost seven of nine at one point and looked to be heading toward collapse, but they settled down. McCutchen since the beginning of July is hitting .350/.451/.564. Liriano, after one dreadful start at Colorado, is back holding batters to about a .200 batting average. They have found ways to scrape through and here they are, making the playoffs for the first time since Sid Bream slid.

I personally wish the postseason race between the Pirates and Reds was still going on, with the winner getting into the first round of the playoffs. As it stands now, the Pirates and Reds will face off in a one-game playoff for the right to go on, and that’s kind of a bummer. Whoever loses that game, their postseason ends on the spot. That would be a real letdown for either city, but especially in Pittsburgh after 20 years of suffering. But this is how the baseball playoffs work now, and, hey, the Pirates are in the postseason again. So is Atlanta. If things play out, they could face each other. That would be fantastic.

Of course, there’s no more Fulton County Stadium — it was imploded more than 15 years ago. Sid Bream is 53 and a motivational speaker. Barry Bonds is 49, the all-time home run champ, and widely despised. Mike LaValliere is 53 and coaches kids now. Bill Clinton hasn’t been president in more than a dozen years. Josh Hutcherson turns 21 in October, he’s a big star and he is my 12-year-old daughter’s crush — which seems to mean that I’m now old enough to have a 12-year-old daughter. Yeah, a lot of time has gone by. It’s good to have you back Pirates.

  1. ottomanismydog - Sep 24, 2013 at 2:04 PM

    It’s good to be back. It’s better to keep going!

  2. pitpenguinsrulez - Sep 24, 2013 at 2:09 PM

    A very well written piece. I can still remember the promise of Zach Duke in 2005 before he got hurt and I can still remember being highly pissed when the Pirates traded away Jason Bay because he was my favorite but now we have Cutch, Burnett, Lirano etc who can once again restore the glory of the Pirates. Even I was walk around the campus of the University of Pittsburgh I can see a lot of fellow classmates wearing Pirates gear because we can finally be happy that we get to see a winner for the first time in our generation! It’s just so awesome hopefully we can move past the wild card round and have a deep run. Who knows if we say make it to the World Series and win it…you can bet your money that Pirates announcer and life long diehard fab Greg Brown will be in tears for weeks…LETS GO PIRATES!!!

  3. Francisco (FC) - Sep 24, 2013 at 2:33 PM

    They lost seven of nine at one point

    I hope they found her again.

  4. apkyletexas - Sep 24, 2013 at 2:38 PM

    @Posnanski – It’s funny that you recall all those events as a Braves fan.

    From a Bucs fan perspective, I can tell you the Braves fans at the game should never have been leaving:
    1. We all knew Drabek would have been gassed by the 9th.
    2. Our relief pitching was putrid. Leyland’s only chance was to pull Drabek to start the inning, and throw a succession of right-left pitchers at the Braves to try to string together 3 outs.
    3. Once Drabek let two men on, we knew the game was probably over. Our one big hope was that Bream would never make it home on that single. Something he could never do as a Pirate, he did to kill our chances.
    4. That team had no business going to any of those three World Series. Powerful, specialist relief pitching was the new formula for success, and all the other playoff teams of the early 90’s had it. The Pirates missed that train by a mile. We were still building teams 70’s style – good hitting, decent starting pitchers, and you stick your worst pitchers in the bullpen. Teams like the Reds and the Braves laughed at us – they knew that eventually in the late innings they could get to us.

  5. Jeremy T - Sep 24, 2013 at 2:45 PM

    I think “swing-and-kissers” might be in the running for best typo of all time.

  6. steelers88 - Sep 24, 2013 at 3:14 PM

    PNC Park was always the best ballpark in the MLB but now it might also have the best atmosphere. PNC can get really loud since it’s a smaller park. And with all the Jolly Roger flags it’s a incredible atmosphere. The Pirates turned it around because they started drafting better that about sums it up.

    • dan1111 - Sep 24, 2013 at 4:23 PM

      It is a wonderful stadium, and I loved going there even when the team was horrible. Pittsburgh is a great sports town, and I’m glad they now have a great baseball team.

      However, just for old times’ sake:

      http://www.theonion.com/articles/pnc-park-threatens-to-leave-pittsburgh-unless-bett,2003/

    • theroc5156 - Sep 24, 2013 at 4:29 PM

      Drafting better? Not really.

      AJ Burnett: Yankee castoff who couldn’t handle New York
      Russell Martin: See (Burnett, AJ)
      Jason Grilli: Been around the leagues for years.
      Francisco Liriano: Washout with Twins and White Sox.
      Jeff Locke: Trade with Atlanta
      Charlie Morton: Trade with Atlanta
      Mark Melancon: From Red Sox
      Vin Mazzaro: From Royals.

      Seriously, the pitching is the reason the Pirates have been successful, but nobody was drafted by the Pirates. Outside of McCutchen, the Pirates haven’t drafted well at all.

      • steelpenbucs87 - Sep 24, 2013 at 5:08 PM

        Okay so I agree with you that drafting is not the ONLY reason the Pirates are winning now, but its far more than just McCutchen – Gerrit Cole, Justin Wilson, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Tony Watson, and Jordy Mercer were all drafter by the Pirates and have been major contributors to this years team.

        Also to say that they “haven’t drafted well at all” is also patently false. Beyond McCutchen and the aforementioned players on this year’s team, they also drafted Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, Tony Sanchez, and Josh Bell. Beyond that you also have even younger guys like Reese McGuire, Austin Meadows, Wyatt Mathisen, and Barrett Barnes who represent other guys who could make the jump to being top ended prospects. This doesn’t even mention Gregory Polanco, Luis Heredia, Alen Hanson and Starling Marte who were all Latin American signings.

        So this team is the product of a blend of drafting, trade acquisitions, and signings…. basically like every other team.

        The (strong) farm system is a blend of drafting, foreign signings, and in rare cases trade acquisitions.

      • theroc5156 - Sep 25, 2013 at 8:54 AM

        I actually didn’t say that the drafting was the only reason why they are winning now. In fact, what I’m saying is, that the drafting isn’t really the reason they are winning at all. McCutchen was drafted and he’s terrific. There’s one guy. The rest of the players you are mentioned all are average at best. Sure, Alvarez had a great first half of one season. What else has he done? I don’t think he’s a bust, but he’s not some hot shot. Gerrit Cole just started in the rotation and the jury is still out. He’s been successful so far, but I’m not going to judge his success on his limited body of work.

        All the other guys you mentioned haven’t done a thing yet in the major leagues. Every team can bring up great players from their farm teams. If half of those guys you mentioned come up to the majors and achieve success, then you can say it’s drafting. But right now, the main reason for the Pirates success is pitchers who have revitalized their careers (Burnett, Liriano, Morton and Locke up to a point). You really think that the Pirates would be where they are if Burnett, Liriano, Locke and Russell Martin put up stats similiar to their prior year’s stats? No way. Without these guys, the Pirates are nowhere near the playoffs. In fact, you may have just caught lighting in a bottle with them.

        It’s not a knock on the Pirates, all teams need to sign players and do trades, but, there are teams out there who do it with great drafts (Cardinals, Red Sox) and those that don’t (Pirates, Yankees). The Pirates recent drafts may buck their trend of awful choices, but remember, when you are picking in the top-5 year in and year out, you should have much more on your return on investment than the Pirates have had.

      • steelpenbucs87 - Sep 25, 2013 at 11:29 AM

        I understood what you said – its just wrong. First of all, regardless of whether or not they are superstars, the fact of the matter is that there is a decent amount of talent at the Major League level that came into the organization by the draft (as I indicated). To say its just McCutchen (as you stated), is ignoring the contributions of other everyday starters, SPs, and highly utilized relievers.

        I’m not saying this is a homegrown team either – you don’t need to educate me on the contributions that Liriano, Burnett, et al. have made this year, but you could say that about tons of eams that have had success. Where are the Reds without Choo, Phillips, Latos, Arroyo, and Sean Marshall? Where are the Tigers without Prince and Cabrera? Where are the Red Sox (who you mentioned), without Napoli, Ortiz, Victorino, Peavy, Lackey, and Uehara? Where are the Cards (who you also mentioned) without Holliday, Beltran, Wainwright, and Mujica? Even on the Cardinals by your own logic, if you’re saying the jury is out on Cole, then jury is also out on Wacha and Shelby Miller.

        Again, I’m not saying this is a homegrown team, and I’m not saying that the team’s success is a result of good drafting – I’m just saying it’s not black and white like you presented it. You can’t look at the players on the current roster and use that as a blanket statement to say that the Pirates “haven’t drafted well at all”. It’s inaccurate (especially when you consider the wealth of talent in the farm system), and its also misguided.

  7. pensman29 - Sep 24, 2013 at 4:29 PM

    Nice article sir

  8. steelers88 - Sep 24, 2013 at 4:58 PM

    Theroc5156
    I don’t understand how you think the Pirates haven’t drafted well. McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker, and Cole. They have even more talent in the minors with Taillon, Glassnow, Hanson, Polanco, McGuire, and Meadows.

    • steelpenbucs87 - Sep 24, 2013 at 5:09 PM

      See my comment above but Hanson, and Polanco were latin american signings, not drafted players.

      Still agree completely that he’s off base though.

    • theroc5156 - Sep 25, 2013 at 9:01 AM

      With all the top-5 picks the Pirates have had, outside of McCutchen, the Pirates have not drafted well at all. The jury is still out on all the players you mentioned other than McCutchen, Alvarez, and Walker. I mean, if you are mentioning only 3 players you drafted as a sign of success, that’s pretty bad.

      The talent in the minors is a complete question mark. You don’t know until they come up to the majors. They could be busts. They could be studs. We don’t know right now.

      Your best relievers and pitchers are players who other teams have given up on. There’s nothing wrong with that, but, they weren’t drafted. The Pirates (and some other teams as well) would not be where they are at if they had a predominately home-grown lineup.

  9. steelers88 - Sep 24, 2013 at 5:05 PM

    dan1111
    If that actually happened would they have moved the whole stadium or would they have rebuilt it. It sounds like to me that they would have moved it.

    • dan1111 - Sep 25, 2013 at 2:47 AM

      Do you know what The Onion is?

  10. joeyashwi - Sep 24, 2013 at 6:36 PM

    Congrats Pirates and their fans! You deserve it! I’ll be cheering for you this postseason.

    From a Twins fan

  11. Old Gator - Sep 24, 2013 at 7:23 PM

    I’ll be rooting for the Pirates but, realistically, they’ve been playing mediocre baseball since the break and I don’t think they can match the Reds’ firepower. If Cueto brings his A game I don’t see them being able to get to him, and if Votto and Choo (gezundtheit!) are locked in the Bucs are going to have their hands full. Still, root root root for the underdog.

    If they don’t win, then this season will still have been a major achievement for a team that’s still pretty young and evolving. They’ll be back.

    • jimmymarlinsfan - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:13 PM

      Please for the love of all that is holy and right, keep rooting for the braves with Craig. The pirates don’t want your “fandom”

      • Old Gator - Sep 25, 2013 at 8:48 AM

        You have this wonbderful prediliction for speaking on behalf of people, teams or entities on whose behalf you have no excuse to speak. That’s just a function of an unfortunate synergy between your abyssal stupidity and your metastasizing ego.

      • jimmymarlinsfan - Sep 25, 2013 at 9:35 AM

        I’m very friendly with several members of the Pirates because I’m related to one of them. After spending time in the beautiful city of Pittsburgh and at the wonderful PNC Park, I feel I can speak on their behalf to say you are a fucking idiot and we don’t your fandom

    • dan1111 - Sep 25, 2013 at 2:57 AM

      Anything can happen in one game. Even if the Reds are stronger, it probably only translates to, say, a 55% chance of them winning.

  12. florida76 - Sep 24, 2013 at 7:33 PM

    Nice article, but it does the Pirates of the 1970s a disservice by saying it was a good decade. In reality, it was a great decade, as only the Reds were better in the National League, and only the A’s captured more world titles. In fact, the St. Louis Cardinals(the second most accomplished MLB team), has only had two better decades in their history.

    Even today, the two world titles in ten years is equal to or greater than the career output of each of the following clubs for their entire history in the same city: Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros, San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies, Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays, Milwaukee Brewers, and New York Mets.

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