Wednesday, September 4, 2013

20 years of futility is finally over: Pirates are losers no more

Former Braves pitcher John Smoltz said of his Game 7 performance against Pittsburgh in the 1991 NLCS, "When you picture yourself taking the mound in a Game 7, you never imagine having an early lead."

Sort of along those same lines (or not), I often envisioned what it would be like when the Pirates finally broke their long losing streak and ended the years of jokes they and their fans had to endure. Since my favorite baseball team has given me many years to think about it--two decades worth--I've imagined several scenarios. However, most all of them had the team reaching the magical 81 win mark (or 82, for those of you who want to be contrarians about the whole streak-breaking deal) near the end of the regular season, preferably at home, and with a wild celebration ensuing, both in the stands and on the field.

I never pictured it happening on a Tuesday night in Milwaukee on September 3rd. And I never imagined it being just a stepping stone along the way to maybe a championship season. But that's exactly what happened, Tuesday night, after the almost forgotten Travis Snider led off the top of the ninth inning with a home run that broke a 3-3 tie.

Mark Melancon pitched the bottom of the ninth to get his 11th save, and more importantly, set off pockets of celebrations everywhere in Bucco Nation.

It's probably fitting that it happened against the Brewers, a team with a similar small-market resume and a long losing streak of their own that was recently broken, because Milwaukee simply tortured the Pirates for a number of years.

The Brewers went 63-18 against Pittsburgh from 2008-2012--including a 20-0 thrashing one afternoon at PNC Park a few years ago--and if there was ever a sweeter baseball park to end the streak (other than PNC), I can't think of one.

But this isn't a day for vengeance or for rubbing it in the face of your favorite team's most hated rivals.

This is a day (and actually a season) where, as a fan, you can actually believe in baseball again.

Believe me when I tell you, for many years, I simply didn't think the Pirates would ever be relevant again. And it wasn't necessarily because of the losing and the often inept performances by the front office and team management. A lot of it had to do with the economic structure of Major League Baseball and how local TV and radio revenue gave such a huge advantage to the large market teams sans a salary cap.

Teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels were winning simply because they could spend the most money. Yes, they did a decent enough job of building up their farm systems, but make no mistake, they were going after the big stars in free agency, and that was the biggest reason they were winning.

If you would look at a Yankees batting lineup from the early-to-mid 2000s, you couldn't tell if it was their lineup, or the starting lineup of the American League All-Star team.

It was quite discouraging.

But, thankfully, the parity that has gripped every other major sport in America (except for maybe LeBron's Miami Heat) has taken hold in baseball. Now, while large market teams are still spending huge amounts of cash, perhaps the smaller market teams have finally figured out how to stay in the race, and that's by developing their own players and refusing to part with their top prospects and younger stars.

The Reds, Brewers, Rays and Orioles have all made their mark in the postseason in recent years, and now it looks like the Pirates are about to do the same.

Again, though, this isn't a day for discussing farm systems, economic structures and winning formulas. This is a day for celebrating.

Tonight could be another milestone moment if the Pirates win No. 82. After that, there's the matter of clinching a playoff spot and then, maybe the division title.

And after that...........dare I dream any more than I already have?

Sure, why not?

Let's Go Bucs!

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