It's been a long road, and mostly an empty feeling being a Pirates fan over the past 21 seasons. Instead of stress of a pennant race, there was just anger and frustration akin to how one would feel if they had to go into work everyday knowing they hated their job.
As you may or may not know, the Pirates ended the longest streak of losing seasons by a professional sports team this year (20), and to make it even doubly sweet, their 94-68 record was good enough for second place in the National League Central and qualified them for a one game wild card playoff showdown with Cincinnati on Tuesday night at PNC Park.
After the 20 years of losing as well as the previous two summers of late-season collapses, it was quite the anxious 2013 campaign, as I watched the Buccos climb to 21 games over .500 by late June and stay around that mark the rest of the way.
The main reason I was so nervous was that I obviously didn't want to see Pittsburgh collapse and clinch a 21st straight season of futility. But another reason why the highs were so high and the lows were so low was because the Pirates built a pretty substantial wild card lead fairly early, and any tick off that number was a source of angst for Yours truly. I continued to stress out about that number all the way until Pittsburgh finally clinched a spot in the postseason a week ago, Monday.
Since that day, I've been pretty relaxed and proud, proud to be a Pirates fan. I've fished out old VHS tapes of times when the local baseball team was once among the best in the sport and watched with great joy.
It's been a good feeling being this relaxed and content with my baseball team. After 21 years of feeling barely anything, and a few summers of the frustration and disappointment of what could have been, it's certainly welcome.
However, Tuesday night, I, and many other Pirates fans like me, get thrown from the frying pan straight into the fire. There's really no other way to describe the first postseason match-up in over two decades that will have the exact same "Game 7" consequences as the previous match-up in 1992, when former Bucco Sid Bream slid across home plate to win the National League pennant for the Braves and tear the heart out of the entire city of Pittsburgh--a wound that never fully healed until the boys got to whip out that champagne at Wrigley Field after wrapping up a postseason berth last week.
The Pirates will be at home for the big showdown, and they'll be coming off a weekend sweep at Cincinnati that clinched the top wild card spot in the National league and gave the team a lot of momentum. And the fans, the ones who bought playoff tickets, will have the extra bonus of seeing the long playoff drought come to an end in person.
But, the difference between an ordinary "best of " playoff series and the single-elimination wild card format that MLB enacted last year means that someone will be going home tomorrow night a loser after 162 games of hard work, and a fan base will be depressed after months and months of cheering, praying and hoping.
It just seems so final....unless Pittsburgh wins, of course. Fortunately, as a huge Steelers fan, I'm used to the whole "single-elimination" playoff format, and really, because of the unique set-up, the build-up and anticipation, it actually feels like I'm getting ready to "endure" an NFL playoff game. It might not be natural in a baseball sense, but it's basically the same feeling.
Last week, I heard a radio personality say that baseball playoffs are torture. That's actually how the late Sparky Anderson once described them, and that makes me feel better, because I thought I was the only one who felt that way. There's no clock in baseball, and all it takes is a walk, a bloop and a blast to turn a five run lead into a nail-biter.
After tomorrow, if Pittsburgh wins, it'll be a day to celebrate before heading to St. Louis for the best of five NLDS.
Tuesday night around 11pm can't come fast enough.
Welcome to playoff torture, Pirates fans.
I wouldn't have it any other way.