Friday, October 11, 2013

2013 Pittsburgh Pirates: A re-birth of a franchise

The 2013 season was a great one for the Pirates, as they enjoyed their first winning campaign since 1992, their first postseason berth since 1992, and technically, won their first postseason "series" since 1979, after defeating Cincinnati in the National League Wild Card game at PNC Park on Tuesday, October 1. Pittsburgh didn't get it done in the NLDS, falling to the mighty Cardinals in a deciding fifth game, but this was a season I, and thousands upon thousands of other Pirates faithful, will certainly never forget.

Below, I'd like to share some thoughts about the magical ride:

--If you've ever seen the movie The Natural, starring Robert Redford, you're probably familiar with the scene toward the beginning of the film where the struggling and last place New York Knights are playing before a sparse home crowd, as Roy Hobbs, Redford's character in the movie, quietly arrives to change things forever. The final scene of the movie has the red hot Knights playing on the same home field, before a packed and excited crowd, as they take on a fictional Pirates team in a one-game playoff for the right to go to the World Series. As I think about the real Pirates 2013 season, I can't help but think of that movie. On April 7, while bowling in my local league, I watched Pittsburgh fall to 1-5 after a loss at Dodgers Stadium. The lanes my team bowled on that night were situated right next to the TV, but it was hardly a distraction for me, and certainly not for most of the bowlers at the alley. It was just your typical Pirates loss. And while I certainly didn't expect a last place finish, especially after two straight late summer flirtations with contention in the previous two seasons, I couldn't have envisioned in my wildest dreams that Pittsburgh's fledgling baseball team would improve upon its 79-83 record from 2012 by a whopping 15 games and make the postseason for the first time since before Bill Clinton was in office. But that's exactly what happened. In between was a magical ride, as the Pirates flirted with, not only first place in the National League Central Division, but with the major's best record, as they battled the tough and talented Cardinals and Reds for divisional supremacy. The Pirates missed out on the division by three games, as St. Louis captured the crown, as well as, the top seed in the National League. But Pittsburgh did make its way to the NLDS, thanks to one of the most memorable nights in team history. On October 1, the Pirates defeated Cincinnati in the National League "single-elimination" Wild Card Game, before a raucous and baseball starved crowd at PNC Park, that came dressed in black and was alive and loud the entire night. To finish my "Natural" narrative, five nights later, on October 6 (almost exactly six months to the day after that apathetic baseball night in April), I was back at that same bowling alley, and on the exact same lanes next to the exact same TV, as I tried to concentrate on my bowling match while I watched the Pirates defeat St. Louis in Game 3 of the NLDS to go up 2-1 in the series. PNC Park was electric that night, as were most of the people at the alley. Believe me when I tell you, it was the most alive I've ever felt watching a Pirates game. When Pedro Alvarez drove in Josh Harrison with the winning run in the bottom of the eighth inning, and Jason Grilli slammed the door in the ninth, it was the single greatest feeling I ever had after watching a Pirates game. Unfortunately, it was the last great feeling of the season, as the Cardinals came back and won the next two. However, I'll never forget everything that transpired between April 7 and October 6, and how this city was transformed and transfixed by its often forgotten baseball team. After 20 years, it was great to be in-love with baseball again.

--Fortunately, there are enough wise Pirates fans who didn't forget about the history of the team. While 2013 certainly seemed like the "birth" of the franchise, it was actually just a "re-birth." Many people might not know this, but the Pirates are one of the most successful teams in the history of baseball. Pittsburgh actually played in the very first modern World Series, back in 1903. All-in-all, the Pirates have nine National League pennants, and five World Series titles. Furthermore, the Bucs won nine Eastern Division titles from 1969- 1992 (including six division titles in the 1970s).

--The great on-field success over the years is obviously due to the many greats who have donned Pirates black and gold. From Honus Wagner to Roberto Clemente to Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski, Ralph Kiner Barry Bonds and the Waner Brothers, the Pirates are certainly more than well-represented in Cooperstown.

--But while the Pirates may be the most glaring example of a once proud franchise that suffered a dark period, they're certainly not alone. I suppose someone had to suffer the longest losing streak of all the small market teams, but what about other once great and successful baseball organizations that got lost in the wake of free agency and the disparity between big and small baseball markets?

-Cincinnati Reds. The Reds have had a big resurgence in recent years, but they also endured a lengthy postseason drought of their own, missing the playoffs for 15 straight years, before finally capturing the NL Central crown in 2010. While Cincinnati has enjoyed postseason success three of the past four seasons, it hasn't been back to the Fall Classic since 1990--a 4-0 sweep of the A's. Like Pittsburgh, the Reds enjoyed a great deal of success in the 70s, winning six NL West titles, four NL pennants, and back-to-back World Championships in '75 and '76. The Reds also have nine total pennants and five World Series rings.

-Baltimore Orioles. From 1966-1983, the Orioles captured six American League pennants and won the World Series three times. However, the O's haven't been back to the Fall Classic since '83 and have only made three appearances in the postseason--including just once since 1997.

-Kansas City Royals. From 1976-1985, the Royals captured six American League West titles, advanced to the World Series twice and won it after defeating St. Louis in 1985. Unfortunately, Kansas City hasn't been back to the postseason since, with only a handful of winning seasons to brag about.

--The Pirates have been criticized for having an inept front office and frugal owners for the better part of the past 21 seasons (and rightfully so), but can we honestly assume that all the above mentioned teams were just as inept? We're talking about a group of small market franchises that appeared in 14 World Series from 1966-1985 and won seven titles. Isn't it a little coincidental that, of the four franchises, only one has been to and won a World Series since '85? Is the main source of the lengthy struggles ineptitude, or is the core of the problem the growth of local TV revenue for large market teams, which, in turn, drastically increased the amount of money those teams could spend on top of the line free agents? I'm leaning toward the latter.

Whoa, this is longer than I thought it would be. I think I'll share more thoughts at a later time. Enjoy this one for now, though!

Go Bucs in 2014 and beyond!

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