Monday, July 28, 2008

Epiphany in Section 127

On an afternoon in which I watched the Pirates lose their third consecutive game against MLB’s worst team, the San Diego Padres, I had a strange thought while solemnly filling out my team-issued scorecard.

On the day the attention-siphoning Steelers training camp began in Latrobe, Pa., all this dutiful Bucco cheerer could think about were the following four words: Pirates fans are lucky.

That’s right, lucky. As in fortunate, serendipitous, in a good spot.

Before you quickly and dismissively click somewhere else, hear me out on this one. I know the team is on the seemingly inescapable path toward a record-tying 16th straight season below .500. I see that attendance at America’s best ballpark has dropped to its lowest level since the franchise moved to PNC Park in 2001. Of course I recognize the state of disrepair that consumes the player development system, particularly from a pitching standpoint.

But any reasonable fan would acknowledge that what happened in 1998 has essentially nothing to do with the 2008 edition of Our Buccos. That same fan would likely agree that dormant baseball fans in the Tri-State region would crawl out of their hibernation caves and through the turnstiles if only the team could play winning baseball past the first few weeks of the season.

So we’ve made short work of the shadows of the past and the increasing number of empty blue seats on the North Side. Now, what to say about that final pesky reason for perpetual pessimism – lack of talent?

First, let me say that in the past 12 months, the status of the baseball operations department of the Pirates front office has changed dramatically for the better. Led by new team president Frank Coonelly and his most significant hire, general manager Neal Huntington, the ballclub has finally joined the 21st Century as far as the use of advanced statistical analysis (sabermetrics). This new management team has also shown a resolve to do business from a position of power, an attitude foreign to this organization in the past decade of panic trades (remember Matt Morris?) and desperate free agent signings (hello, Derek Bell and Pat Meares).

Upon consideration of the above, all but the most beaten-down Bucco fans would have to agree that the franchise is on the mend and walking (not quite running yet) in the proper direction. But what’s this talk about being lucky?

I’m glad you asked. Well, since it has been so long since the Pirates of the Allegheny have tasted anything resembling consistent on-field success, the next time it happens (and I’m confident it will, even though I’m not predicting exactly when) will feel like the first time – which for younger Bucco followers like myself, it will be the maiden voyage into contention and, Lord willing, October baseball.

For the more senior members of this Pirate ship, the next winning team will both remind of fond memories and renew their faith in the value of patience.

Until a new era of glory comes to the Pittsburgh Baseball Club, look to the 2004 Red Sox, the 2005 White Sox or even the crosstown Penguins for a taste of the joyous atmosphere when a team returns to the party after a lengthy absence. In the meantime, Pirates fans are lucky because their days of excitement are still to come.


Brian said...

I hope you're right about all that. I've thought many a nights when wathcing the Pirates that the stadium would rock in October if people had the chance to witness it.

It all depends on getting an ace to the staff. There have been no gems in a decade. One's that looked like they could be (Perez, Benson, Duke) didn't pan out.

Matt Gajtka said...

It looks like that ace will have to come through the draft eventually, because the big trade chip this year (Nady/Marte) produced more depth than superstar-caliber talent in the pitching department.

No one wants to let go of potential aces, even if you offer a ton. Too bad the top picks spent on Bullington and Van Benschoten have been wasted.

Remember this though - the Cardinals won it in 2006 without an ace, as did the '02 Angels, to name a couple recent examples. You don't absolutely need a blow-you-away type at the top of the rotation, but it does make it a lot easier!