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July 18, 2011

A funny thing happened on the way to another losing season…

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Written by: RJ Warner
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Hold on, let me check my watch. And by watch I mean the home screen on my phone because who wears a watch anymore?

As of 10:43 PM ET on July 15, Year of Our Lord or Roberto Clemente 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates are sitting alone in first place. Wait, let me put that on its own line:

The Pittsburgh Pirates are sitting alone in first place

And another one that is equally important to me:

Baseball sure is fun again in Pittsburgh!

It’s not that I’m intentionally striking while the iron is hot, hoping to catch a fleeting moment. I’m not in a hurry to get this down on paper because I feel this isn’t going to last very long. I’m sure every columnist in Pittsburgh and every Pirates blogger who knows way more about this team and baseball has already wrote that single, emphatic line above to lead their own story.

I am getting this down because no matter what happens, I want to capture something that I haven’t felt in almost 19 years. I want to have written confirmation as to how I feel –in this moment– like I felt when I was much younger in 1992, that age where I took everything for granted. It’s simple giddiness, mixed in with a little awe and a general, as the kids say, OMG WTF???!!!

Sure, that’s awful hyperbole, but hasn’t this team been hyperbole so far this year? In terms of positive expectations for the Pirates going into 2011 and coming off a 105-loss season in 2010, a cherry on top of a rancid sundae that baseball fans in Pittsburgh have been spoon fed since Clinton was in office, they were somewhere below the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Clippers. In fact, if you gave me a choice in late March that either the Pirates would be in first place in mid-July or the Lions and Clippers would form their own Baseketball league and play for the title in my driveway (if I had a hoop), I would have seriously considered the latter. And that, I swear to you, is no hyperbole.

What should amaze any baseball person from the bottom up about these Born Again Bucs is they are pretty much defying a lot of statistical analysis. It’s odd because baseball is the mecca of stats, whether you prefer old-school batting average (the Pirates are a mediocre 11th in the NL at .243) or the more modern sabermetrics like defense-independent ERA (the highest-ranking Pirate in the NL is Charlie Morton at 27). Sure, there are some positive ones like Jeff Karstens out-of-nowhere 2.34 plain ol’ ERA (better than Roy Halladay) or Andrew McCutchen’s exceptional 5.2 WAR (wins above replacement player) which is below only Jose Bautista in all of baseball. And if the Pirates have a lead, forget about coming back in the ninth because the once walk-crazy Joel Hanrahan is perfect in save opportunities and would have to come down a long way just to be hittable. Looking at the numbers, Pittsburgh really only came back to the middle of the pack in some categories and the bottom half in others.

And or course, let’s not forget that the NL Central isn’t exactly a powerhouse with no teams at 50 wins while the AL East boasts three. It’s all relative. All you have to do is stick around, and this team is sticking around. Does it matter that the Giants of last year took advantage of the suddenly dysfunctional Dodgers or the 1991 Minnesota Twins won only 85 games in the regular season? All that matters is that they found a way into the postseason. I’m not saying that the Pirates should be ordering bunting for PNC Park with over 70 games and tons of Central play ahead of them. The comparison is that these Pirates, like those aforementioned champs, are a whole greater than the sum of its parts. That’s honestly the best answer I can come up with.

Most of the credit is going to Clint Hurdle, with plenty reserved for pitching coach Ray Searage. Nobody would suggest these two are rubes and don’t follow the stats, but I’m sure Hurdle isn’t wringing his hands or consulting Bill James over whether or not Karstens will continue his amazing strand-rate that I heard all about on the post-game show. He’s gonna let him pitch every five days and Searage is going to do whatever amazing things he has been doing to coach up most of the same arms that were the worst in baseball in 2010.

Choose whatever cliché you like about Hurdle: he has them believing in themselves, he changed the culture, he takes ‘em one game at a time, etc. The funny thing is, all of that is actually true. There was a different feeling when Clint Hurdle took over as manager and that was my very simple statement of “good hire.”

And many like myself are finally giving the scraps to the ones doing the hiring: owner Bob Nutting, team prez Frank Coonely and GM Neal Huntington. It’s begrudging credit at best to some, but it has to start being given, no matter how similar to crow it might taste.

There were plenty of good reasons, however. Nutting officially took over as the face of the team in 2007 and it took half the article announcing the news for people to make the judgment that he was at best a standoffish prick and at worst a cheap carpetbagger from West Virginia who was funneling revenue sharing profits to his dying family of news papers. And when Penguins co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle supposedly offered to buy the team from Nutting and Nutting rightfully told them no, the vitriol from fans boiled over. It didn’t matter if most of this were true or not or somewhere in between, what mattered was this town needed a villain and a buffoon to pin all the blame on, and Nutting seemed up to the challenge.

What is absolutely true is that Nutting did invest a lot of money in scouting and development, especially in Latin America and in the draft. Trades were made and power arms were hoarded that re-seeded the scorched earth minor league system left from the previous regime. Some were great, some were lousy and others still have yet to be determined. There still needs to be a lot more evidence on the major league level that Huntington and company are really serious about this team being a contender.

So why is this team stunningly sitting in first place on July 15? They don’t slug like the Red Sox and they sure don’t pitch like the Phillies. But when each of those teams marched into PNC Park with busloads of confident fans (who could blame them?) within the past month, both left Pittsburgh scratching their heads as to why they lost the series.

The only other thing I can offer in my pedestrian baseball knowledge is that these Pirates can be credited with impeccable timing. Stats may reveal most things but they don’t account for moments in a season that make you realize something special is going on

The Pirates have had pitchers throw gems over the last 18 years. But this year, Morton goes out and stops a losing streak with a brilliant shutout against the Reds in a park where his career almost became completely unglued a year ago. Literally overnight, they were right back on track and believing again, where in previous years those losses just piled up. There’s so many other examples that I could poll ten fans, writers and talk show hosts and get ten different “turning points” in the 2011 season.

Yeah, they’ve hit plenty of walk off home runs over the years, but nothing like the one from a catcher who was no higher than eighth on the organizational depth chart forced into action because of injuries and poor play from the other seven (seven!) guys.

Hold on, that wasn’t even a walk-off. Michael McKenry (1% owned in all Yahoo! fantasy leagues) hit his first big league homer in the bottom of the eighth and only broke a tie with the lousy Cubs. Didn’t matter to the record crowd that night that was so used to being sent home quietly. They let out a roar that hasn’t been heard in Pittsburgh baseball since Bert Blyleven’s curve froze Cesar Geronimo to clinch the last pennant 32 years ago. Once again, NOT hyperbole. It also wouldn’t be hyperbole to hear of that “crowd” swelling to 100,000 over the years, because, you know, I was there.

Let’s end this with us fans, many who will claim we’ve been there all along, through thick, thin or whatever you call it this team has put us through since 1993. And there’s a small percentage that truly have and they know who they are. Most of us, however, would admit under oath that we really haven’t. Realistically we dipped in and out, a flash here and there until perhaps interleague play started or the inevitable four-game sweep at the hands of the Brewers that preceded another beating from the Cardinals. Some of us screamed at the talk show hosts or the message boards and drew that line in the sand and said we’ll never support this team this team as long as Nutting and Huntington are in charge. We all had to ask at one point though, why we paid another 20 bucks or spent three hours in front of the TV to see them miss the cutoff man or try to nibble the corner on a 3-2 count with the bases loaded.

It will be called a bandwagon, and people can believe that and they may even be right. I’m of the opinion that the majority of us simply wanted good baseball to return to this city compared to what we’ve had our eyeballs exposed to over the years. Don’t get me wrong, we in Pittsburgh have had it mighty good this decade with the Steelers and Penguins giving us plenty of parades and a flood of good memories which shouldn’t be ending any time soon.

I think we can all agree, however, that there’s plenty of room for the Pirates.

About the Author

RJ Warner


  1. Vin

    The Pirates have been so sad for so long that everyone is actually rooting for them. I don’t know a single person that would say “man, I hate the Pirates!”

    Well, that’s until they start upsetting folks in the playoffs.

    (And that, RJ, is my jinx of the day.)

  2. BostonMac

    The Pirates are such a storied franchise in MLB that it has been a shame seeing them royally suck over my entire adult life. That being said, Vin is right, once they start winning real games the rest of the country will stop rooting for the underdogs.

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