My favorite part of last week was writing the story about the '83 Pittsburgh Pirates, and their up and down nature over the course of the entire season. The feedback that I got and the stories that were told by fellow contributors gave the post even more depth than I could have possibly hoped for. And this youtube clip. What a treasure trove of memories that was.
Of course, I would have traded all of that for the excitement of a pennant race, or at least a potential winning season. As recently as seven weeks ago, I truly believed I would have a shot at both. As far as I'm concerned, the apex for the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates was August, 1st, on a Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field, when they defeated the Chicago Cubs, 8-4, to improve to a season best 16 games over .500. At 60-44, they had a modest lead in the wild card standings and were only a few games back of the Cincinnati Reds in the Central Division standings.
Andrew McCutchen was the talk of MLB with his MVP and triple-crown-like numbers. With a 13-3 record, veteran pitcher A.J. Burnett was having a comeback season of Cy Young proportions. Pedro Alvarez and the rest of the Buccos sluggers had come to life and led the Major Leagues in home runs and runs scored in both June and July. Led by closer Joel Hanrahan, the Pirates bullpen was lights out--if you were on the wrong end of the score late in the game, you had no chance against the Pirates relievers.
The fans, of course, were really into the team, and it was damn-near impossible to find a ticket to PNC Park. "Zoltan," the players' celebratory symbol that they flashed to one another after a big hit, had taken on a life of its own with the Pirates faithful and even started to gain some traction nationally--"Dude, Where's My Car" star, Hal Sparks actually threw out the first pitch of a Pirates/Cubs game.
Being a Pirates fan wasn't only fun, it was exciting. There were tangible reasons to expect that this year would be different.
Then, as if someone flipped a switch, everything changed. Since that day on August 1st, the Pirates have lost 33 of their past 47 games and have slipped to three games under .500. During this awful stretch of baseball, the team has lost 5 of 6 to the Padres, 8 of 9 to the Brewers and 5 of 7 to the awful Cubs.
There is no doubt that, at 14-33 and counting, this collapse is easily as devastating (if not more) than last season's 19-43 finish. Everytime you think the team can't possibly find a new low, they dig a little deeper, like this weekend in Houston, where they've lost the first two games of a weekend series to the historically bad Astros.
At 74-77 and with only 11 games remaining, the prospects of suffering through a 20th straight losing season seem very realistic. And you can forget about any wild card berth. At 6.5 games back, the Buccos have, once again, slipped behind teams like the Brewers and Phillies in the standings. Both Philadelphia and Milwaukee looked completely out of it a month ago, and the Phillies were even sellers at the trade deadline, parting ways with Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. The fact that Pittsburgh has somehow fallen below those two teams in the standings and will likely finish with a worse record than them, just drives the stake even further into our hearts.
How did it all go wrong? Why did it all go wrong? A lot of people, including yours truly, point to the trade deadline. When the Pirates acquired veteran pitcher Wandy Rodriguez at the end of July, I thought, "Now, this is the kind of trade I could get behind. They didn't mess with the Major League roster, they didn't mortgage their future, and they brought in a veteran lefty that could, in theory, make the pitching staff better."
Of course, Pirates gm Neal Huntington didn't stop there. He traded reliever Brad Lincoln to the Blue Jays for outfielder Travis Snider. Snider had been mostly a minor league player up to that point, but at 24, it was said that his ceiling was pretty high. Huntington also acquired reliever Chad Qualls for Casey McGehee and traded some minor leaguers to the Marlins in exchange for Gaby Sanchez, a once decent player who had fallen on hard times and had been demoted to Florida's minor league system.
Some have argued otherwise, but it's hard to ignore the fact that the team started on its downward slide almost immediately after the trade deadline. Coincidence? Nobody can say for sure. Any trade deadline is going to be a no-win situation for a gm, because, no matter what he does, if the team doesn't succeed, he's going to get blamed for it. But Gene Collier did bring up a good point the other day in his column in the Post Gazette: When a team acquires veteran players like Hunter Pence and Carlos Beltran, if those players fail, it's on the players because they have a proven track record. However, when guys like Snider and Sanchez don't prove to be the difference makers for the team that acquires them, it's a poor reflection on the general manager, field manager and scouting department.
Some might say, "well, the asking price for a Pence and a Victorino was way to high for a team like Pittsburgh." I agree with that. But if you have no intentions of mortgaging your future to acquire guys like that, why not just stick with what you already have? I would have been happy had Huntington stopped making deals after the Rodriguez trade. For my money, that was enough of a gesture to the clubhouse that the team was serious about making a postseason run. However, I think messing with the Major League roster and essentially acquiring reclamation projects was a poor message to send.
But that's a debate for another day. Fans have opinions about that on both sides of the scale, and it will no doubt be debated all offseason.
The only thing I know right now is that I feel like someone woke me up from a great dream. The eternal optimists out there have said that, when you look at the big picture, what the Pirates have done this season is a sign of improvement. Really? Why doesn't it feel that way?
We know very little about what this Pirates team will be like next season, and it shouldn't be that way. A young team is supposed to show progress as the season goes along, and at some point, and if it really has figured things out, it should be on the ascend at the end of the year.
Some might say that the Pirates 40-20 stretch earlier in the summer is a good sign for the future. Oh yeah, well, what does that make their current 14-33 stretch? Which one is the more accurate barometer? And don't give me the "regression to the mean" argument. Good baseball teams don't regress to the mean. And not too many good baseball teams have stretches where they're 20 games over .500 and and 20 games under .500 during the same season.
All we know right now is that James McDonald has struggled mightily down the stretch for a second straight season, and Jeff Karstens can't seem to stay healthy. And because of those things, and because the offseason signing of Erik Bedard was an out-and-out failure, Jeff Locke and Kyle Mcpherson have had to take the mound in September. Anyone have a general idea of what next year's pitching staff will look like and if it will actually be productive? I don't.
All we know about the offense is that Andrew McCutchen is good, but he also seems to decline in the second half of seasons. We also know that Pedro Alvarez has a tremendous amount of power, but it doesn't seem to be consistent enough to carry a team throughout an entire season. We do know that the Pirates hitters strike out an awful lot and haven't improved in that regard at all. Will it magically improve next season?
After such a promising start, the Pirates have regressed to the point where their front office is, once again, the butt of jokes because of weird emails and because of their minor league training methods.
The jokes and the poor PR are probably a little over-blown, and if this team was nearing a winning season and postseason berth, that email from Pirates assistant gm Kyle Stark would probably be applauded. Instead, it's seen as insane ramblings from a man who probably isn't qualified for the position he holds.
For a 20th straight season, I feel bad again. I was wearing a Pirates t-shirt yesterday, and an elderly man shouted, "You have a lot of guts wearing that shirt. I had big plans for those guys this year." I said, "me too."
I think we all did.