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A Requiem for Pirates’ Baseball

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Brett Barnett

Ah, baseball. We all remember it, right? It’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember the nation’s pastime, what with a pandemic, social unrest, economic turmoil, and a slew of other maladies.

Many who are able have begun to shift their attention to the other sports that will return in July or have already returned. Baseball, however, is committing major league malfeasance. Labor disputes are perhaps as American as baseball and apple pie, though if for nothing more than convenience sake, baseball fans would likely prefer at least one of those entities separate from the other two.

On Friday, I wrote an article about where baseball is and the massive hurdle it’s creating for itself. That article can be found here. Essentially, I argued that baseball, with its leaked missives and formal releases, is slowly and painfully killing itself. Dramatic? Perhaps. Accurate? I tend to think so. It’s not just this dispute that’s killing baseball. It’s only one nail of the many already squarely placed in the coffin – it also just so happens that this nail is particularly large. The looming players’ strike at the expiration of the CBA in 2021 could be the final death knell.

Evinced by all of these wanton acts is an increasingly indifferent fanbase. Baseball was struggling, anyway – not financially, thanks in large part to gigantic television deals – but with regard to viewership not aged 55 and older. When your base is of the late stock, and when the younger generations are opting instead for sports that are filled with more star power, like football and basketball, that spells trouble for a business. And at the end of the day, baseball is just a business.

But today, I don’t wish to harp solely on the deficiencies and laughable short-sightedness within Major League Baseball and the Players’ Union. I want to remember a time of optimism – a time right after the Pirates’ fanbase had become as unfeeling as many fans are now. That time started in 2012.

2012 was fun, right? That was a time when the organization finally started to show signs of life. Personally, I’d watched the team flounder and sink, bob up to the surface, then get pummeled back down for my entire life. It was what I was used to. The Pirates are bad. That’s just how it was. At least, that’s how it was until it wasn’t.

I’m certain you all remember 2012 and some of the excitement that festered for half the season. I’ll jog your memory a bit if the details are fuzzy. The team was 48-37 through the first half of the season. Once they reached that mark, they were one game up in the National League Central. This was an outcome unheard of throughout Pittsburgh in many, many years. In fact, for a period of time during elementary school, my friend, a Cubs fan, and I would have somewhat of a running gag: Which team is going to finish last this year? Since then, Chicago has eclipsed the pinnacle of baseball. The Pirates? Not so much.

This particular team had its best two months right in the middle of the season. In June, they went 17-10 before going 17-9 in July. At the time, I remember thinking, “Is this the season the Pirates do something? Anything?” The answer, as well all know, was, “No” – rather emphatically, actually. In September, the team was downright abysmal, going 7-21 over the course of the month, being outscored 142-100.

I don’t want to waste time talking about the downfall. That wouldn’t be consistent with the spirit of this article. Remember, this was a team which subsisted, by bWAR, on players like Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, who were both yet to have their best seasons; Neil Walker and A.J. Burnett were also in the mix, each contributing over 2.0 bWAR to the Pittsburgh cause. Michael McKenry rounded out the top five, logging 1.6 bWAR.

In some ways, it was a bit of a ragtag group, but good Pirate teams in the 2010s always were. What 2012 did for the fan, aside from temporarily rendering them distraught come the end of the season, was provide a silver lining for what was to come. Over the next three years, the teams came together much better. They attained a streak of consistency and made the playoffs three consecutive years.

In 2013, the Pirates went 94-68; in 2014, they went 88-74; finally, in 2015, as one of the best teams in baseball, went 98-64. Unfortunately for them (and us), they ran into two of the decade’s best pitchers at the peak of their pitching powers. The somewhat directionless now-former regime led the franchise back into the cellar, trading away important pieces from years past – some of which were the right call, some of which were not – and trying to skirt past a rebuild with minimal major overhauls, generally opting for quantity over quality.

With Ben Cherington now at the helm, I think more fans are confident about the future of baseball in Pittsburgh. As Vikram from “The Office” once so eloquently philosophized: “Confidence, it’s the food of the wise man, but the liquor of the fool.” I’m pulling for the former rather than the latter. Perhaps Cherington can capture the magic of the mid-2010s – and then some.

But first, baseball must return. Indeed, there are health hurdles to overcome, and many of us may be overlooking that aspect of this whole thing, but once it does return, maybe – just maybe – the Pirates will have a clear and obtainable goal. With that clear vision may come a return to winning. 2013-2015 is beginning to feel a long, long time ago. Here’s to the future of Pirates’ baseball – whenever that may be.