Hope is a Pie in the Face

There was a particularly poignant moment at the culmination of Stephen Strasburg’s 14-strikeout evisceration of the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night. As the Washington Nationals’ 21-year-old rookie ace was putting the finishing touches on his seven-inning act of whiff-inducing whimsy, the hometown D.C. crowd was absolutely electric.

It was a playoff atmosphere for a last-place team.

Imagine it—24,000 people at a ballpark all brimming with hope and dignity and clutching their debit cards ready to buy a hat and a replica jersey on their way out the door. I sat on my couch in Pittsburgh watching their euphoria in a deluge of cheese-puff crumbs and numbing boredom. Hope never seemed so far away for the Pirates.

A Pirates fan settles in for another four hours of masochism.

But forget Strasburg’s pitching performance and the crackling atmosphere at Nationals Park. The really interesting moment happened when Strasburg gave post-game interviews to the crush of national media in attendance. He was wearing a silver Elvis Presley pompadour wig and his face was caked with a shaving cream pie.

This is what hope looks like.

The hilarious wig tradition was started by none other than Nyjer Morgan, a burgeoning cult hero among Pirates fans until he was traded to the Nationals for the lumbering, bumbling unfulfilled talent of one Lastings Milledge—whose season has gone to the toilet so fast his nickname should be Milledgeville.

Morgan is what blowhards call a “glue guy.” He keeps guys loose. He’s the sandlot equivalent of the Penguins’ Billy Guerin.

But Morgan was apparently not part of the organization’s vaunted five-year-plan. Tuesday night’s post-game celebration was evidence that the Pirates made a huge miscalculation. Just like the departed Nate McLouth, Morgan was traded “at the peak of his value,” meaning that he was playing very well for the Pirates, but management didn’t have faith that he could keep up the pace. This defeatist, spineless management philosophy is taught exclusively at the Parisian School of Business.

Sorry, French readers.

The message that the Pirates' brass sent to their players with the Morgan move was especially damaging because it wasn’t their traditional modus operandi of a salary dump. It was a lateral move—a move for keeping up appearances. The Pirates got a name. Unfortunately, the locker room got the message that hustle, attitude and chemistry are expendable.

Sure, Morgan is a spindly .250 hitter with no power. He was never going to be an everyday player on a winning baseball team. But the Pirates’ management betrayed a deceptively wise Mike Tomlin cliché: They ignored the journey and focused solely on the destination.

Quick irrelevant aside: I have no ground to stand on making a joke about the French. Like, I was watching “Deadliest Catch” the other night and the deck handswho were on their third sleepless night-shift in a row—were being pounded by freezing waves without complaint. I had to pause the show on my DVR because a cat hair had triggered my delicate allergies and made me bleary-eyed. I couldn’t continue my reality TV experience until I found some Claritin. That’s just how we roll here in the Iron City.

Anyway, the Pirates should be looking across town and studying the Penguins’ blueprint for turning a league laughing stock into a winner. When you’re a rebuilding team with blue-chip prospects like Andrew McCutchen (or, in the Penguins’ case, Sidney Crosby), you do not need a stable of washed-up veterans and unfulfilled talent. Look how John LeClair worked out for the Penguins, for example. What you need are stable, hard-working, positive influences surrounding your blue chippers—guys who make them laugh and take the pressure off.

Guys like Max Talbot. Pascal Dupuis. Colby Armstrong. Rob Scuderi.

Back in 2005, did anyone think those “no-talent grinders” would help build a Stanley Cup Champion?

“Woah, I’m a superstar, bro.”

The Pirates needed a guy like Morgan—not to win today, but to build a winning attitude. Now Washington has him to keep their blue-chipper Strasburg smiling. In return, the Pirates have Milledge—and nothing sends the chills of hope down your spine quite like a 210-pound man lumbering around the outfield and making lackadaisical baserunning errors that would get a tee-ball player reamed out by his mesh-hatted, jorts-wearing Dad/Coach.

The ballyhooed prospect trio of Brad Lincoln, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker has arrived, with Pedro Alvarez to come—but I’m afraid the machinery has arrived before the infrastructure. There is no glue. No shaving cream pies. No vigor.

As we’ve learned with Crosby and the Penguins, keeping your stars smiling and your fans happy in a rebuilding period is often more important than statistical metrics and "selling-high" and the ever-unctuous “up-side” and all the Moneyball fluffery and puffery.

Chemistry matters.

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