Why You Should Keep Watching the Sub-.500 Pirates

Despite a 10-game skid, the battered but battling Buccos still deserve your attention.

Photo by Zach Frailey on Flickr.

Ouch. This hurts. The Pirates, not long ago perched atop the National League Central, are in the midst of a 10-game skid which has included a sweep by the lowly Cubs. They’re below .500. Some nights they can’t hit, some nights they can’t pitch, and manager Clint Hurdle is taking incompetent bullpen management to new subterranean depths.

The Pirates have been very hard to watch in the past fortnight—they’re out of the division race and putting their chance to finish above .500 in severe jeopardy. So why should anyone keep watching? 

The easy answer is that 2011 was never supposed to be about 2011—not really. It was supposed to be about bridging the gap from the disaster of 2010 and the smoking remnants of the Dave Littlefield era to the Bright Pirate Future, in which the Buccos wouldn’t be lovable losers but perennial contenders. 2011 was supposed to be the year when we could look at the team, squint, and say, "Yep. Things are looking up for us Pirates fans for once." 

I still think that’s true. Andrew McCutchen has blossomed into a true superstar, even if he had a rough July. Neil Walker is having a strong sophomore campaign. Jose Tabata, for all of his struggles and injury problems, looks like he has the makings of a bona fide big league lead-off hitter. Alex Presley has played only 20 games, but he did a convincing job of proving that he wasn’t just a minor league flash in the pan. Pitchers Charlie Morton and James McDonald have performed well enough on occasion to remind fans why the Braves and Dodgers once thought so highly of them. And general manager Neal Huntington cobbled together an impressive bullpen out of thin air.

Maybe we are witnessing a collapse, but if Pedro Alvarez can finish strong and the front office can bring in more consistent starting pitching and a big bat in the off-season, this really could be the start of something special.

Still, the remains of the 2011 season smoulder before our eyes. I’ve said for quite some time that the real tragedy of Pirates baseball is that it’s impossible to enjoy it in the moment. Garrett Jones’ incredible debut in 2009 is a perfect example. Jones’ season was pure magic; he somehow transformed from a career Quad-A first baseman into a real, live Major League power hitter for 82 games. He was one of the best hitters in the National League, and it should’ve been an awesome thing to behold. Instead, I spent most of those 82 games fretting about whether or not Jones would be able to match his performance in 2010 or 2011 when the Pirates actually needed him. I was living in the future. That’s no way to be a baseball fan, but the future is all Pirates fans ever have.

Yet for three-and-a-half glorious months in 2011, we had something else. Andrew McCutchen’s scorching bat in May and June was amazing not because it meant that he might be the league MVP in 2013, but because he was helping the Pirates get into first place. Joel Hanrahan’s flawless work at the end of games was great to watch because every win helped the Pirates gain ground on the Brewers, not because it raised his trade value. We got to be real baseball fans, not prospectors. Two weeks ago, I was welcoming fans onto the bandwagon. Now, I can barely make myself sit through a whole game without wanting to punch my TV. Abrupt endings are always the hardest.

This is a different sort of disappointment than the norm, but it also changes the way I’ll be watching the end of the season. In past years, I would watch Pirates games with one eye on the game and one eye on an abstract future. If Player X blossoms the Pirates might actually contend Year Y. Now, though, I think to myself, "If Morton can get himself together, that’s one less roster spot that needs shored up in 2012," or, "If Alvarez gets back on track, the offense is going to look entirely different next year." 

It was fun being a baseball fan that got to live in the present instead of the future, even if it was only for two months. I want it to happen again next year, and I want it to last even longer. And that’s why I’ll still be watching in 2011, even if the division race has left the Pirates behind again.


Pat Lackey is a frequent guest blogger for Pulling No Punches. You can find him at his own blog, Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke? and on Twitter @whygavs.

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