April 18, 2011
I’d love to say there’s some warm and fuzzy tale of me being a Pittsburgh Pirates fan since childbirth, but there’s really not. See, I grew up in north-central Pennsylvania, but my affinity as a young kid for Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, combined with the fact that New York’s channels reached down to our cable provider, officially made me a Mets fan. The only thing I knew about the Pirates was that … well, they were one of the MLB teams that played against the Mets.
I was too young, really, to understand why Dwight Gooden had stopped pitching for the Mets when he was suspended for cocaine use in 1987. The only thing I knew was that he wasn’t on TV anymore. My first game in-person was in 1988 when my family took a bus trip to see the Mets and the … Pirates. Other than meeting an 11-year old girl who was a pretty fanatical Gary Carter fan on the bus, I don’t remember much from that trip.
So anyway, fast forward to 1996. Kid from rural Pennsylvania turns into respectable college student and heads to the big city – Pittsburgh. I was still a pretty diehard Mets fan, but after going to a few Pirates games, I started slowly rooting for the team to win…mostly because they did so little of it. I guess I did it for the same reason a lot of people cheer for MLB teams – they become familiar with the players. The only problem was that, while more fortunate fans of Central Division teams had posters of guys like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell, and Barry Larkin, I had Tony Womack and Jason Kendall. Both fine major leaguer players, mind you, but neither was someone you’d hang your hat on and call a bonafide star.
The struggles grew. I was now somewhere in between a Mets fan and a Pirates fan. But when the 2000 World Series with the Mets and Yankees came around, something surprising happened.
I wasn’t interested.
Maybe it was because I was in college. Maybe it was because I had more pressing issues such as finals, paying the rent, and parties. But after that, things just weren’t the same. I was transformed. I was a Pirates fan. And not only a fan, but I was hooked, attending about 10-12 games a season and watching almost every game on TV.
The Pirates went on to get more recognizable talent. With four straight 35+ home run seasons, Brian Giles is still the best Pirate in the past 20 years dating back to Barry Bonds. Aramis Ramirez went on to a great career and Jason Bay was Rookie of the Year and a multi-year All-Star. And then there was the new ballpark in 2001.
If it weren’t for that pesky ‘winning’ thing, I’d be fully content.
Ah, yes, the winning. Why are the Pirates one of those MLB teams that don’t actually win? Well, there are a number of reasons. Some of it could be management. In the past, it seemed like they always got rid of star talent (some of which has worked, and some of which hasn’t). There have been the halfway-rebuilding years to the all-out rebuilding years, which we saw a couple of seasons ago. And, like any fan, I’m not sure I always agree with the decisions.
For instance, not finding a way to keep Barry Bonds was probably a mistake, regardless of what you think of his career. He went on to win five more MVPs, after all. Trading a budding All-Star in Ramirez for something along the lines of a few pouches of Big League Chewand a 1988 Topps baseball card set maybe wasn’t a great idea, either. And I can’t say that I was on board with dumping Bay, who had become a good young power hitter, for a minor league prospect and three guys who are no longer with the team.
Then, you’ve got the “Who saw that coming?” category. The Pirates put Jose Bautista, who had done little to suggest he was a major power threat, on waivers. He had 43 home runs total in several years as a Pirate, but had 54 last year alone, leading the AL. Jason Schmidt went 44-47 in Pittsburgh, but 79-41 the rest of his career. Heck, he didn’t even wait to become a star as he went 7-1 and lowered his ERA by more than a run the rest of 2001 after he was traded.
Last, there are the high draft picks that never panned out. I give you Pittsburgh’s first-round selections since 1990:
Kurt Miller (1990), Jon Farrell (1991), Charles Peterson (1993), Mark Farris (1994), J.J. Davis (1997), Clint Johnston (1998), Bobby Bradley (1999), John Van Benschoten (2001), and Bryan Bullington (2002) all either never made it to the majors or only were there long enough for a cup of coffee. It’s hard to have success when the guys you draft don’t become even serviceable MLB players.
Chad Hermansen (1995), Kris Benson (1996), and Sean Burnett (2000) had middling careers, but certainly didn’t pan out to anything close to what a first-round pick should. Of former Pirates, only Jason Kendall (1993) went on to have a pretty solid career.
But things have been getting better. The drafts since 2004 have produced guys like Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez – all of whom are starting on the major league level. Jose Tabata is a capable leadoff man who was pilfered from the Yankees, and the minor league system still has several quality candidates to join the team in the next year or two. Now, more than ever in recent memory, the team is loading up young players and has a core of talent that makes you think it can compete in a year or two.
So I hope. And I root.
The fact is that things are finally looking up. I know, I know – we’ve been saying that since 1992. But trust me.