Bucs fans have right to revel in win No. 82
After so much disappointment, winning season likely a precursor of bigger things
As win No. 82 neared, I received a text from my Pirates-proponent pal Mike.
"We are almost to the moment in 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,'" he wrote, "where the children are freed and they have to shield their eyes from the blinding sunlight!"
For Mike and every fan residing where the rivers meet, that moment is here.
No. 82, long-promised and oft-delayed (especially in recent days), finally arrived Monday night at Rangers Ballpark. It arrived, hopefully, not as the season's high point, but as the bearer of bigger things to come.
Sure, to many, No. 82 has been considered a foregone conclusion for weeks. The Pirates, after all, have not been more than four games under .500 at any point this year, and that was way back on April 7. They haven't been more than four games back in the National League Central at any point, and the last time they were that far behind was June 20.
Andrew McCutchen might be the NL Most Valuable Player, Francisco Liriano might be the most wily signing of the offseason and now Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd and John Buck bolster a roster that has already been deeper and more multi-dimensional than anybody realistically anticipated. The Pirates, simply put, are good. They have been a true contender -- not some untrustworthy upstart -- for the entirety of 2013.
And generally speaking, true contenders don't get all that giddy about the prospect of a .506 winning percentage.
But that's the outside perspective, one that can only be provided by those of us who didn't have to endure Sid Bream's slide, the Cam Bonifay-Dave Littlefield era, the Bryan Bullington pick, Derek Bell's "Operation Shutdown," the premature punting of Jose Bautista (twice, no less), Randall Simon providing the only nationally newsworthy hit of 2003 by interferring with a sausage race in Milwaukee, the 2011 and '12 tank jobs, the Aramis Ramirez trade, Jason Kendall's ankle, Jerry Meals' blown call, and on and on and on.
To us, No. 82 might feel slightly anti-climactic, given how much these 2013 Pirates still have ahead of them. But we've never had night sweats thinking about Francisco Cabrera.
It's different for the Pittsburgh fans who live and die with this stuff and have felt every kick to the gut that comes with having your beloved ballclub turned into a two-decades-long punchline. They didn't deserve this soul-crushing sentence to baseball's standings slammer, and they do deserve to blast some Donnie Iris or Joe Grushecky tunes, dance, celebrate and enjoy every ounce of ink and every bit of bandwidth being used to discuss what is, unquestionably, the best story in baseball this season.
What's amazing about the once-proud Pirates' fall from grace is how swift and unrelenting it was. Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek left in free agency, and that was it. They went from the doorstep of the World Series to 22 games back in the NL East in 1993. Attendance and spirits plummeted accordingly, and not even the move to arguably the most beautiful ballpark in baseball in 2001 could correct the losing culture that had taken root.
So, yeah, given all they've been through, Pirates fans could be forgiven if they harbored even the slightest doubt that this day would actually arrive, even after win No. 81. The Buccos were swept by the Cards over the weekend, further delaying 82's arrival, and I'm sure my friend wasn't the only who let the pessimism of the Pirates' past sneak into his thoughts.
"Just wondered," Mike texted, "if it is mathematically possible for the Bucs to lose out, get into some Game 163 tiebreaker, lose that, and finish under .500?"
You see what the past two decades have done to these poor people?
(And that was not mathematically possible, for the record, though as a native Clevelander I could understand the fractured psychological basis of the query.)
When the Pirates won No. 81 last week, it was billed as the clincher of their first "non-losing season since 1992," and now, mercifully, we can remove "losing" from the lexicon altogether. It was a beautiful thing to see all the #Pirates82 hashtags on Twitter while appreciating the absurdity that Twitter was invented by a guy who was 15 years old the last time the Pirates had anything other than a toxic relationship with 82 wins. Pittsburgh hasn't been this happy with No. 82 since Antwaan Randle El threw that 43-yard double reverse to Hines Ward in Super Bowl XL.
The guys in the Pirates' clubhouse don't want to make too much of this moment. Understandable. Clint Hurdle has been saying from the day he arrived that 82 is nothing but a milepost on the road to greener pastures.
"I'm not going to shy away from talking about a championship," he said in his first press conference as a Pirate. "I really don't care what people think."
The players learned to embrace that attitude, even when the past two Augusts and Septembers revealed it to be premature. Last year was particularly brutal. The Buccos were above .500 as late as Sept. 16. They were no-hit by Homer Bailey for their 81st loss on Sept. 28 -- a very Pirate-like way to clinch a non-winning campaign.
As Jason Grilli told me on the first day of Spring Training, "Everybody went from, 'Wow, we're on a playoff run' to, 'Well, at least we'll have a winning season' to…"
You know, the usual.
This year, the conversation has shifted in the other direction, from respectable record to Wild Card contention to Central supremacy to…
Well, we'll let Pirates fans fill in the blank as they best see fit. They've been packing PNC Park with increasing frequency as 2013 has evolved, slowly but surely buying into the Pirates' pursuit of a pennant. Whether they'll be satisfied with a mere Wild Card play-in possibility or advancement into the NLDS or if the phrase "World Series or bust" has entered their vocabulary will ultimately be up to each individual.
But for all the baseball abuse it has endured, Pittsburgh, don't forget, is not what you'd call a long-suffering sports town. The Steelers and Penguins have set a standard that certain fans of all things black-and-gold will undoubtedly impart upon the playoff-bound Pirates.
The one thing everybody can agree on is that if the Pirates do, indeed, host a home game in October, it's hard to imagine any postseason environment will rival the unbridled enthusiasm of PNC, where tailgaters have been known to put in full shifts before recent games.
And in that deafening moment when the home lineup is introduced and the Terrible Towel makes its baseball debut (this is how I imagine it in my head, at least), you'll see exactly what my friend was talking about: a crowd of people newly freed from the clutches of obscurity and infamy, blinded yet emboldened by the light.
It all starts with 82. It was slow to rise, all right, but the sun is out in the Steel City.