So here we sit on the precipice of another Pirate baseball season. We have a scant 19 consecutive years of losing at our backs — a time period that means my 18 year-old nephew has never witnessed a winning season in his lifetime.
And yet here I type as a staff member for an online media source that covers the Pirates from top to bottom, left to right, back to front. There must be something really wrong with me. But that also means there must be something wrong with you for reading a website dedicated to a franchise mired in a losing streak that has made most fans numb to the numbers. Odds are good that this isn’t the only website you go to get news about the Pirates, either — you like to really heap on your misery quotient for good measure.
Which brings to mind the question — “Why do I still follow this team?”. The short answer is “I don’t really know”. My interest in the game probably started when I was a kid in the mid-1980′s and my Dad would get me a pack of baseball cards periodically. I would also religiously scour the newspaper to look at the box scores and used the statistics to learn mathematics. Thanks to constantly running the numbers in my head for batting averages and figuring out on-base percentages and slugging percentages, I’m a fun little parlor trick at meetings for my boss. He tells people he doesn’t need a calculator as long as I’m around. I can’t help it — when people mention some type of basic math problem, my mind instantly figures it out before they even say “I’m not sure what that comes out to….”
But that Rain Man-lite ability doesn’t justify why I’m still a fan today. Perhaps it’s my love of underdogs. Most people like to root for underdogs, I suppose. The only exception are soulless people who are Yankee fans. I want to see the Pirates do what the Rays are doing by winning on a budget. The Rays (with the help of an unbelievable run of having the vast majority of their top prospects actually pan out) are beating teams with 3 or 4 times their payroll by doing things “the right way” — scouting and developing their own drafted players, making shrewd acquistions, and timely trades. I believe that the Pirates have correctly embraced the plan on how to emulate that model. We’re just waiting for the execution of it to come to fruition.
The money in the game is getting to the point of tainting my interest, though. I’ve written extensively for the past few months about how influential local TV contracts are becoming for teams. With the twin signings yesterday of Matt Cain for the Giants and Joey Votto for the Reds, we’re now seeing the money for these mid-market teams start to affect their decision making processes, too. Both of these players have average annual value of their contracts at $21 and $22 million dollars. In Votto’s case, the Reds had to lock him up for 10 years, taking him to his age-39 season in which he will be a shadow of his current performance level. It’s starting to not get fun when the Reds feel they need to do that type of signing to stay relevant.
After we have all basked in the afterglow of the Andrew McCutchen signing for the past month, the sobering notion is that there is virtually no way that McCutchen will sign a 2nd contract extension with the Pirates. I see no way, nor can I justify, the Pirates spending $20M+ on a player such as he will likely command upon the completion of this current deal. Let some other team shoulder that burden in his declining years.
But even with the bloated payrolls of the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, and Phillies, plus the escalating stream of revenue from TV deals, I’m still here and writing. I’ve taken a more high-level “view from 30,000 feet” look at things in recent years. In the past I used to obsess about each win and loss, until I realized that each game in the 162-game grueling marathon of a season equated to 0.62% of the season. I used to ride the high of every hit streak and dwell when a player went 0 for 20. But I learned that water finds its own level eventually and if a player hit .265 on the season that is most likely what he was meant to hit that year. I’ve learned that these players are not robots — a down year may because of the same factors that affect our lives, such as divorce, family illness, displeasure with their work environment. I try to see the trendlines now.
There is no other professional sport that has such an apprenticeship as baseball. Aside from the most elite of prospects, most players need at least 3-5 years to work their way up to the majors. And that’s if they even make it at all. The attrition rate, whether due to injury or talent level, is astronomical.
So perhaps it is the struggle that I find most appealing. There are no “1 and done’s” like in pro basketball. No 18-year olds take the field on Opening Day like in hockey. Even football, where you can’t get drafted until you are typically 21, has rookies storm the league right away every year. That’s rare in baseball. Hitting a curveball (or striking a batter out, conversely) remain some of the hardest things to master in all of sports. You have to work for it in baseball; there are no easy passes.
I like to take things at their lowest value point and build them from the ground up. Yet another great reason to follow the Pirates. After the Littlefield Era, the franchise was basically scorched earth. But from these ashes we are finally seeing the buds of a new Pirate success story. It is coming in spurts and trickles, but it is on the horizon.
One of my favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption. Completely screwed at the 1994 Oscars by the sappy Forrest Gump, but I digress. In that movie, Andy Dufresne says to Red to never give up hope because “…hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing, and no good thing ever dies”.
As currently constituted, I think the Pirates will only win 78 games, meaning that Year 20 is a distinct possibility. That must make me (and by extension, you) a masochist for following this team. But I’m ready to ride this roller coaster for another six months starting tomorrow. I’m keeping up the hope.