Thursday, August 29, 2013

Pirates fans feel the angst -- and that's a good thing

August 28, 2013
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) delivers a pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers during the first inning of a baseball game on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, in Pittsburgh. Photo: Don Wright

Charlie Morton (6-3, 3.14 ERA) delivers a pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers during the first inning of a baseball game on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, in Pittsburgh. Photo: Don Wright/AP

You can forgive Pittsburghers for feeling a little nervous these days. Pirates fans have been traumatized by 20 straight years of losing, an unprecedented streak in major American sports, and one that was made even more agonizing by late-season collapses in both 2011 and '12. The fans' fears this season about the quality of the team's lineup, except for center fielder Andrew McCutchen, seem to have been realized since the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, which brought in the likes of Robert AndinoRuss Canzler and Kelly Shoppach rather than Justin Morneau, or Alex Rios, or even Giancarlo Stanton. To make matters worse, Pittsburgh's second-best offensive player, left fielder Starling Marte, suffered a contusion on his right hand on Aug. 18 that took him, in a matter of days, from "scratched" to "available off the bench" to "on the disabled list" to "unable to swing a bat for several weeks."

McCutchen has continued his virtuosic play, hitting .422 in August and thrusting himself into the National League MVP race, but his teammates have by and large not followed his lead. The Pirates rank 21st in runs scored for the month, with 92 (just 3.8 per game), and they have a record of 11-13. On Monday night, they fell out of first place in the N.L. Central for the first time since July 29. Anxious columns, like this one, are now being written by longtime local newspapermen. That the club acquired outfielder Marlon Byrd from the Mets on Tuesday might help soothe some nerves in the Steel City, but probably not much. Pros: Byrd is having a from-the-blue career year, batting .285 with 21 home runs and 71 RBIs. Cons: He is 36, and he is Marlon Byrd.

Some perspective is in order. Those two decades of losing? They are over. For Pittsburgh to finish with a losing record, they would have to go 5-26, or worse, the rest of the way. And it is now exceedingly likely that the Pirates' string of seasons without a playoff appearance, which also stands at 20, will soon come to an end. The bifurcation of the National League (where teams seem to be either really good or really bad) combined with the extra Wild Card berth instituted last year, means that only two clubs -- the Diamondbacks (who trail the Bucs by eight games) and the Nationals (who trail them by ten) -- have any shot at all of denying Pittsburgh a spot in October. Baseball Prospectus puts the Pirates' chances of reaching the postseason at 97.8 percent. Pittsburgh is close enough to reaching the postseason that it can start thinking about a magic number, 24 in this case.

The hand wringing actually has less to do with if the Pirates will have a winning season, or if they will make the playoffs, than with how they will fare once they get to the postseason. Their home in stunning PNC Park seems built to host a big game on a crisp fall night, something it has never done before. But if PIttsburgh drops to the second Wild Card position, there remains the distinct possibility that the park still wont see playoff baseball, which it won't if the Pirates lose the resulting one-game playoff on the road. The postseason ticket plan the club released Monday might yet go unneeded.

When I interviewed Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington for my July SI cover story, he made clear that while he embraced his city's heightened expectations -- "That's a wonderful dynamic shift, that now they expect that we're going to be one of those teams playing in October," he said -- he was committed to maintaining his own sense of hard-earned perspective. "We're trying to build something here that's not just about one year," he said. "We want to play meaningful games every September, and hopefully October, for as long as we can keep that competitive window open."
Keeping the Pirates' window open past 2013 meant that Huntington had to make the difficult decision to not add another star-level bat via trade because he deemed the asking price, in the form of top prospects, to be too steep. "We were willing to do something stupid -- we just weren't willing to do something insane," he explained to reporters after the deadline. It wasn't that he didn't want another bat nor that he didn't recognize the usefulness of having one.

Later he explained, "The quickest way to head in the wrong direction is to move too much talent, too much minor-league talent, for a shot to win one time. That's the quickest way to undo all the good that you've done."

It is understandable that some fans, particularly those in Pittsburgh, would want their favorite teams to do all they can to win now. The desire for instant gratification is part of being human. In the late 1960s, a Stanford psychologist named Walter Mischel conducted a celebrated series of experiments in which he placed children alone in a room with a single marshmallow and promised them that they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow if they could wait 15 minutes before eating the first. More than two-thirds of Mischel's subjects could not wait.

But in baseball just reaching for the first marshmallow (that is, an immediate World Series run) does not mean that you will necessarily get it -- and you might only get one shot, as Huntington knows. Of course, those future rewards are also not guaranteed. Just ask the scuffling Nationals, whose decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg late last summer is now being second-guessed.

Still, the Pirates' decision not to do "something insane," as Huntington termed it, for a one-shot chance at a championship in 2013 -- and, let's be honest, a long shot chance, given baseball's difficult and convoluted playoff structure -- seems to be the prudent one. They might yet get another star bat anyway (especially as negotiations for the Twins' Morneau, who has cleared waivers, are said to be ongoing), and they will be also positioned to take many more shots in the years to come. The 26-year-old McCutchen is under contract through 2018, and the talented prospects on whom Pittsburgh has maintained a white-knuckled grip -- particularly starter Jameson Taillon, outfielder Gregory Polanco and shortstop Alen Hanson -- are soon to join him, as well as future ace Gerrit Cole, in the big leagues.

The anxiety for Pirates fans might seem overwhelming at the moment, but that is partly because it remains such a new emotion. As Gwendolen famously says in Oscar Wilde's comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, "The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last." Suspense, in sports, is a good thing, as it means that there is an outcome to care about. That's something that Pittsburgh fans haven't had for 20 years. The club's front office, wisely, is doing all it can to make the good times last.

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