Miley Cyrus was born in 1992, no doubt twerking right out of the womb. Same year, a 31-year-old lawyer named Barack Obama screamed like a fan/nerd for Michael Jordan at the old Chicago Stadium, then organized a local registration drive that produced 150,000 new black voters. Same year, Kurt Cobain was alive and not well as the reluctant king of grunge, quoted as saying, “I don’t want people telling my daughter that her parents were junkies.”
The Tonight Show? Still hosted by Johnny Carson. O.J. Simpson? Still analyzing football games on TV and dashing through airports as a Hertz pitchman. Mike Tyson? In prison for rape. Me? Living in the big city and raising two little girls who preferred to eat at the McDonald’s across from Wrigley Field than watch the Cubs in the stands. POTUS? Out with the original George Bush, in with the saxophone player.
That same 1992 also was the last time the Pirates, the team of my Pittsburgh youth, won more games than they lost in a single baseball season …. until now. For 20 years, 11 months and 26 days, the Buccos were losers, the longest such futility streak in the history of major sports in North America. The rest of the world evolved on its crazy axis, but baseball in da ‘Burgh remained tragicomically stuck in time, emerging only for some inane reason such as when Randall Simon randomly wailed on a poor, defenseless Milwaukee sausage mascot with his bat.
Never mind that the Pirates moved into a breathtaking ballpark that more than met the base criterion for a 21st-century baseball stadium: It envelops the mood and vibe of the town, with a precious skyline view beyond the outfield. Sadly, as the team went 1,374-1,796 during the two-decade span, fans merely trickled across the bridges into intimate PNC Park in a town immersed in the Steelers and Penguins. When I was growing up there, the Pirates were part of the local championship formula, and I just assumed the sports experience climaxed with my team winning a championship — the Steelers won four Super Bowls, the Pirates won two World Series and Pitt won a national football championship in my formative years. When I worked in Chicago and saw pretty much every team not associated with Jordan end its season without a title, I kind of said, “WTF?” Even long after I left town, the Steelers won more Super Bowls while the Penguins, first with Mario Lemieux and then with Sidney Crosby, won Stanley Cups.
We’d pretty much left baseball for dead in Pittsburgh, killed off by the surly jerk that was Barry Bonds, if not by the sordid drug trials of the mid-1980s that exposed many Pirates and players around baseball as cocaine-and-pills fiends. Not the most progressive town then, people weren’t quick to embrace the Latinos who starred for the Pirates, even wondering years earlier why his immenseness, the five-tool superstar Roberto Clemente, was moody at times. As the Steelers forged a dynasty and became a source of immense civic pride, and as Lemieux dominated winters like few hockey players of his era, the Pirates faded away. Even with the new park, I sat there one afternoon in the mid-2000s and wondered how the franchise would survive.
Now we know how.
It took a hell of a long time, a period that included three ownership groups and seven field managers. But like the A’s and Rays and the franchises that squeeze the most from the fewest resources, the Pirates finally got smart. After too many years of stupidity and carelessness, they devised a savvy front-office plan to scout wisely, draft and develop the best players (instead of those most easily signable), piece together a deep staff of pitching arms, acquire the best bargains in the veteran ranks, hire a successful manager with a positive mojo (Clint Hurdle) and wrap it all around a dreadlocked cornerstone named Andrew McCutchen. And, oh yeah, bring in an eclectic but effective relief pitching corps that calls itself the “Shark Tank,” channeling the nickname right down to a 150-gallon tank of sharks in the clubhouse.
The result: a team that leads the National League Central and won’t be flopping as it did in the second half the last two seasons. The Pirates are the $68-million-payroll antithesis of the league’s presumed pennant favorite, the $232-million-payroll Los Angeles Dodgers, and what fun would it be to see the polar opposites battle in the NLCS? We’ve watched the Cardinals and Reds enough in recent autumns. It’s time to see the Pirates play for a World Series berth again, and general manager/team architect Neal Huntington agrees, having acquired offensive help in Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd in shrewd, under-the-wire deals last week.
“It’s been a long time since there’s been a winning season here, but our goals are higher than that,” pitcher A.J. Burnett, who is having more fun than he ever did with the Yankees, told USA Today. “It’d be disappointing at the end of the season if we’d look back and say the biggest thing we accomplished was having a winning season.
“We want more. We want a championship.”
Whoa, is he nuts? Not if you think like a Pittsburgher. Understand that the Steelers have been to eight Super Bowls and won six of them. Understand that the Penguins have been to four Stanley Cup finals and won three of them. Even the Pirates have been to seven World Series, dating back to 1903, and won five of them. A Pittsburgh team does not seek to make the playoffs, expire and call it a very good year. A Pittsburgh team makes the playoffs for one reason.
“Our goal is to push this club forward and play deep into October, just not get there,” said Huntington, per the Associated Press.
Hurdle, who has done wonders in navigating the ride and embracing the streak-bust, knows what the city is thinking. “It was on our to-do list,” he said of the winning season. “We’ll move on from here. Our plans are continue to play and compete and go further.”
He sounds like a real Pittsburgher, dropping references to local landmarks such as the Giant Eagle grocery chain while frequently mentioning family life in the suburban North Hills. There was the day Hurdle picked up his 8-year-old son at school. “It was easier to count the number of kids who weren’t wearing Pirates gear on that bus than kids who were,” he said, per the AP. “That was pretty cool.”
The star Is McCutchen, who should be the league MVP after a sizzling August that included a .384 batting average and .483 on-base percentage. Yasiel Puig may have ignited the Dodgers’ surge, but he has been in and out of the lineup and caused too many internal headaches to still warrant MVP consideration. Allen Craig will get votes in St. Louis, as will pitching blur Clayton Kershaw in L.A. But McCutchen, along with his hot bat and Gold Glove, has the ideal leader’s equilibrium for this soaring story line. After win No. 81, he simply wrote on his Twitter feed: “Keep going …”
The Pirate who most gets it all is second baseman Neil Walker, who grew up in Pittsburgh and understands the local pain. “To be part of this group that has righted the ship, per se, in the win column is pretty significant. I don’t think anybody is going to admit that too much in here just because baseball players are so superstitious,” Walker said. “But the fact that I’ve lived and breathed Pirates baseball since I can remember, being a baseball fan since I was 5 or 6 years old, it holds a little more significance to me.”
The best way to reach the NLCS is to avoid the wild-card showdown, the one-game killer of championship dreams, the win-or-scram drainer of energy and your pitching ace. If the Pirates win the Central, they can relax, breathe and set a rotation that surprisingly has been among baseball’s better and deeper units — 15-game winner Francisco Liriano, Burnett, Jeff Locke, hot prospect Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton. They’ll also get Wandy Rodriguez back if they choose to limit Cole’s innings. Jason Grilli has been reactivated after missing five weeks with a right forearm strain, but Mark Melancon has done so well as a closer, Grilli might be a setup man in the playoffs.
Avoiding No. 21, as in consecutive losing seasons, was important in more ways than one. That was the uniform number worn by the great Clemente until he died in a 1972 plane crash, while on a relief mission for Nicaraguan earthquake victims. “The one family I’m happy for is the Clemente family,” Hurdle said. “They told me earlier in the season that we can’t have 21 losing seasons, that we’ve got to find a way to not have Roberto’s number tied to that. I told them we’d find a way to take care of that. It’s been taken care of.”
It’s the circle of life, Pittsburgh style. All that’s missing is a clubhouse party catered by Primanti Bros., those nasty sandwiches with meat, cheese, tomato, cole slaw and fries all packed inside the bread. But yoonz shouldn’t get ahead of yourselves in da ‘Burgh, not until Michael Keaton comes to town and belts out “We Are Family.”