An Honest Evaluation of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates

Monday September 23, 2013 was the perfect microcosm of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates and my feelings about their season. The Pirates had ppjust defeated the Chicago Cubs and the talking heads on Root Sports seemed to be finishing up their coverage as usual when they made mention that they were going to remain on the air for awhile longer. I forget exactly what was said but there seemed to be some vibe of anticipation. I soon found out that if the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Washington Nationals the Pirates would clinch a wild card spot and play in the post-season for the first time in over two decades. But wait…I was confused. We are hoping that the Cardinals win?? Huh?? At the time the Pirates were only 2 games behind the Cards with five games remaining. A division title was still very much within reach. Tough yes…but more than doable. A Cardinals loss that night would have cut the lead down another half game, and yet here Pirate Nation was hoping for a Nationals loss so we could be assured atleast a 3rd place finish. After the Cards won and the wild card was clinched the Pirates’ players & coaches were shown in the locker room jumping & screaming and popping champagne bottles as if they’d just won The World Series, when in reality all they’d won was 3rd place. Not only was I left cold, I was viscerally angry. Champions don’t celebrate 3rd place.

As it turns out the Pirates ended up finishing second in the division and hosted the Cincinnati Reds in MLB’s new play-in game. I guess they officially classify it as the first round of the playoffs, but let’s be honest…it’s a play-in game and shouldn’t really be considered part of the playoffs. Even though the Pirates won that contest I have still decided that I am not a fan of this play-in game. I bet fans of the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians would agree. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig escapes being the biggest joke in professional sports only because that idiot Roger Goodell exists. I’ll be ecstatic when they both go away. The Pirates went on to lose a divisional playoff series to the Cardinals in 5 games. The two games at PNC Park in Pittsburgh saw boisterous sold-out crowds who had been starving for success on the baseball field for so long that they were deliriously happy to support their Buccos, but unfortunately the last of those sell-outs went to waste when the Pirates ran into a buzz saw named Michael Wacha, a rookie pitcher who threw a 1 hitter and pushed the series to a deciding 5th game in St. Louis. I knew then that the season was over. That Game 4 was the golden opportunity to move on and it didn’t happen. There was no way that the Cardinals were going to lose an elimination game at home with ace Adam Wainwright on the mound. Zero chance.

Pittsburgh-Pirates-ballpa-001So now the Pirates’ season is over and the question is…can it be defined as being successful?? There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball and only 1 of them is left standing holding the World Series trophy, so by definition 29 teams fall short of the goal. However, for many there are various levels of success. For the Pirates ending two decades of futility and playing post-season baseball for the first time since I was in college and Bill Clinton was in The White House should certainly qualify as a huge step in the right direction. The years of completely rebuilding over & over again look like they are done. A solid foundation is in place and now it is just a matter of doing some tweaking. I am reading a lot of things in the news and on social media about the Pirates great season and I cannot argue the point. But at the same time I do not think that they are yet on the level of really good teams like the Cardinals, Braves, Red Sox, Yankees, & Dodgers. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Pittsburgh Pirates get over the hump and win their division in 2014…but I’d be equally as unsurprised if they win 82 games and finish in 4th place, which a year ago would have been acceptable but a year from now just won’t be satisfactory. Now is the time for the front office, the players, the coaches, and the fans to decide…is this good enough?? Is it okay to have a winning record & secure a wild card but have no realistic opportunity to genuinely compete with the truly elite teams?? I mean sure, it beats finishing in the cellar, being the butt of jokes, and the season essentially being over by the All-Star break. But I guess I am a bit greedy. I want more. I sincerely believe this team can achieve more.

I think the Pirates can do better than having 36 year old AJ Burnett, with a 10-11 record and a 3.3 ERA, as the ace of their pitching staff. Gerritt Cole needs to seize that role and become the Pittsburgh equivalent of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, or Clayton Kershaw. I give the suits credit for pulling the trigger on trades that brought first baseman Justin Morneau and outfielder Marlon Byrd to Pittsburgh, but both are band-aids at best. Byrd has reached the end of a 1 year contract but I wouldn’t mind seeing him stick around another season as an extra bat. Morneau, on the other hand, seems far removed from the skill & talent he had when named the American League MVP in 2006 and I am not sure he is worth the price tag or a roster spot. I think the Pirates can do better than oft-injured 34 year old pitcher Wandy Rodriguez. I think the Pirates can do better than Jose Tabata’s .282 batting average & 6 home runs. I think they can do better than players like shortstop Clint Barmes and pitcher Charlie Morton. If my information is correct then Burnett, Morneau, & Rodriguez are the highest paid players on the team and all are expendable. That isn’t a bad thing.

mccThere is a solid nucleus in place for a good long run: outfielders Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Andrew Lambo, & gcGarret Jones, infielders Neil Walker, Gaby Sanchez, & Pedro Alvarez, catchers Russell Martin (the best free agent the Pirates have signed in many years) & Tony Sanchez, and pitchers Cole, Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon, & Jason Grilli. Jettisoning those three highest paid players that I mentioned would free up over $43 million, part of which I would use to sign a big time third baseman. Alvarez can hit the snot out of the ball but is a defensive liability so a move to first base might not be a bad idea. The jury is still out on 26 year old shortstop Jordy Mercer. He had his moments in 2013, hitting .285 with 8 home runs, but if the opportunity to upgrade presented itself I’d go for it. And of course another arm…or two…or three…would be helpful. 21 year old right hander Jameson Taillon is expected to be a stud and would be a welcome addition to the rotation in 2014.

clintAt the end of the day I realize that I am in the minority. I am glad that the losing streak is over and my favorite team is headed in a positive pedrodirection. I am happy for the players and the fans that there was playoff baseball in Pittsburgh this October. I really like Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. I realize there is good reason for much optimism. But part of me is holding back and there are two reasons. First, two decades of futility have beaten me up to the point that I need to see another year of this success to wrap my head around its validity. As mentioned, in my mind it is just as likely that the Pirates take a step backward as it is they improve in 2014. And secondly, I cannot get that September 23rd champagne celebration out of my head. I cannot overstate how much that bothered me. Is this a team that is satisfied with a wild card?? Do we really want to have to roll the dice on a one game all-or-nothing scenario again?? Or will this team add some pieces and develop the championship mentality of the best teams in sports wherein nothing but being in The World Series will do?? We’ll see.

A Few Book Recommendations for Baseball Fans

Sometimes I surprise myself by the predilections that I develop seemingly out of the mist. I have always fancied myself somewhat of a renaissance man who is interested in a wide range of subjects, which I generally consider a positive though I have noticed over the years that truly successful people seem to have tunnel vision and a laser focus on their vocation of choice. At any rate, this “variety is the spice of life” attitude spreads to the bookshelves in The Bachelor Palace as well, where one can find biographies of Founding Fathers alongside the Harry Potter series, books about agricultural science & history on the same shelf as Hemingway, and Shakespeare sharing space with The Hunger Games.

 

bballAt any rate I have…somewhat to my bewilderment…amassed quite a collection of baseball biographies. This is surprising to me because my feelings about baseball have been tepid at best for quite awhile, although as simple as it sounds and as trivial as it may seem to some I think the success thus far of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates has me on the verge of falling in deep like with our national pastime once again. However, I also think it wise to look a bit deeper because you see my bookshelves are not filled with recent biographies about contemporary players like Derek Jeter, Mike Piazza, John Smoltz, or RA Dickey. Cheating scandals & rampant drug use still cause me to be a bit jaded about the modern game of baseball. Instead what you’ll find lining the walls of The Bachelor Palace are tomes about hallowed names of yesteryear…Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Mantle, Maris, Musial.

If I could hope in the ol’ DeLorean and go back in time I think one of the places I might like to visit would be the world of baseball during its golden age. I’d like to catch some games at places like Ebbets Field or The Polo Grounds, see teams like The Gashouse Gang & The Whiz Kids, and watch Hall of Famers like Dizzy Dean, Pie Traynor, & Pee Wee Reese. Why?? That’s an excellent question that I may address more in depth at some other time. For now it will suffice to say that our collective bromance with this bygone era and the quintessential American game that helped define it seems eternal and that’s okay with me.

Which is all a longwinded precursor to me endorsing three excellent baseball biographies that I have read in years past and that are likely to be enjoyed by any baseball fan. There will be sequels on this particular topic, but I think it best to just whet your appetite right now with a few recommendations:

 

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero

Unfortunately one of the most beloved Pittsburgh Pirates of all time died in a tragic plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972 when I was just 2 months old. However, growing up as a Pirates fan and living just a couple of hours from Pittsburgh means that I have heard a lot about Roberto Clemente my entire life. The Pirates organization has done an excellent job of keeping his memory alive over the past 40 years and recognizing what a truly special talent he was. However, one need not be a Pirates fan to enjoy this first-rate biography about Clemente written by David rcMaraniss, whose biography about Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi called When Pride Still Mattered is still one of the best books of any genre I have ever read. That combined with my admiration for what I’d always heard about Clemente were what prompted me to purchase this book about 5 years ago. This is a well written & engrossing story that is reverent & respectful yet honest about its subject. Clemente was somewhat neurotic & sensitive and felt the weight of being a black latino superstar. He was often treated shabbily by the press but could give as good as he got. In other words Clemente was a flawed human being just like the rest of us. That being said, his nobility & kindness shines through as well. And the author doesn’t shortchange the baseball aspect of things. I sometimes feel as though Roberto Clemente is overlooked in discussions about the greats of the game, with only long time Pirates fans willing to reserve for him his proper place among the baseball immortals. The fact is that not only should Clemente rank right up there with the best that ever played game, but he could have been even better if not for various physical ailments that plagued him throughout life. This is a book that should be read not only by anyone who calls themselves a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, but also by everyone who loves the game of baseball.

 

Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig

When I was in college I had the opportunity to take a class about sports movies. Yes that really is a thing…and it was gehrigawesome. We watched Knute Rocke: All American (with future President Ronald Reagan as The Gipper), The Natural, and Rocky…among others. But I think my favorite may have been Pride of the Yankees starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig. Most people know two things about Gehrig. They know that he was baseball’s “Iron Man”, having played in 2130 consecutive games between 1925 & 1939 (a record that stood for 56 years until Cal Ripken Jr. broke it in 1995), and they know that he died at age 37 from the debilitating muscle disease that now bears his name. But there is so much more to Gehrig and this book tells the story well. Many who have seen Pride of the Yankees may attribute the perception we have of Gehrig as a soft spoken, humble, down-to-earth guy to Gary Cooper’s wide-eyed, aw shucks, boy-next-door portrayal, but what the reader of Luckiest Man begins to understand is that Cooper’s portrayal was an extremely accurate representation of who Gehrig truly was. That’s not to say that Gehrig was perfect. He was a timid momma’s boy that didn’t mesh all that well with outgoing & gregarious teammate Babe Ruth and was caught in the middle of a lifelong tug-of-war between his mother and his wife that many more…forceful…men might have put the kibosh on pretty quick. But hey…we all have our issues, right?? The best endorsement I can give this book is that I am a lifelong hater of everything NY Yankees and because of the movie and this book I actually respect Lou Gehrig. You will too.

 

Joe DiMaggio : The Hero’s Life

dimaggio08_1_41Another Yankee?? Hmmm…maybe it’s just the modern day Yankees that I hate. If I had been around 60 years ago I might actually be a Yankee fan. Anyway, I remember when this biography came out about 13 years ago it was pretty controversial. Joltin’ Joe had always been a national treasure…a hero to Italian Americans, the apple of every girl’s eye, and the envy of every red-blooded male because of his graceful athletic skill and later his marriage to goddess Marilyn Monroe. Even in retirement he became the folksy pitchman for Mr. Coffee in the 1970’s & 80’s. But author Richard Ben Cramer lays waste to the DiMaggio mythos and exposes our hero as being yet another very flawed individual (I’m sensing a theme). The DiMaggio we read about here is an often petty, usually vain, sometimes bitter, frequently materialistic, largely unhappy man with an overinflated ego and a suspicious nature that had a negative impact on most of his personal relationships. The Hero’s Life is a stark reminder that just because someone can run fast, hit hard, or handle a ball with deft skill doesn’t mean they are a nice person. I suppose with guys like Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, Kobe Bryant, & Alex Rodriguez around we are all well aware of that fact, but it is interesting to realize that such phonies have been around for many many decades and fascinating to compare & contrast how joe-dimaggiotechnology doesn’t allow such individuals to hide their hypocrisy too well these days, whereas in DiMaggio’s time he & a complicit media were quite successful in creating a graceful, classy, refined image. Some may think Cramer’s book to be harsh or even malicious, but I generally found it to be insightful & fair. It is most definitely a page turner and a must read for every baseball fan.

Just Another Losing Season…or Not

Oops…they did it again. They played with my heart. They lost a lot of games. But hey, I should have known better so I’m not completely innocent.

 

One year ago today I wrote here in this space that there was reason for optimism but that I had very little faith that the front office of the Pittsburgh Pirates is capable of putting together a winning team. I begged them to prove me wrong. They didn’t.

 

Oh sure they had a lot of folks fooled for awhile…even me. On August 8, 2012 the Pirates were 16 games over .500 and in the thick of the hunt for an NL wild card. It looked like the worst case scenario was a 3rd place division finish, narrowly losing out on a playoff berth, and finishing with a winning record for the first time since the Bush 41 administration. I think most fans could have lived with that. I wrote back in the middle of July that “I just hope they don’t fold like a cheap suit like they did in 2011”, but also apprehensively noted that the general consensus seemed to be that that would not happen. The general consensus was wrong. I began to get a bad feeling in the middle of August when the Pirates dropped 2 out of 3 to the San Diego Padres, a team even worse than the Buccos, at PNC Park. Then they lost 3 out of 4 to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Less than a week later they were swept by the Padres in San Diego. That’s when I knew it was over. Winners don’t lose games they are supposed to win. That is how quickly it all fell apart…within two weeks. I thought the past 19 years had been painful, but now I am not sure which is worse…knowing for sure that a team is horrible and has no chance to be competitive, or believing there is a chance for some small sliver of success only to see it inexplicably implode.

 

So now even the “worst case scenario” isn’t happening. The Pirates will finish 2012 with a losing record for the 20th straight season. They will finish in 4th place in their division. There are individual bright spots. Outfielder Andrew McCutchen is a star who is going to narrowly lose the National League batting title. The long awaited debut season of young OF Starling Marte has given fans reason for optimism. Pitchers Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole are still in the minors, but I would not be shocked to see them both on the big club sometime in 2013. However, at this point it is difficult to get excited about anything when it comes to the Pirates. There seems to be something systemically wrong. I used to blame owner Kevin McClatchy, but new owner (since 2007) Bob Nutting has been only marginally more successful. I used to blame managers, of which there have been several in the past two decades (Jim Leyland, Gene Lamont, Lloyd McClendon, Jim Tracy, John Russell, and now Clint Hurdle). But Leyland (who did lead the Pirates to three straight NLCS before Barry Bonds left Pittsburgh and all this futility began) has gone on to be quite successful with the Detroit Tigers (where McClendon and Lamont are on his staff), even leading them to one World Series. He also led the Florida Marlins to the World Series championship in 1997. Jim Tracy now manages the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies are about as good as the Pirates these days, but back in 2009 in Tracy’s first year they were good enough to get him named NL Manager of the Year. The evidence seems to support the idea that it doesn’t matter how good a manager is…he cannot be successful in Pittsburgh. One cannot help but wonder which lucky team will win a World Series with Clint Hurdle at the helm after his inevitable departure from the Pirates.

 

I don’t buy the “small market” excuse either. The Pirates have always been one of the least wealthy teams in MLB, yet they still won World Series in 1909, 1925, 1960, 1971, and 1979. They have won multiple division crowns and league pennants. Other small market teams like Oakland, Tampa Bay, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Seattle have all been more competitive than  Pittsburgh the past two decades.

 

The question then is…if it isn’t ownership, management, or the economics of baseball, then what the hell is the problem?? Why haven’t the Pittsburgh Pirates been able to put together atleast a couple of successful, winning seasons in the past 20 years?? Dear Lord…even a broken clock is right twice a day for Pete’s sake!!

 

Quite honestly I don’t know the answer, and I am not inclined to waste time & energy trying to figure it out. One of the saddest things I see on TV is the sight of post-game analysts Kent Tekulve (who was one heck of a closer in his day) & Paul Alexander, not to mention game announcers Tim Neverett, Bob Walk, Greg Brown, John Wehner, & Steve Blass, trying to resolutely stay professional & upbeat while continuously having to explain away the latest loss and point out anything remotely positive. Holy cow that job has to totally suck. I mean really…how does one come up with the words to put an optimistic spin on a loss 82+ TIMES?? One of these days when someone asks a goofy question on the Ask Teke segment of the post-game show I half expect Tekulve to go postal, throwing down his microphone and screaming “What the hell do you want me to say?? There’s nothing more I can say!! They suck!! This is not a major league team!!”. That would be the most entertaining thing I’ve seen on a Pirates broadcast since 1992, which of course means it’ll never happen.

 

Unfortunately the Pirates have the nicest baseball stadium in the country and fans keep flocking to it, meaning the owners are making a profit each year despite losing a ton of games. As long as that is the case I doubt very seriously any kind of significant money will be spent for any major upgrades. That means, fellow Pirates fans, that what you see is what you are going to get for the foreseeable future. The only hope we have is that the young players they have drafted develop into legitimate stars. Can a team with McCutchen, Marte, Taillon, & Cole and a bunch of role players right the ship?? I’m not holding my breath. I think they need atleast two more position players who can hit and one additional pitcher, and the powers-that-be have demonstrated an inability to make good trades and an unwillingness to sign anything other than subpar bench warmers in free agency. A pattern is beginning to develop. The PR machine will try to get the fanbase excited in the spring (“This is our year!!”). The team will show signs of life clear thru July and maybe into August. And then the inevitable implosion will happen, complete with lame excuses like “So & so got inured” or “The pitchers arms got tired”. Lather, rinse, repeat. I hate to say this ladies & gentlemen, but after 20 years we might only be halfway thru this losing streak. I hope I am wrong, but I honestly don’t think I am. I’ll say what I said one year ago to the Pirates brass…prove me wrong. I don’t think you can.