It was just over a year ago when I was coaxed by one of my best friends to fork over a couple hundred dollars and purchase season tickets for the remaining two months of Pittsburgh Pirate games. At the time, it seemed like a good investment. The team was 10-plus games over .500 and had a favorable position in the NL Wild Card race. My buddy and I wanted to guarantee we’d be able to buy playoff tickets. But as everyone knows, the Pirates imploded. A team that was 63-47 on August 8 spectacularly collapsed, winning just 16 of its last 52 games. Despite having tickets to every game in September, I did not attend PNC Park at all that month.
So when it came time to renew my season ticket package in early 2013, I wanted no part. I dodged phone calls from any number that began with 412-325. This team had way too many question marks. Would A.J. Burnett regress from his 2012 form? How would Jason Grilli handle the closer role (even though I tend to believe the closer role to be overrated)? Hell, Jonathan Sanchez made the starting rotation. There wasn’t much belief that this team would be anything more than a 75 to 78-win team. Four months later, and the Pirates have captivated Pittsburgh. The Pirates are tied for the most wins in baseball and lead their division by four games. Various websites list their odds to make playoffs as 99 percent.
For the long-suffering Pirates fans, it’s nearly impossible to grasp the reality that not only will the Pirates break their 21-year-old streak of losing seasons, but that this Pirates team is, by winning percentage, the best team in baseball. We knew the Pirates would likely become contenders at some point this decade. One would think 21 consecutive years of losing seasons would produce talent from the resulting high draft picks, but when you give a pea-brained moron like former GM Dave Littlefield six years at the helm, you end up with nothing more some 100-loss teams and an empty PNC Park. It wasn’t until Littlefield was fired and replaced by Neal Huntington in 2007 that the franchise’s fortunes turned around. Sure, Huntington presided over five losing seasons, but under his leadership the Pirates have been drafting players like Pedro Alvarez, Gerrit Cole and Justin Wilson instead of Pacific Rim all-stars Danny Moskos, Bryan Bullington and Clint Johnston.
You could have made a case for Huntington to be fired after last season’s collapse. But he took a gamble this offseason on several players who have become key contributors. The demand for Francisco Liriano was so little that Liriano signed a contract that guarantees him just $1 million this season (to be fair, this came after it was discovered Liriano broke his non-throwing arm). Vin Mazzaro was acquired in a minor-league trade and then designated for assignment during spring training. Jeanmar Gomez was a head-scratching acquisition at the time. Now, Mazzaro and Gomez have provided front-end stability to the bullpen with an ability to eat innings. Mark Melancon spent much of last season in AAA but now sports a sub-1.00 ERA.
None of those moves were considered high-profile transactions. What they have done though is contribute to a team that has revived baseball in Pittsburgh. And after spending money to see such greats as Chris Stynes, Bobby Hill, Daryle Ward, Tony Armas, Mike Williams, Jose Castillo, John VanBenschoten and Tike Redman, winning baseball is way better than I thought. Oh, and I regret not renewing my tickets.
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