A Lifetime of Losing: My Life as a Pirates Fan
A hole. This is the word I would use to describe the month of July during the first 20 years of my life. This was the month, right after basketball season ended and tantalizingly close to the opening of football season, that I would turn off ESPN, put down the sports section, and take a hiatus from sports. Needless to say, it was a tough month.
These days, though, July has been fantastic. I never want it to end. Why, one might ask. My answer: the Pirates. For the first time in 2 decades, there is reason to believe in success. Not three years down the road, but right now. The Bucs currently hold the second best record in the majors while boasting the number 1 pitching staff anchored by a bullpen that has been so dominant as to earn the nickname "Shark Tank."
Of course, my Bucs have given me this show before. Fast starts have fizzled into losing finishes, squashing the hopes of fans desperate for something to cheer about. But this year is not like those years. This year is different. I finally believe in this team.
Believing in a team like this is a tough thing to do. We're talking about a team, after all, that once employed a grown man named Pokey. A team that once had a first baseman whose biggest hit as a Pirate was on a man dressed as an Italian sausage. A team that has traded stars, blown draft picks, and spent money on over the hill has-beens. How did it get this bad, some might ask. How did it become so hard to believe?
The Giles Era
I began following the Pirates in 2001. My dad told me they weren't very good and they accordingly finished a miserable 62-100. Still, I was 8 and not yet accustomed to sustained futility, so i shrugged it off and looked forward to the next season.
The way I see it, the Pirates' losing streak can be divided into eras based on who their best player was at the time, and the period from 1999 to 2003 was the time of Brian Giles, the team's star outfielder and offensive anchor who quickly became my favorite player in all of baseball. He was an awesome combination of power and average and even possessed a little speed (109 career steals).
Other bright spots on those Pirate teams included power hitting 3B Aramis Ramirez (347 career HR's), veteran catcher Jason Kendall (.288 career average), and closer Mike Williams (144 career saves). Also, for reasons I can't explain to this day, I became a devoted fan of pitcher Kip Wells, whose career with the Pirates was largely a washout (though I did get to see him smack a homerun live in his last year with the team).
The day the Pirates traded Giles was one of the saddest days in my short time as a Pirates fan. The deal was part of a summer in which the Pirates also parted ways with Ramirez, Williams, and centerfielder Kenny Lofton, followed by Kendall a year later. I was upset about losing Giles to the Padres and seeing the team stripped of its best players (the first of 2 such strip-downs). What I didn't realize was that the deal would bring us Giles's replacement, the centerpiece of the next era.
Numbers of the Giles Era ('99-'03)
Average Division Finish
# of All-Stars
4: Ed Sprague, Jason Kendall, Brian Giles (twice), Mike Williams (twice)
The Bay Years
The 2004 season introduced Pirate fans to a new superstar. Outfielder Jason Bay, acquired in the Giles trade along with pitcher Oliver Perez, quickly stepped up to replace some of the offense we had lost the previous season and gave us a promising young player to build around.
Unfortunately, the Pirates were never able to put together the pitching to complement a decent young offense, and they never finished with more than 70 wins in any of Bay's four seasons. There were some highlights along the way: Freddy Sanchez's batting title in 2006, the emergence of centerfielder Nate McLouth, and continued dominance at the closer position courtesy of Matt Capps and Mike Gonzalez.
Still, the team's struggles were plentiful and served to make this the toughest period of time to get through. The team was full of past-their-prime veterans and young players who weren't quite ready, which made for a disappointing combination.
The biggest acquisition during this era was one that wasn't seen on the field, but that would prove key to turning the team around. This was the hiring of Neal Huntington as general manager in 2007. Huntington planned to give the team a complete makeover and immediately began stripping down the team. He fired manager Jim Tracy shortly after being hired, and over the next two years he traded Bay, outfielder Xavier Nady, reliever Damaso Marte, McLouth, Sanchez, shortstop Jack Wilson, and first baseman Adam Laroche.
The moves left the Pirates devoid of stars, stocked with prospects, and facing a difficult rebuilding project. Though things were about to get really bad, fans could at least place some hope in the future under Huntington.
Numbers of the Bay Era ('04-08)
Average Division Finish
# of All Stars
4: Jack Wilson, Jason Bay (twice), Freddy Sanchez (twice), Nate McLouth
Pirates 2010 Opening Day Lineup
2010: Rock Bottom
I've used every tired cliche in the book to describe the 2010 season. Every sad excuse rebuilding teams use to justify a lost season. But looking back, I have to admit: that team was just plain awful. The young players weren't ready, the starting pitching was weak, and there were busted prospects everywhere (Lastings Milledge, Jeff Clement, and Andy Laroche come to mind).
All this added up to a 57-105 finish, the worst record in the majors. There were some good moments: Andrew McCutchen established himself as the star of the next Pirates' era, and Huntington's first draft pick, Pedro Alvarez, made his debut.
Still, my fellow Pirate fans and I found ourselves looking at a team that was going nowhere fast. We could only dream of success in some far off season 3 or 4 years away. Or so we thought...
The McCutchen Era: The Rise Begins
After 2010, my expectations were at an all-time low for the 2011 season. So I was as shocked as anyone to find my team sitting atop the NL Central at the All-Star Break for the first time in my life. A number of the prospects acquired by Huntington were beginning to mature fast, and their impact was showing. Just as I had been about to give up on my team, I came racing back, enticed by the faintest glimmer of success.
I can't say I was surprised when they tailed off in the second half of the season, nor was I when they did the same after an equally strong start in 2012. Being a Pirates fan makes you skeptical like that.
2013 brought on the fastest start yet, with the Pirates posting their best first-half record since '92. And as I mentioned, even with 2 straight heartbreaking collapses looking me in the face, I've bought in to this team. This one feels different: I see a team coming up big in situations where they never have and pitching at championship levels. A team that won't let history write the ending to this season, and a fan base that has gotten fully behind them.
People over the years have asked me how I've been able to stay devoted to a team that has never in my life given me a reason to. I answer by pointing to the team out there on the field today, working together, growing together, and winning together. And that's the reason. Because through all those lean years, it was all leading up to this. Finally, there is reason to believe in a better present. The Pirates have risen.