Good evening, good night, good morning, whatever. It is September 4th, 2013. The Pittsburgh Pirates are 81-57.
The last countdown ran its course, so let's do things this way: 70 wins, 71 wins, 72 wins, 73 wins, 74 wins, 75 wins, 76 wins, 77 wins, 78 wins, 79 wins, 80 wins.
I'm not even sure where to begin. My plan for these last two posts has been to give "81 wins" the historical context and "82 wins" the personal context. Maybe that's not going to work. I'm going to do my best.
Starting in 2011, which was the first year in the PNC Park era that the Pirates legitimately contended beyond the end of May and threatened to break .500 well into the summer, this question has existed: Is a .500 season something worth celebrating? Is an 82 or 83 or 84 win season really an achievment if it doesn't result in a playoff berth? My personal view has always been this: a .500 season or 82 wins should never be a baseball team's ultimate goal. The true crime of the Dave Littlefield era was that the organization as a whole lost sight of this and put snapping the losing streak ahead of everything else, to disastrous results. Celebrating 81 or 82 wins last September wouldn't have lessened the blow of the collapse; it would've made me feel terrible about celebrating one of the worst ends to any season that anyone could've dreamed up.
I've always thought of these two landmarks in particular as exactly that; something that you drive past on the highway on your way to something else. Not a destination; a waypoint to be acknowledged and moved beyond. If the 1997 Pirates had won 82 games instead of 79, would any of what happened in the following years or what's happened this summer be substantially different? Maybe it all would've, but it's hard to say from here.
What I know is this: the idea that 81 and 82 shouldn't exist as goals is always a concept that I've applied to the team. This is a milestone that's always been one marked by the fans. The more that people insist that it shouldn't be celebrated, the more I find myself asking why it shouldn't be. The players aren't popping champagne on the field. The Pirate organization has made it clear since 2008 what their ultimate goals are and no one is breaking stride with that today or tomorrow or whenever win 82 comes, and that's how it's supposed to be. But the fans? How can the fans not spend a night or two marking the passing of this occasion? How can we think back on all of the things that have happened since that October night in 1992 and not note that maybe now, in 2013, we can put all of that behind us.
What's great about this 2013 season is that it's clear that this is just the pre-party. This Pirate team is the favorite to win the NL Central, because that's what you are when you're in first place after 138 games. This team isn't falling apart like other Pirate teams. It's going to play one playoff game, and it's probably going to play at least one playoff series, and who knows what else they're going to do? We're not celebrating 81 tonight or 82 tomorrow as an endpoint; we're celebrating them as a necessary exorcism before we can get on to the real business of celebrating playoff berths, then living out the tense reality of playoff baseball that's been missing from all of our lives for such a long time.
It is almost impossible to give context to the Pirates' losing streak without feeling like you're dipping into parody. Since 1992, the Marlins, Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Rays have all come into existence and won pennants. The Marlins were created, won a World Series, tore that team apart and rebuilt from the ground up, won another World Series, and tore that team apart, and that was all by 2006. The Rays went from being the worst franchise maybe in baseball history to being consistently one of the best.
Perhaps that's the most difficult thing about all of this for Pirate fans: while all of baseball swirls and changes around us, the Pirates have always been the same. Other franchises go up and down, and while it never happens at the same rate for any team, for a long time it seemed like it was happening to everyone except for the Pirates. Life is all about change; change is what we remember, it's what we celebrate, it's what we mourn. Change is how we mark the passage of time, and for so many years that applied to everything in life except for the Pittsburgh Pirates. No matter what, the Pirates were always the same. Al Martin became Brian Giles became Jason Bay. Jon Lieber became Jason Schmidt became Kip Wells became Ian Snell. The Pirates wore pinstripes or they didn't. They had sleeves or they didn't. They had grey caps or red-billed caps or maybe uniforms that looked like they belonged on a McDonald's worker, or maybe they didn't. None of it mattered, because the Pirates were always the same.
For the first time in a long time, the Pirates aren't the same. Everything in life changes, even the Pittsburgh Pirates. Isn't that wonderful?