This is probably a sad indictment of my existence as a Pirate fan, but when every year starts my general hopes for the Pirates can be boiled down thusly: I hope that they're not too embarrassingly terrible and I hope that whatever happens over the course of the next 365 days gets them closer to a future in which I can have Pirate-related-hopes that aren't so depressing. Usually the Pirates fall short even on that front and they do it in predictable fashion. 2011, though, was a lot different.
As usually happens, though, I managed to talk myself into the 2011 edition of the Pirates, at least a little, by the time spring training had ended. When I did my usual round of season previews along with radio and podcast interviews about the team, my position had evolved into something like, "Well, the Pirates are going to be pretty bad this year and there's no chance they're going to win much of anything, but at least they're very young and built around a core group of players that might eventually help the Pirates win something down the road. Even if they don't win a lot of games, they could be making progress towards a Pirate team that does win a lot of games with big seasons by McCutchen and Tabata and Walker and Alvarez." That, at least, seemed more interesting to me than the 105-loss nightmare team from 2010.
When the season finally started the Pirates spent a bit of time treading water. Walker and Tabata got off to hot starts, Alvarez struggled, McCutchen kind of lurked in the background with better numbers than people realized. I got ready for a year of Pirate Limbo, arguing over what the young player performances meant, trying to read the tea leaves to see if this 70-75 win team could really mean something better down the road. That's really where the season ended up, but it took a strange detour on the way.
In June, the Pirates started winning games. It wasn't pretty and it didn't seem sustainable, but they were winning. How do you tell a group of fans that haven't seen a winning team in 19 years not to enjoy the best run their favorite baseball team has seen in years? How do you fail to enjoy that yourself? It was strange to watch, not only because it didn't end. The Pirates ended June 41-39 and within striking distance of first place in the NL Central. I saw them beat the Astros on the Fourth of July at laughed at the post-game radio chatter that they might be in first place at the All-Star break. In reality, they didn't surge into a tie for first until the day after the break, then they spent two straight days alone at the top of the NL Central on July 18th and 19th.
The whole run to the top of the division was surreal. Tabata and Alvarez spent much of the time injured, Walker's play fell off a bit as the season wore on, the off-season acquisitions of Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz were miserably bad and by summer, Kevin Correia had joined them. The main reasons for the team's success were that Andrew McCutchen was having an MVP-level first half and that the pitching staff was putting up an impressive ERA despite an inability to strike anyone at all out. I was expecting the other shoe to fall eventually, but when it did it happened in an even more surreal fashion than the run to the top.
On Monday, July 25th, the Pirates were tied for first place with the Cardinals and Brewers. The afternoon before, they rallied to beat the Cardinals 4-3 in 10 innings in front of 35,000+ Pirate fans at PNC Park. It wasn't just Pirate fans noticing, either. That night, the Pirates played on ESPN for the first time that anyone could remember and it seemed to me that the Pirates had become the unofficial second favorite team of most baseball fans. I was trying to keep an even keel, but I was excited to see them on ESPN.
Of course, the game started with a rain delay, which annoyed me because I had a give my department's weekly seminar at 11 AM on Tuesday morning. It finally started, though, and when it did, the Pirates earned their rare national spotlight. James McDonald struck out nine Braves in 5 1/3 innings, a bevy of relievers held the Braves' bats in check for the final 3 2/3 innings, and the Pirates won 3-1. Most of the talk on the broadcast centered on how impressed the national broadcasters were with the Pirates and how they felt this young Pirate team was "for real."
The game didn't end until after 11 PM, by my recollection, and after I stayed up later rehearsing my talk, I was worn out the next day. I'm usually a night owl, but when I headed home from lab that night I distinctly remember thinking to myself that I wanted to get home, watch the Pirates, write a recap of whatever happenened, and then pretty much go straight to bed because I was so tired. That wasn't going to happen. Instead, the Pirates and Braves played a 19 inning marathon that took nearly seven hours and ended when home plate umpire Jerry Meals made an awfully questionable call at home plate. I still don't really want to talk about it much beyond that.
After that, things fell apart quickly. The Pirates lost in 10 innings the next night, stole a win on their way out of Atlanta (July 27th, if you're counting at home) and then didn't win again until August 8th. As insane as it is to type this, the Pirates were tied for first place after the 19-inning game and ten games out before they collected their second win after the late-inning debacle. The losing didn't stop there. They lost four of their next five, bounced back for two wins against the Cardinals (it seemed like a knockout blow at the time), then lost four out of five again. They had another five game losing streak. They had another four game losing streak. They ended the season 72-90 and 43 of those losses came after July 25th. It was insane and crazy and just plain sad to see what had been a feel-good season turn into a nightmare. After 18 straight losing seasons, the Pirates found a new way to rack up number 19. It took a lot out of me, it took a lot out of every Pirate fan.
Now it's December 30th, more than three months after the crazy roller coaster of a season ended, and I'm still not sure what to make of 2011. The Pirates have a lot of talent in the minor leagues right now and I think when people start ranking minor league systems, they're going to score pretty highly. A lot of that talent is a ways away from the Majors, though, which is going to make it hard for one "wave" of talent to swell into a second. For all of its inspiration, last year's surprising success didn't have much to do with the Pirates' young players. The Pirates' young players are still young and not beyond hope, though. The front office is taking a different approach to bolster the roster for 2012. A good year from Pedro Alvarez and some success from the arms the Pirates have stockpiled in the lower minors could make things look very differently in 366 days.
How will we remember 2011, though? Will it be the first sign of life from a long-dormant franchise? A season that we all look back on and say, "Things were tough, but when the Pirates put things together in the first half of 2011, I knew the team was finally going in the right direction." Or will it be nothing but a blip on the screen, a season that's remembered as somehow even more painful than the 105-loss season that preceded it because of the way that it created even more promises that went unfulfilled.
There's no way to answer that question right now, of course, so maybe what we should take from this weird year of Pirate baseball is this: Being a Pirate fan can be an exercise in numbness. Set your expectations low, watch the team underachieve, and move on to set your expectations even lower. In most years, being a Pirate fan doesn't require much but it doesn't reward much, either. This year, though, was different. Seeing the Pirates in first place was a rush, even if you were like me and didn't expect it to last. And because it was a rush, it was awful to see them fall apart and turn back into the same old Pirates in August and September. I don't know how 2011 will be remembered in the longer narrative of the Huntington/Coonelly era or the Pirate franchise, but for now, at least, I know it was the year that reminded me how to be a living, breathing baseball fan again. Hopefully, the future will hold more of that, whatever else it brings us.