Monday, December 04, 2006

Pittsburgh Pirates Retrospective: Part I

This is shaping up to be the bleakest offseason that I can remember.

Never since I started seriously following the Pirates has the team been so close to fielding a consistently competitive team. I firmly believe that the team is just a year of positive development out of a stable of under-25 starting pitchers and the addition of two legitimate bats to the lineup away from reaching that goal.

The first one is fortunately capable of happening intrinsically. If Jim Colborn doesn't mess with people unecessarily, there's no reason we shouldn't see significant progress out of all, or at least most of Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, and Tom Gorzelanny.

However, the second item is simply not going to happen, from the looks of things. Every Pirates supporter is mired in a post-LaRochegate funk, and for good reason. In the film "Dazed and Confused," the character Mike is tired of being pushed around and being "an ineffectual little nothing." He attempts to fight one of his antagonizers in an attempt to change the way he's viewed, but the plan backfires and he gets his ass kicked. No matter what he does, he can't escape from who he is.

Dave Littlefield is "Mike." Since assuming the role of general manager from Cam Bonifay five and a half years ago, he's been made a fool of, garnered a reputation of being difficult to deal with, and generally is regarded as a joke, as is the franchise he's responsible for running. This week, he's finally presented with what seems to be a genuine opportunity to at least partially redeem himself for everything he's done wrong. In the end, though, he's just been strung along and he gets made a fool of all over again. There's no way out. No way out for him, or for the team

So why do I keep doing this to myself? What kind of sick masochism forces me to keep pouring my effort and emotion into a team that might never be good again?

There are two factors that keep me coming back year after 90-loss year. The first is loyalty, pure and simple. I can't not root for the home team. That's the way I was raised, and it would take something absolutely abominable, i.e. the team moving, for me to stop being a Pirates fan. But home-town loyalty is something that I preach too much about as it is, so I'll focus on the other reason I'm still here.

In the seven years since I started regularly going to Pirates games, I've seen some downright incredible things happen. I've witnessed the impossible comeback, the unthinkable upset, and just some extremely satisfying triumphs over evil. True, there has been a ton of negativity dumped on the Pirates over the last fifteen years, and quite deservedly so. But I want to take a brief respite from that to accentuate the positive things the Pirates have given me.

Since 1997, It's safe to say that I've attended about 240 games, which is an average of 24 a year. I peaked in 2004, with 38, then still hit over 30 in 2005 despite missing an entire month of the season due to going to school in Boston. This season, I still managed to make it to exactly 25 games despite missing both April and September. Thus, I've been to more games than I could possibly keep track of, which is why I have a library of scorebooks from almost every game I've been to in the past decade, neatly catalogued in the bottom drawer of my dresser at home.

However, some of the games have provided such remarkable occurrences that I don't even need to look them up in my scorebooks. These games were so memorable that I can clearly visualize in my head a moment or multiple defining moments of each game. I can remember the score, the opposing team, and even the approximate date for each of them. With the help of Baseball Reference and Retrosheet, I'm able to fully recreate these games that have stood out in my mind for all these years.

Armed with this information, I am hereby paying tribute to the positive things I have been able to take away from the ten years I've watched the Pirates in person regularly. I will do so through a sort of retrospective, chronicling the very moments that defined each game that I have chosen.

Why exactly do these particular games remain lodged in my memory banks? A lot of it has to do with my general philosophy of what I enjoy in baseball games:
  • Losing is no fun. Ever. I can not and will not ever take satisfaction from a game the Pirates have lost no matter what individual accomplishments have been achieved or how exciting the game was. Those things are slight consolation, but nothing more.
  • Tight games are a must. I won't say I don't enjoy a good old-fashioned beatdown if my team is on the giving end, but those games tend not to stick out in my mind.
  • I am a fan of pitching duels. Slugfests are perfectly fine, as long as they're close, but in a low-scoring game, I believe there's an added dramatic aspect because if it seems like neither team is going to score, there's a feeling that one play could decide the game, even if it's in the 5th inning. Whereas in an offensive battle, there's always the feeling that plenty more runs are going to come, so a 5th-inning home run seems far less game-breaking.
  • Extra innings are fun. Lots of fun. It's like overtime in college football, each team keeps getting a shot until one team scores and the other doesn't. Plus, if you're the home team, if your team wins there's a one hundred percent certainty it would be of the walk-off variety...
  • ...because absolutely nothing beats a walk-off win.

One more factor that seems to have played a major role in which games I tend to remember is recency. If my list seems loaded towards more recent years, it's because those games are still fresher in my memory, and also because I attended more games in those years and thus had more opportunities to have seen something great. Overall, I think I've been pretty fair in my selections. Every year since 1997 has at least one representative in the presentation with the exception of 2000, which I chalk up to just having been a boring season.

Sure, Brian Giles did some cool shit, but really the most memorable part of that summer for me wasn't even something that happened on the field, it was pitching coach and Hollywood actor Pete Vuckovich calling the KDKA post-game call-in show to defend a decision manager Gene Lamont had made during the game. The host, I think it was Thor Tolo at the time, didn't believe it was actually Vuke and just kept playing irreverent sound bites from "Major League." So the lasting impression the 2000 season left on me was Bob Uecker going "when this guy sneezes he looks like a party favor." Despite that, there have been more than enough candidates from other seasons.

And now, in very rough order from simply memorable to completely unforgettable, are some of my favorite moments ever.

#13 - The Ollie Perez K Club
Thursday, September 9, 2004
Pirates 3, Astros 1

The Houston Astros entered play on this date in a virtual tie with the San Francisco Giants for the National League Wild Card berth as one of the hottest teams in baseball, maybe even on a historic level. Winners of a dozen straight games, they had averaged 9 runs a game during the streak, never scoring less than five and reaching double digits five times. The Astros steamed into town for a five-game series against the 5th-place Pirates, probably expecting the Bucs to roll over and hand them the Wild Card.

The Astros had the misfortune of running into vintage Oliver Perez, back when he could hit both 98 mph and the strike zone, sometimes even with the same pitch. Ollie went out and flat-out violated the Astros, making them look like A-ballers in yielding three hits and one measly unearned run across 8 innings, while keeping the Bucco Brigade member unfortunate enough to have been posted at the Kennametal K Club working overtime to put up 14 K placards. Ollie's masterpiece demoralized the Astros, as they went on to lose three of the five games in the series, including one to ol' White Flag himself, although they still managed to capture the Wild Card. Still, it was a nice stand by a team that had earned the reputation as a perennial doormat for contending teams down the stretch, and I'd even go so far as to characterize it as the most dominant pitching performance I've ever personally witnessed.

#12 - The Forgotten Season: 2003

In racking my brain for memorable moments, I realized after compiling my initial list that 2003 was grossly under-represented, which is ironic because 2003 was, record-wise, the Pirates' best season this decade. Indeed, I got to watch Jeff Suppan kick ass and Matt Stairs wage war with the Allegheny River and Reggie Sanders just be a really cool dude, but there aren't too many individual moments that stick out in my mind, perhaps because what success the Pirates did achieve that year was mostly attained through the use of one-year mercenaries.

However, I think the main reason for that could just be that in 2003 I was at home for less time during the summer than during any other summer ever. I spent a month in Ireland, then came home for literally a day before jetting off to camp for two more weeks. During that six-week span, I missed probably the three best games of the season, back-to-back 15-inning marathons against the Indians that included Brian Giles climbing into the left field bleachers to make the catch of the year and Randall Simon hitting a walk-off homer despite a torn muscle in his hand that should have made it nearly impossible to even grip the bat. The third was a stunning comeback from a five-run, 9th-inning deficit against the Rockies that happened on the very last night I was at camp.

When I actually was in Pittsburgh, I did see a couple of neat things. The night I came back from camp, Saturday, August 2, Brian Meadows celebrated my first baseball game in nearly two months by outdueling Jason Jennings in front of a sellout Fireworks Night crowd and shutting the Rockies out, 1-0, a game in which the only RBI was recorded by Abraham Nunez.

I also got to see a great game against the Cardinals the following week, and making Tony La Russa a loser is always a good time. The Pirates rallied from a 4-3 deficit on back-to-back homers by Reggie and Craig Wilson in the 8th, only for Scarecrow to cough up the lead in the 9th. When Randall Simon rolled a ball through the left side of the infield as a pinch-hitter with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the inning, he demonstrated one of the goofiest walk-off celebrations I've ever seen, extending his arms and flapping them up and down as if he were trying to fly to first base or something.

2003 also brought a humble Canuck by the name of Jason Bay to the Steel City, and I was present for his coming-out party, although it came during an eventual loss and I promised to try to steer clear of losses during this exercise.

Finally, 2003 gave us Reboulet's Army, and that was one of my favorite things ever.

#11 - What if there were no tomorrow?
Wednesday, August 28, 2002
Pirates 1, Braves 0 (10 innings)
Thursday, August 29, 2002
Pirates 4, Braves 1

Late August, 2002, was the first time baseball's future was really up in the air since the strike that wiped out the 1994 postseason. With the strike deadline set for the afternoon of Friday, August 30, parties from both sides were cautiously optimistic, but negotiations seemed to have hit somewhat of a stalemate late into the proceedings.

Just in case, I made it a priority to attend all three games in the August 27-29 series against the Atlanta Braves, who at the time were jockeying with the Arizona Diamondbacks for the best record in baseball. In the Tuesday night game, the Pirates nearly rallied from a 5-1 deficit, scoring three times in the ninth, but Jason Kendall uncharacteristically swung at the first pitch with runners at the corners and two outs and flew out to right field.

The following night, the Lloyd McClendon ran out one of the most offensively inept lineups I've ever seen, featuring a whopping five players with a sub-.700 OPS, and only one over .810. Opposing this collection of suckitude would be none other than future HOFer Greg Maddux, with journeyman reclamation project Brian Meadows on the hill for the Bucs.

In a classic example of how in baseball, moreso than any other sport, anything can happen in any given game regardless of teams or pitching matchups, Meadows somehow matched a vintage Greg Maddux performance pitch-for-pitch as the two hurlers dueled to a scoreless draw after the front nine. Mike Williams, in typical Mike Williams fashion, escaped a self-created bases-loaded mess in the top of the 10th, and after back-to-back walks with out out in the bottom half, Brian Giles ripped a Mike Remlinger pitch down the first-base line for a walk-off hit.

By Thursday afternoon's matinee, a feeling of impending doom had settled in over PNC Park for the finale of the series (and possibly the season). One clever fellow draped a sign over the railing of the porch in right field imploring "SAVE US, DEREK BELL." Others also vented their frustration.

If any pitching matchup could possibly inspire less confidence from the perspective of a Pirates fan than Brian Meadows vs. Greg Maddux, Bronson Arroyo vs. Tom Glavine would certainly be up there.

Naturally, Arroyo got the better of Glavine, scattering ten baserunners across five innings and yielding just one unearned run, while the Bucs pecked away for two runs against Glavine and an 8th-inning Aramis Ramirez two-run homer provided insurance. This was the game that first made me a real Bronson Arroyo fan.

If indeed, the players had been unable to come to terms with the owners, it would have been a fitting send-off. As it was, an 11th-hour agreement was reached, and no games were cancelled. The Pirates could quietly return to their reign of despair. But for a couple of days, there might as well have been no tomorrow, and the Pirates were on top of the dying world.

#10 - The "I hate Tony La Russa" department
Friday, August 11, 2006
Pirates 7, Cardinals 1
Saturday, August 12, 2006
Pirates 3, Cardinals 2
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Pirates 7, Cardinals 0

If I had to list my least favorite people in professional sports, Tony La Russa would easily make the top five. It's bad enough that his arrogant cuntishness has rubbed off on everyone around him, but when he decided to make it his personal mission to antagonize Lloyd McClendon, he firmly entrenched himself as an object worthy of my hatred.

The Lloyd/Tony rift came to a head in 2005 when Tony accused Jason Bay of stealing signs and relaying them to Daryle Ward, the batter. At the time, Bay had been on second base for all of two pitches. Really, if your signs are that easy to pick up, you deserve to have them broadcasted over the public address system. Then, in August, Hector Luna took out Jose Castillo at second base on a double play attempt and wrecked Castillo's knee, ending his season. Lloyd publically deemed Luna's slide unnecessarily dangerous, and Rick White went high and tight on Luna, knocking him down. During batting practice the following night, Tony sent his pitching coach lackey, Dave Duncan, over to ask White, a former pitcher of his, if he had intentionally been throwing at Luna. White told Duncan politely to fuck off because he wasn't his pitching coach anymore, but Duncan persisted. Pirates hitting coach Gerald Perry came over to investigate the disturbance, and ended up having to throw down with Duncan hitting him with a right cross that forever earned Perry a place in my heart.

The problem is, though, that the Pirates simply haven't been competitive enough on the field to make this ongoing feud enjoyable. Even though Lloyd was replaced by Jim Tracy after 2005 and Tony seemed to ease up a little bit, consistently losing to the Cardinals had grown quite wearisome. Whenever I get asked what team I'd most want to sweep a series against, my answer is always without hesitation the Cards.

Finally, we got our chance for sweet revenge on a muggy August weekend in 2006. Tony's boys came into town clinging to a 3.5 game lead in the NL Central, probably expecting to be able to steamroll the reeling, last-place Pirates, losers of 5 in a row.

The Pirates issued the ultimate "fuck you" to Tony La Russa and company, sweeping the weekend series in front of an average attendance of 30,885. And they didn't just sweep, but they did so in convincing fashion. The three Pirates starters, Zach Duke, Ian Snell, and Paul Maholm, all threw at least 7 innings, Duke's start of the complete game variety. Overall, the Pirates played good fundamental baseball for 27 innings, and that fact, combined with the hearty crowds, made me feel as if I was watching meaningful baseball for once. Not even Tony's asshole beanball tactics (Pirates were hit by pitches seven times throughout the series) could ruin a fantastic weekend.

I was really hoping that at the end of the year, the Cardinals would miss out on the playoffs by a game or so, and could look back at the time they got swept by the lowly Pirates as a key factor in their failure. Sadly, this wasn't to be. But, if anything, this weekend went a long way towards showing everybody that perhaps the talent gap isn't so big after all.

#9 - Memorial Day madness

One very interesting trend that I noticed when perusing memory lane is that through some coincidence, I usually happen to attend the Memorial Day game if it's played at home. And, to add to that, the Pirates almost always win these games, often times in dramatic fashion.

May 26, 1997: Cubs 2, Pirates 1
The Pirates lost, but this game featured two back-to-back home runs in the same inning, courtesy of Sammy Sosa and Tony Womack.

May 25, 1998: Pirates had Memorial Day off.

May 31, 1999: Pirates 5, Dodgers 4
The Pirates rallied from deficits of 3-0 and 4-3. Abraham Nunez managed to double on a bunt attempt, which remains to this day one of the more bizarre things I've ever seen. I wrote a freeverse poem about this game for my English class that was published in some sort of state-wide anthology. I don't know where a copy is now, which is a shame.

May 29, 2000: Pirates 10, Marlins 4
This is the one game I don't think I was actually at, but the Pirates still continued the tradition of winning at home on Memorial Day.

May 28, 2001: Pirates 8, Marlins 5
Down 5-1 in the bottom of the 8th, the Pirates explode for 7 runs, keyed by, of all things, a Pat Meares 3-run homer. Fun fact about this one: Omar Olivares was the starter for the Bucs. Yikes, I had forgotten just how dismal the 2001 season really was.

Cheers for Meares. And Kevin Young.
And crappy all-black unis.

May 27, 2002: Pirates 3, Cubs 2
Dave Williams, secretly pitching with a torn labrum, guts his way through 5 2/3 shutout innings in his final start of the season. Mike Williams wastes a tiebreaking solo homer by Chad Hermansen (my lord, these names) by allowing Bobby Hill to hit a home run which is pretty disgraceful. For some obnoxious reason, there were about fifteen Cubs fans in the rows immediately surrounding mine, and they wouldn't shut the hell up. I still have a very vivid memory of this fat fuck in a Sammy Sosa jersey taunting me, "Isn't that guy your closer?!?!?! He's not supposed to do that!!" Fortunately, Keith Osik comes to the the rescue in the bottom of the 10th, gapping one to left-center with two on and two out. Ballgame. At least our closer wasn't Antonio Alfonseca, you pricks.

May 26, 2003: The Pirates were on the road, but won anyway, wallopping the Cubs 10-0 at Wrigley.

May 31, 2004: Cardinals 8, Pirates 3
A rare Memorial Day loss, but in the Pirates' defense, they were due for a let-down after the magic that had unfolded over the weekend (which will most certainly be chronicled in all of its glorious detail later on...)

May 30, 2005: Pirates 3, Marlins 2
Mark Redman vs. Al Leiter. Cringeworthy. Pirates draw 5 walks and rap out 4 hits in Leiter's 5 innings, but can only push one run across. So they take a gift run in the 8th, and then Freddy Sanchez, who everyone seems to forget was a pretty fine hitter in 2005, too, collects the game-winning hit in the bottom of the 10th.

May 29, 2006: Pirates 14, Brewers 3
Okay, so this one wasn't quite as close-run as the other handful of games, but it does feel good to take a dump all over some poor team every once in a while. Especially when you're the Pirates.

#8 - The "I hate Barry Bonds" division
Saturday, August 23, 1997
Pirates 6, Giants 4
Friday, July 28, 2006
Pirates 3, Giants 0

If there's anybody in baseball I hate more than Tony La Russa, it's Barry Bonds. I don't even think I need to waste space justifying that right now. If you really don't have a clue, this says it better than words ever could.

It's appropriate, then, that my life as a baseball fan has been bookended by two sensational triumphs over Barry. The first, in 1997, took place in front of a fireworks night crowd of 42,502 with the Pirates at exactly .500, still tottering along where they had no business belonging, just three games off the NL Central pace. On this August night, the Bucs jumped out to a 5-1 lead against Danny Darwin before entering the 9th up 6-3. Rich Loiselle allowed the Giants to rally, yielding a run, and having the balls of steel (or really poor judgement, you decide) to walk Jose Vizcaino to get to Barry.

Gene Lamont stuck with his closer. Bonds, who had essentially been a non-factor thus far, 1-for-3 with a walk, but no runs scored and no RBIs, came to the plate as the go-ahead run. With the crowd on its feet, Loiselle blew Barry away. Ballgame.

Nine years later, I would once again find myself face-to-face (almost literally) with the antithesis of all that is good and pure. Through an extremely fortunate circumstance, this past summer I found myself the recipient of a free ticket to the opener of a three-game weekend series with the Giants at the end of July. Free tickets to any baseball game are always a good thing, but this wasn't just any ticket. It allowed me to sit in the front row of the left field bleachers. I would be fifty feet from the Asshole King for nine innings.

On a sentimental note, the good guys had Kip Wells making what was almost certainly going to be his last start in a Pirates uniform in front of another fireworks night crowd that filled PNC Park to the brim, at 38,092. Wells had been a good soldier for the Pirates when he was healthy, which sadly had been not nearly often enough. Because of a severe lack of starting pitching options, he had been rushed back from surgery to fix a blocked artery in his chest. He entered the game with no wins, five losses, an ERA of 8.68, and a WHIP that's too graphic and obscene to post on this safe-for-work blog.

Kip battled with Jason Schmidt, who himself is no friend of Pirates fans for admitting to not giving 100% in his last couple of years with the Pirates in fear of reinjuring his arm before he had a chance to escape this dead-end team. The Pirates got to Schmidt in the 6th and 7th, accumulating three runs, while Wells kept the Giants quiet.

Seranading Barry with chants of "200 feet! 200 feet!"

In the 8th, Wells hit a wall, plunking Edgardo Alfonzo and serving up a single to Todd Linden. John Grabow came on and allowed a Steve Finley single that loaded the bases with nobody out, but struck out Omar Vizquel. Sal Torres entered the game to face Moises Alou, and coaxed a flare to left field that Jason Bay caught and unleashed a strong throw towards the plate that scared Alfonzo back to third. Fittingly, Bay caught the ball almost exactly where Barry fielded Fransico Cabrera's single in 1992 - approximately 200 feet away from home plate.

Up strode Barry, 0-for-3 on the game, with the bases loaded and two outs now, and Jim Tracy continued the bullpen revolving door game by calling on Damaso Marte. Marte went to 3-0 on Bonds, pumped in a called strike, and then got Barry to fly out harmlessly to Bay, much to the sheer delight of everyone in attendance. The Pirates went on to sweep the Giants; Bonds got one hit on Saturday night, then sat out Sunday with pussyitis stemming from being old and brittle from years of steroid abuse.

I'd have to go home and look at my archived scorebooks and do some real research on this, but I don't believe I've ever personally seen Barry Bonds hit a single one of his 734 home runs. And I'm such a better person for it.


To be continued.

No comments: