In a few weeks, Pittsburgh Pirates fans will have to face a chilling reality: the baseball season, and thus the Pirates 20th consecutive losing year, will be right around the corner.
For now, the Pirates are as the old saying goes, “out of sight and out of mind.” Pittsburgh’s sports fans are caught up in the Steelers and Penguins both play off bound, the perennially powerful University of Pittsburgh Panthers’ basketball team and the local North Allegheny Tigers, rolling toward its second consecutive state high school championship. Even the Pitt Panthers, a poor football team by any measure, is “going bowling,” as the talking heads are so nauseatingly fond of saying.
When the Pirates have popped up in the news, it’s been to announce that Paul Maholm, Ronnie Cedeno, Ryan Doumit and Chris Synder, respectively the team’s number one starter, its shortstop and two catchers will not return. Of course, you’re not impressed by those names—and why should you be? They’re lower tier players who, with the exception of Doumit, have not yet signed with other teams.
Ryan Ludwick, a marginal late season addition, has also been let go. And Derrek Lee, who performed well after coming over from Atlanta, is unlikely to return. Rumor has it that he prefers retirement to a full year with the Pirates.
The Pirates do have a new shortstop and catcher, 32-year-old Clint Barmes (.252 career) and 36-year-old Rod Barajas (.232). While the baseball world wonders where Albert Pujols and Price Fielder will be next year, the Pirates content themselves with Barmes and Barajas—not that Pujols or Fielder would come to Pittsburgh for any amount of money.
Pirates’ management promises more signings, cold comfort in light of additions made over the last two years: Bobby Crosby, Ryan Church, Matt Diaz, Lyle Overbay to name a few.
With Maholm, a reliable innings-eater and occasionally effective starter, gone and the numbers two and three starters, Kevin Correia, Ross Ohlendorf and Charlie Morton coming off the disabled list (an in Morton’s case, post-season hip surgery), the rotation is at best uncertain and at worst a mess.
Fans may be testier this year. The Pirates for a few fleeting mid-season moments were in first place. Then the wheels fell off spectacularly and the team played worse than it had during the 2010, 105-game losses season. We tasted the joy of rooting for a winner. The Pirates were the talk of Pittsburgh, games sold out, half the city dressed in Pirates’ gear. To have the rug pulled out so abruptly and so totally hurt. As for 2012, I’m reminded of the World War I song: “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?” Watch Nora Bayes sing the classic here. The lyrics are suggestive of how challenging it will be for fans to return to watch mediocre baseball when we’ve at least briefly experienced the euphoria of “Paree,” that is, being in a pennant race.
I’m sure I speak for all long suffering Pirates fans when I say that effective immediately I’ll only judge the team on the field. I can’t be persuaded into pinning my hopes on Pedro Alvarez staging a heroic comeback or that the long-term answers are first round draft choice Gerrit Cole or the 16-year-old Mexican pitcher Luis Heredia. Please, to call a 16-year-old a “sensation” is a bit much for me.
As always, I’ll be a PNC Park regular and listen to the games when I’m not there, rooting as hard as I have more than 50 years. But 20 straight losing years is tough. I’ve earned the right to be skeptical.