The Eternal Promise of Opening Day

Editor’s note: This originally ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on April 1.


Every spring, the ritual repeats itself. As major league baseball teams break camp, managers report that their athletes have never been in better condition, predict that rookies will shine, vow that last year’s underperforming veterans will bounce back and declare that the starting pitching will surprise the harshest critics.

During the summer, the truth will out. Since the turn of the 20th century, when baseball’s modern era dawned, the Pittsburgh Pirates have scaled the highest peaks and plumbed the lowest depths. In 1902, as he departed Hot Springs, Arkansas en route to Pittsburgh, manager Fred Clarke called his squad the best ever assembled. Clarke had good reason for optimism. His team had five returning .300 hitters including the incomparable Honus Wagner and Clarke who, in addition to his managing duties, patrolled left field. The Pirates rewarded Clarke with an astonishing 103-36 record and ran away with the National League title by 27.5 games.

In 1952, however, skipper Billy Meyer’s dreams were dashed early and often. The 13 Pirates’ rookies on the opening day roster included four teenagers. Collectively, they failed and were soon forever gone from baseball. Future Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner turned in one of his worst seasons. Kiner lost sixty points off his batting average and slugged five fewer home runs than the preceding season.

The 1952 Pirates were among the worst teams ever to don a uniform. When late September mercifully rolled around, only small handfuls showed up at Forbes Field to watch the 42-112 Corsairs play out the string.

Four decades later, Jim Leyland put on a happy pre-season face. His Bucs had captured division titles in 1990 and 1991. But Leyland knew he would miss his best hitter, Bobby Bonilla, a free agent signed by the New York Mets and his only 20-game winner, John Smiley, traded to the Minnesota Twins. Of all the things that he might have anticipated though, Leyland in his wildest imagination couldn’t have envisioned the gut-wrenching seventh League Championship Series game against the Atlanta Braves that Pirates fans will carry to their graves.

The Pirates, who had battled back from a 3-1 series deficit, held a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth. To the uninitiated, being three outs away from a World Series berth with a two run lead might seem secure. But in baseball, there are many ways to snatch defeat from victory’s jaws. If old Fred Clarke were still around, he could have reminded Bucco backers about an incredible 1901 game when the Cleveland Blues scored nine times with no outs to beat the Washington Senators, 14-13.

Watching from my California home and slumping further into my sofa with each pitch, here’s what I saw unfold in Fulton County Stadium.

The Braves immediately loaded the bases. Doug Drabek surrendered a lead off double, an infield error and walked former Pirates Sid Bream. Dark clouds gathered. Every formula for baseball disaster includes walks and errors.

Exit Drabek; enter Stan Belinda. A sacrifice fly scored one and another walk reloaded the bases. When an infield pop up produced the second Braves’ out, it looked like the Pirates would escape.

But pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera, the last Braves’ position player and a substitute so inconsequential that he batted only ten times during the season, thrust the final dagger into the Pirates. Cabrera singled; two more runs scored. Final: Braves 3-Pirates 2. For the third consecutive year, the Pirates failed to reach the Fall Classic.

From the bullpen, catcher Don Slaught and pitcher Bob Walk’s hearts fell when they saw Bream slide in just under Barry Bond’s throw. More than 2,500 miles away in my living room, I shared their pain. Watching in what he described as “disbelief,” Walk said he wanted to call time out as Bream rounded third but he knew that was impossible. Added Walk, “For two weeks, I tossed and turned. I couldn’t sleep thinking about the lost opportunity.” Slaught called Cabrera’s winning hit and the shattered Pirates’ dreams, “A killer.”

Slaught had played an essential role in the Pirates’ climb to first place. Not only was Slaught a solid defensive catcher and clutch hitter but he also became rookie Tim Wakefield’s personal receiver. Wakefield and his befuddling knuckleball burst onto the Three Rivers scene in late July to propel the Pirates to the pennant. Wakefield rolled up an 8-1 record before pitching two complete game victories against the Braves.

This winter Wakefield retired from the Boston Red Sox. From the 1992 Pirates only pitcher Miguel Batista, a Mets’ non-roster invitee, is still active.

As the 2012 season begins, Pirates fans wonder if this will be the year that the team reaches .500. Few need reminding that 1992 was the last time the Pirates broke even.

Like Clarke, Meyer, Leyland and his other 25 predecessors, Clint Hurdle likes what he sees. When asked to evaluate the Pirates’ spring, Hurdle described it as, “Just like all doctor’s surgeries—successful.”

Hurdle pointed to the Pirates’ depth and greater experience as its main strengths. Even with A.J. Burnett out for six weeks, Hurdle anticipates improved pitching and better years from his position players including the new long-term Pirates Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen.

Through last July, the Pirates were baseball’s most exciting story. Although the team fell off in the second half, Hurdle thinks losing taught them the invaluable lesson of how to “finish—plays, innings, games and seasons.”

Because of Hurdle’s inspirational leadership, Pirates’ fans became believers again and basked in the Bucs’ brief but heady success. PNC Park sold out 17 times.

Baseball, the game of hope that links the past to the present, began anew on April 5.

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