In retrospect, the world might have been better if the Pittsburgh Pirates would have made it to the 2013 World Series rather than the St. Louis Cardinals. Maybe that's what was supposed to happen.
The 2013 season ended up being mostly known for three things: the Boston Strong Red Sox run, Mariano Rivera's farewell tour and the long-awaited breakthrough of the Pirates. It is difficult to overstate the excitement that Pirates team brought to that city. Heading into 2013, it had been 21 years since the Pirates had played a postseason game, and not only that, it had actually been that long since the Pirates had a winning season. There is nothing simpler in sports than wanting your team to win more games than it loses, and for 21 years, Pirates fans never had that happen. For 21 years, if you asked a friend in Pittsburgh, "Hey, did the Pirates win today?" the answer was more likely to be "no" than "yes."
In 2013, though, that changed. The pump had been primed a bit the season before, when the Pirates were in first place in the National League Central as late as July 18 before falling just short of .500 after refusing to make any major moves at the Trade Deadline. The Pirates dominated everybody in 2013, riding young stars like Starling Marte (24), Pedro Alvarez (26), Pittsburgh native Neil Walker (27), Josh Harrison (25), Gerrit Cole (22) and eventual NL MVP Award winner Andrew McCutchen (then still only 26) into first place in mid-August before eventually succumbing to the Cardinals in the division race. (Don't forget the contributions of vets Russell Martin, Marlon Byrd, Gaby Sanchez, Justin Morneau, Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett, as well.) The Pirates were fun, but more than that, it felt like a culmination, Pittsburgh at last reaping the rewards of a patiently built farm system and supplementing it with smart veteran acquisitions. This is what Pirates fans were waiting for. This is what they had earned.
And it led to one of the most memorable nights in recent baseball history, when Pirates fans flocked to PNC Park -- one of baseball's jewel stadiums, one that seemed to have been built specifically for a night like this one -- for their first playoff game in the new place, the NL Wild Card Game against Cincinnati. The Reds didn't stand a chance that night, not because they weren't a good team, but because the energy in Pittsburgh was a raucous, vibrating combination of a rowdy hockey crowd and a punk rock show that turns into a brawl. It was almost more energy than baseball was used to or could handle.
The Pirates won that game, and they were this close to beating the Cardinals in the NL Division Series. They had a 2-1 lead heading into Game 4, facing rookie Michael Wacha, but Wacha nearly threw a no-hitter and the Pirates headed into the ninth inning down 2-1. Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal got the first two batters out, but then Neil Walker walked. McCutchen, the MVP, came to the plate and worked the count to 3-1. A home run would send the Pirates into the NLCS and perhaps send the city of Pittsburgh careening off to the sea. It would have been the Pirates' Stefon Diggs moment.
But McCutchen popped out to the second baseman. The Cardinals won Game 5. And the Pirates haven't won a postseason game since then.
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Over the weekend, the Pirates traded Cole, their best pitcher that postseason and the shining example of what the Pirates were trying to build around, to the defending champion Astros. There has been much debate about the merits of the trade. Some think the Pirates didn't get enough in return; some think they would have been better off with the Yankees' Clint Frazier; some think it's too early to tell. But it is the end of that Pirates era, that breakthrough where the Pirates looked like the future was theirs for the taking.
Cole was emblematic of all that, a hard-throwing potential ace you could build around, the most enviable piece in the whole game: a power starting pitcher who could shut teams down in the postseason, under cost control, the stud ace. It turned out that, despite much of the discussion in the wake of the trade, Cole didn't end up becoming an ace. He's a solid No. 3 or No. 4 starter on a good team, which is plenty valuable, indeed, particularly for a team like the Astros, who have their own competitive window to take advantage of. One of the reasons the Astros didn't give up more is that Cole's value was more inflated for the Pirates than it was everywhere else; the Pirates needed, at least in the eyes of their fans, to "win" the trade, and there just might not have been the offers out there.
But then again: Can you blame them? Trading Cole, who is still under contract for two more years, is an admission that the Pirates are resetting, the way that so many teams in baseball have over the past few years. (Including the Astros, and look how that has worked out.)
On Monday, the Pirates took another step, as Ken Rosenthal reported that McCutchen is likely headed to the Giants in a trade. It's possible that Harrison could be out the door next. If they are both traded, the only players from that 2013 remaining on the roster would be Starling Marte and Jordy Mercer.
Regardless of whether or not you think the Pirates' retooling is off to a positive start, it's certainly starting. And that's the bummer here, even if the moves themselves are wise. The Pirates were slow and methodical and smart in their building up to that 2013 season, and they were rewarded with the first of what was supposed to be many successes. Their fans stuck with them through the lean years and rewarded them, and themselves, with as joyously lunatic a crowd as most of us had ever seen for a postseason game. The Pirates' time had at last come.
Now, the Pirates are doing the prudent thing. The Cubs are a powerhouse in the NL Central, the Cardinals are loading back up and the Brewers are ascendant. The Pirates do need to build something new. But this is the worst-case scenario of the rebuild movement, isn't it? You spend all that time building a core, and you are patient, and you tell your fans to be patient, and then … the era you're building to could be over.
Pirates fans still had that glorious night in 2013, and that whole season, and then two more playoff appearances after that one. (Both NL Wild Card Game losses.) But is that enough? The Royals are about to be going through this same thing, but they won a World Series. The Tigers made it to a couple of World Series. But the Pirates? They got a Wild Card win, two giddy NLDS wins and then four straight postseason losses.
Ken Rosenthal wrote a strong piece for The Athletic arguing that it's too early to pass judgment on the Cole trade, that these moves tend to turn out far different than what we expect. He's correct, of course. But one should perhaps forgive Pirates fans if they are not quite ready to have perspective on this. They waited 21 years to contend again. Now they may have to wait some more.
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