Three years ago, I wrote a preview of the Pittsburgh Pirates season titled "October 14, 1992." That's a really mean headline for a Pittsburgh Pirates preview, but I felt it was important to remember that date. It was the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates mattered.
That, of course, was the date of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, the one with Francisco Cabrera, and Sid Bream, and Barry Bonds' strangely floppy left arm. For that column, I went back and watched that whole game, making sure to grab this downright cruel screenshot.
What's so strange about that game is that it was the actual end of something. It is not only that Pittsburgh Pirates fans haven't had a team with a winning record in 21 years, a stat that's so insane it feels made up. It is that it can be traced to a specific moment of pain. It would be like if, after that ball went through Bill Buckner's legs, the Red Sox were then just horrible forever. 21 years of failure, in a row, after one nightmarish half-inning. It's like that half-inning caused it. It's flabbergasting.
When I wrote that piece three years ago, what was surprising was how little pain it seemed to conjure up in Pirates fans. It wasn't like bringing up Bartman to a Cubs fan, or Craig Ehlo to a Cavaliers fan. It was in fact the opposite: They actually seemed happy to talk about it. The pain of that actual game had faded to the point that conjuring it up didn't bring up bad memories; it in fact made Pirates fans wistful for a time when they could actually play in a National League Championship Series. There was a point in baseball history when people noticed that the Pittsburgh Pirates were playing? Hey, we'll take it.
And now, here we are, the morning of June 27, 2013, and the Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place. They are tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the best record in baseball. Forget a winning record: According to Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report, the Pirates have a 89.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. 89.6 percent! They're projected to win 91 games. The Pirates! If I weren't a Cardinals fan, I'd be downright happy for them.
As Howard Megdal wrote for us last week, Pirates fans, quite understandably, aren't exactly jumping out of their skins just yet. Here's my favorite bit:
I approached a man wearing an autographed Dick Groat jersey to ask him whether the Pirates were ready to contend. "Ask me September 1," he said, backing away from me, seeming fearful of jinxing his Pirates merely by having the conversation about contention. "Ask me September 1."
That is how scared Pirates fans are: They're running away from people who are asking them if they are happy.
The reasons the Pirates are winning seem sustainable. They've played five games above their Pythagorean record -- the Cardinals are three games below theirs -- but otherwise the stats back everything up. Everyone in their lineup other than Travis Snider has an OPS+ of over 100, and the whole rotation is above 100 in ERA+ too. The highlight has been Jeff Locke, who is having a ridiculous John Tudor year, at 7-1 with a 2.06 ERA. (Though his 1.63 K/BB ratio hints at this, perhaps, being a tad unsustainable.) The Pirates also have a deep farm system that they can use for a trade. ESPN's David Schoenfield made an outstanding argument that the Pirates should move heaven and earth to trade for Miami's Giancarlo Stanton, and Joe Sheehan, perhaps more realistically, thinks they're the team that should make the big Cliff Lee push. The point is: There is little reason to think this isn't going to be the year. The Pirates have everything moving in the right direction. This doesn't feel like a second-half collapse. This doesn't feel like a fluke.
This has been planned for a while, too. You know what move the Pirates made that I loved? It was actually two years ago, when they were near first place around the trade deadline, but didn't have nearly the quality of team they did this year. General manager Neal Huntington had an impossible tightrope to walk: Don't sell the farm to try to win with a team that he knew wasn't likely to sustain its success, but also don't sit around and do nothing, signaling to the long-suffering fanbase that he didn't care about winning. What did he do? He made two very cheap, very harmless trades for Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick. The Pirates didn't give up much, they didn't pay much and, after the trade, they didn't do much, falling apart in the last two months. But resisting temptation to go big, a risk, kept important parts around … and Huntington still made it look like the Pirates weren't packing it in. It is paying off this year. This team is legit.
I'm calling it: The Pirates are making the playoffs. Hey, why are all these Pirates fans backing away from me? Where are you guys going?
Here's what I don't hope happens: The Pirates end up with the second wild card. This was the scenario I was worried about with the Orioles last year. A parched fanbase finally tastes some success, and their reward is a one-game playoff, on the road, a game that could end their playoff "run" before anyone even knows it's going on. PNC Park is one of the loveliest ballparks in baseball, and it deserves some time on the game's largest stage. And those fans, if they can crawl out from behind that large object they're using to hide, deserve a soldout October stadium. This has been a long time coming. This is going to be fun.