I vaguely remember watching Game 7 of the ’92 NLCS, you know, the one that ended with Sid Bream sliding into home plate to cap off the Braves’ come from behind walk-off victory over the Pirates. I was eight years old at the time, just starting to get into baseball. I didn’t particularly like the Braves, their rowdy fans and that annoying Tomahawk Chop, so by default I backed the Pirates for this series. Naturally, I was a bit bummed out. But this Pittsburgh team was a very good team. They would surely be back in the playoffs the following year. Or so I thought. You see, this was before I understood free agency, and how was I supposed to know that Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek, Pittsburgh’s best hitter and their best pitcher, would sign elsewhere that winter?
Fast forward 20 years and I’m now a 28-year-old baseball guru who barely recalls that night, which happens to be the last time the Pirates played a postseason game. In the 19 seasons from 1993-2011, this franchise was a league-wide laughingstock, posting a losing record in every single one of those seasons. Some years, the team was so terrible that I wondered why anyone would actually pay money to go to their games. But then, out of nowhere, came this year.
Led by MVP favorite Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates enter play today at 63-50, one and a half games up in the battle for the National League’s second wild card spot. McCutchen isn’t the only reason for the franchise’s turnaround. A.J. Burnett, a popular whipping boy during his days here in New York (and deservedly so!) has emerged as not only the club’s clear-cut ace but one of the top starting pitchers in the Senior Circuit. James McDonald, although he has struggled of late, is enjoying a fine breakthrough season. Neil Walker leads all NL second basemen in homers, RBIs and on-base percentage. And how can we forget closer Joel Hanrahan? I think it’s safe to say he’s proven that last season’s breakout campaign was no fluke. I happen to own Hanrahan in one of my fantasy leagues, and when I brought up his name in trade discussions back in May, my league mate balked at the proposal. “Not interested in any closer on the Pirates,” he replied, probably sensing that the team’s run of good fortune was bound to come to a crashing halt. Actually, even bad teams can produce valuable fantasy closers who rack up plenty of saves, as the games they do win will often be by three runs or less, but that’s beside the point. The Pirates are good again, and the bottom line is that I’m thrilled the offer was rejected.
The present looks awfully bright for the Pirates, but wait, there’s more. Top hitting prospect Starling Marte made his big league debut late last month and has kicked off his career in impressive fashion, batting .273 with four home runs, 10 RBIs and three stolen bases through 16 games. Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole won’t arrive in Pittsburgh until at least 2013, but both of these guys carry ace-level upside.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. All you really need to know is that for the first time since that October night in ‘92, the baseball world is watching the Pirates. And as we head towards the finish line of the 2012 season, I’ll be watching them and rooting for them just like I was two decades ago.