Monday, September 08, 2008

We're still in the canyon

How do you properly couch another losing season for the Pittsburgh Pirates? The last time the Pirates had a winning season, I was seven years old. Seven! I'm in my second year of graduate school now. Second grade was a looong time ago. Somewhere in the depths of my memories, I remember going to class the day after the Francisco Cabrera game and asking a friend who was a year younger than me if he saw that the Pirates lost again the night before. He had and seemed upset about it, so in all of my endlessly optimistic seven-year-old wisdom I told him that we'd get to the World Series next year. This was the only logical conclusion for me because to that point in my life, I'd really only known good, playoff caliber Pirate teams. I couldn't have possibly fathomed a world in which sixteen years down the road, I'd still be waiting for next year.

Somewhere, the losing seasons start to blend together. I remember 1993, because I started the year out with high hopes and had them eventually smashed, even if I remained positive for a quick turn-around. I remember the strike in 1994 and how it cut off the start of the 1995 season. I remember 1996 for Jim Leyland's farewell and 1997 for the freakshow, especially the no-hitter, Shawon Dunston, and our inexplicable standing at first place at the All-Star break. I remember 1998 for the crushing disappointment that came when we didn't improve on '97. 1999 was the year of Jason Kendall's horrific injury that derailed a .500 team on the 4th of July. If it weren't for the closing of Three Rivers and John Wehner's home run to close that season out, 2000 would melt away into nothing. 2001 is of course memorable for the opening of PNC and Lloyd McClendon's base-stealing antics. I don't honestly remember a lot about 2002 or 2003, beyond the slew of trades we made in 2003. My best memory of the losing streak comes from 2004, and that's Rob Mackowiak's double-header. In 2005 I started a blog that I'm inexplicably still writing today and as a result, attended countless games over the next three summers. In 2006 Jason Bay started at the All-Star Game at PNC to a thunderous ovation, in 2007 we fired Dave Littlefield, and 2008 is unfolding right before us.

It's really been sixteen years. I can rattle off the fifteen World Series winners in that time span from memory (Blue Jays, strike, Braves, Yankees, Marlins, Yankees, Yankees, Yankees, Diamondbacks, Angels, Marlins, Red Sox, White Sox, Cardinals, Red Sox). I remember Cal Ripkens's 2131st game and his home run that night like it was yesterday. I remember being excited when Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run and sad when Barry Bonds hit his 71st, but indifferent when he hit his 756th. I enviously watched my friend from Boston celebrate the Red Sox World Series win that he'd waited for his whole life. I remember where I was for Aaron Boone's home run. I celebrated the Steelers Super Bowl win on the South Side and watched the Penguins rebuilt themselves from a hole nearly as deep as the one the Pirates are in.

It's been sixteen years since the Pittsburgh Pirates have had a winning season. Sometimes, it doesn't feel like it's been that long since Jimmy Leyland was sneaking heaters in the dugout while Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke were patrolling the outfield and Doug Drabek's freak flag was flying on the pitcher's mound. I remember Curtis Wilkerson's walk-off grand slam off of Lee Smith as vividly as I remember anything that's happened in the past sixteen. When I think about the 19-2 thumping the Pirates laid on the Mets the day before they clinched the 1992 pennant (we came late and the Pirates were already down 1-0 in the bottom of the first, shortly after we sat down, Lloyd McClendon hit a grand slam), it seems like it can't possibly have been sixteen years. Then again, on days like today when the Pirates give up ten runs in an inning to lose to a bad Giants team, sixteen years might as well be a hundred.

For the first time in a long time, though, I feel like the Pirates are making an honest run at ending this streak. That seems funny to say in a year that we're so far away from it, but it's the truth. There are a lot of fans that have suffered through this losing streak. Some, like me, have only the teams from the early 90s to cling to. Some are a bit older and remember 1979. Fans my dad's age have Roberto and the '71 team. Before him, there was Maz's homer and the 1960 team. The memories of those teams, of a proud franchise, and the fans that have watched it disintegrate all deserve better than a one-year fluke that wins 81 or 82 games and dives back into the depths. That's why as hard as it is to see guys like Bay and Nady leave while their young replacements struggle, I'm as positive that we're moving in the right direction as I have been in a long time. It's too soon to judge Huntington's work, but at least we're finally moving in a different direction than we have been since the start of this streak and it's hard to think that's a bad thing. It's been a long road down into the canyon and it's a long road out from here, but I think I've come too far to give up on it now.