Monday, October 27, 2008

The Road to 17: 1993

The Road to 17 is a longer-form look at each losing season that the Pirates have had since their last playoff appearance in 1992. The object is not to wallow in the misery of the Pirates, but instead remember just what it is that makes us Pirate fans in the first place. Every team has their great moments, the Pirates' are just fewer and further between. Today, we kick off the Road to 17 with the first year of the lot: 1993.

I'm going to be sparse on the authentic memories from these early years. I was eight years old in 1993. I probably remember much more about my own youth-league team from that summer than I do about the Pirates. I played on a minor league (that's machine-pitch) team named "Joseph's Paint" that summer and we finished second in the league during the regular season and won the league playoffs, defeating our rival The Medicine Shoppe in the finals. In an odd and ultimately meaningless bit of foreshadowing, Joseph's Paint wore Carolina blue. Joseph's Paint actually plays an important role in this story, but that doesn't come until later.

I know I've told this story before, but maybe my clearest memory of 1993 is the Home Opener. I didn't go that year but I do remember my dad going, Tim Wakefield pitching well, and the Pirates going on to a 9-4 win. When I asked my dad about it the next morning (this was a morning ritual of mine as a kid; I would wake up, walk down the hall, find my dad and immediately ask him, "Did we win?") and found out that we had won, I felt like somehow the Pirates would be OK, even though I knew that Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek had left the team. In reality, the '93 wasn't all that terrible. They hung around .500 until Van Slyke got hurt and their 75 wins equals the best win total since the Pirates have moved to PNC Park. They weren't terribly young, though, so they were fairly similar to the Pirate team we had this year before the trade deadline ravaged the team; not awful, but not getting any better.

I also have a vague memory of Andy Van Slyke's injury that year. I was definitely listening to the game on the radio and remember him chasing a fly ball to the fence in St. Louis, failing to rob the hitter of the home run, and having to come out of the game. I have a strong feeling that this memory is apocryphal, because I remember it being an afternoon game and it was not, but that doesn't really bother me. As I google the play, immediately the name Erik Pappas rings a bell. Because of the injury, Van Slyke wasn't able to start in the All-Star Game, even though the fans had voted him into the lineup. Jay Bell took his place. Whenever I read the words at the top of this blog and really ask myself, "Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?" I'm fairly certain that the real answer is slumped over on the Busch Stadium warning track in pain. In my search to read and remember more more about the play, I came across this quote:

"We can't lose him," pitcher Denny Neagle said. "That's the worst thing that can happen."

Oh, young Denny Neagle. One day you'll get caught with a hideous hooker and I'll laugh sadly, but in 1993 you were just one of the guys from the John Smiley trade.

I don't remember the details of any specific games that I went to in 1992, but there is one Three Rivers Stadium-related memory that stands out. The coaches of Joseph's Paint were fairly well connected guys who managed to get a bus together for the entire team and take us down to a Pirates' game with our parents. The game was some Sunday afternoon game in which they had a ton of youth baseball players take the field, though I can't remember who the Pirates played or why there were hundreds of kids on the field. I just remember getting to walk through the tunnel under the stadium, walking out through the center field wall (which opened like a gate in Three Rivers) and getting to stand on the AstroTurf in front of what seemed like, but likely was not, a huge crowd. When we were done on the field and went back to sit with our parents, I found out that my mom had spent most of the time that we were under the stadium at the railing getting players to sign my autograph ball. I don't remember all the names on the ball (it's in my bedroom in my parent's house, perhaps that's a post all to itself) or who the Pirates played or if they won (I think they lost), but it's one of two times that I've actually stepped foot on a Major League field in my life.

See? 1993 wasn't so bad after all.