When depression ends, grief begins

The 2013 season is over.

There were so many answered dreams last night.  No Pedro Alvarez moon shot; no Andrew McCutchen walk-off; no Gerrit Cole complete game shut-out.  I’ll admit, I indulged in some childlike fantasizing about how game five would end.  And I don’t even need to waste the screen space to admit that none of it came true.  (Although, I just did.)

With the last swing-and-a-miss, I continued to sit in silence on my couch.  I briefly watched the Cardinals celebrate and then flipped windows to the Twitter feed.  I favorited a lot of nice sentiments, added one or two of my own, and browsed the final box score.  Maybe I was looking for answers.  But maybe I was just imagining how looking at this list of names will feel ten years from now.

Tim Williams summarized many of my post-game (and even late season) thoughts about this team here.  If you haven’t read it yet, don’t waste your time here – click on the link now.

Given that there’s really no need to repeat all of that (with less research and a day late…), I think it’s worth using this blog to revisit the strange universe of sports fandom.

We Pirates fans are all very different people.  Sure, there are some commonalities – especially among those living in and around western PA – but really, all we truly have in common are the colors.  We watch the men in black and gold play the game of baseball from spring through the summer.  And we all hope to continue watching them into the fall.  We are a community defined by our daily allegiance to the ballpark, the TV and radio, the internet, the scoreboard, and the daily debate about our beloved Pirates. When the Pirates win, we share our joy.  When the Pirates lose, we share our grief.  Win or lose, the one constant is that we share.

Maybe that’s what all of this sports nonsense can be distilled down to: we share.  Pirates fans share today the grief and disappointment of falling short of the ultimate prize.  Cardinals fans are sharing, too.  They just happen to be sharing the joy of taking the next step in the journey.

It might be hard to appreciate the fact that Pirates fans and Cardinals fans are ultimately engaged in the same endeavor. But I think Martin Prechtel makes a lot of sense when he describes joy (or praise) and grief as two sides of the same coin.  Grief and joy can’t live without each other.  And he even goes further to say that if we cannot experience one of them, the other becomes inaccessible.

Right here you might say (yell): ‘Pirates fans have already had their share of grief!’  And of course, Cardinals fans have more championships to remember than any other National League team.  But maybe Pirates fans haven’t really felt grief lately. Maybe, as Prechtel suggests, the numbing that comes with an inability to find joy builds into a pervasive depression – something heavy and dark; something that looks like anger or apathy, sarcasm or disdain.

Depression isn’t grief at all.  In fact, it is an act of systematic denial – maybe not a willful act, but an act nonetheless.  Depression is the denial of joy.  And if we are to accept the notion that joy and grief live together, depression is the denial of grief as well.  As fans, we have surely experienced the act of denying our grief by pointing the finger, blaming angrily, or even feigning disinterest.  But something just happened…

The 2013 Pirates won’t let us do that.  They shocked a fanbase out of a long and deep depression.  The malaise of two decades was lifted with the emergence of energetic baseball, competent personnel moves, successful player development, and most of all… winning!  We have had the pleasure of sharing (97 times over) our joy of victory with each other.  That, friends, is a sure-fire recipe to break a depression if I ever heard of one.

That’s great, right?! Isn’t winning what we’ve wanted all along?!  Well, yes it is.  But with this season of joy breaking through the darkness that has burdened Pirates fans for so long, we also receive the the other side of the coin: the grief.

So feel it Pirates fans.  I know I’m taking on a tone of someone that’s followed this team forever – and I haven’t – but I have experienced depression, grief, and joy rooting for different colors, sharing with different people. And go and read that piece by Tim Williams again…

Game 4 was hard, but…

Home team bias aside, yesterday was a phenomenal playoff game.   A short list of reasons:

  • A no-hitter into the 8th
  • A no-hitter into the 8th by a rookie
  • An emerging October superstar breaking it up with a mammoth HR
  • A team getting their 1st hit in the 8th still in the game
  • A team with their 1st hit in the 8th still in an elimination game
  • A runner on in the bottom of the 9th in a 1-run elimination game
  • A runner on with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th in a 1-run elimination game
  • The probable league MVP representing the  winning run with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th in an elimination game

That’s quite a list.  The fact that the Pirates ended up on the losing side of this matters – don’t get me wrong.  It would have been much more fun to write this after Cutch hit the ball over the fence.

But the playoffs don’t usually work that way. The playoffs usually seem to work a lot like life does.  Our greatest dreams as fans don’t typically come true.  In fact, much more often than not, teams lose.  Only one of ten playoff teams actually finish the season with a win.  That means roughly 90% of the baseball fans that are lucky enough to still care in October end up disappointed.  Odd are, we’ll be disappointed, too.

Sound a little fatalistic?  Maybe.  But that’s why yesterday just adds fuel to the fan fire.  If the Pirates won and we were just watching the calendar until the Dodgers series, we’d be left watching secondary teams vying for the AL side of things and chatting up nonsense on message boards and twitter.

With Wacha’s masterpiece and McCutchen’s pop-up, we get another hand-wringing, nail-chewing, heart-pounding night on the couch on Wednesday.  What else gets us baseball fans this worked up?

And if Pirates win on Wednesday… Gerrit Cole will be one of the heroes. Gerrit Cole, less than 2 years out of UCLA, an $8M #1 pick; a man whose 120 innings of MLB experience is being picked over AJ Burnett’s 150 wins of MLB experience for the biggest Pirates baseball game of the last 20 years.  (Yeah – that’s happening…)

And if the Pirates win on Wednesday…  They’ll spill champagne all over the visiting clubhouse in front of the entitled, spoiled, and altogether passionless Cardinals fans: The fans that have littered the internet with unbelievable amounts of homophobic, violent, anti-Pittsburgh venom; the fans making fun of Pittsburgh because PNC PArk is really loud during playoff games;  the fans supported by a mascot committed to poisoning our children and keeping the working class without healthcare or a livable wage.

Yesterday was hard.  But there’s a decent chance that it’ll just be a memorable footnote underneath the legend the 2013 Pirates are continuing to write.

Playoffs are awesome

I watched the game last night with two other Pirates fans.  In this part of the country, three Pirates fans in one room is unheard of.  One guy is my defection partner; the other a lifelong fan, a longtime dyed-in-the-wool sufferer.  He’s got Bream lines like I’ve got Bucky Dent lines.  (And why do all the villains’ names start with B?  Babe, Bucky, Buckner, Boone, Bream…)  We hunkered down with some pizza and chips (and giardiniera and kimchi – we’re classy fans, you know) and watched it unfold.

There’s nothing quite like playoff baseball.  Every (and I mean every) pitch matters.  Sure there can be stretches of distracted attention (it is baseball, after all) that we used to explore the vocal stylings of Cowboy Joe West (view here), but the ebbs and flows of a nine inning winner-takes-all bout is the playground of legends.  And Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano took that opportunity to etch their names into Pirates lore.

I have many, many playoff baseball memories – radio voices, TV images, and in-the-stands emotion.  You haven’t lived until you’ve been in a bouncing concrete stadium.

The obvious has been stated on a hundred blogs and columns already, but the win last night was direct evidence of the magic that Neal Huntington, Clint Hurdle, and the rest have put on the field this year.  The four-five hitters on a playoff team acquired on waiver deals?  Two home-runs and flawless catching stolen from the mighty Yankees last winter?  Seven innings of dominant pitching from a scrap heap arm on a 2-year contract?  And four times safely on-base from the (likely) MVP signed to a hometown, long-term deal that came up through the system.  Unreal.

Now this show is headed to St. Louis – home of the corporate trons in red.  The vanilla capital of baseball with the cordial fanbase and lifeless efficiency on the field.  At least La Russa’s gone…

Pirates sinking their own ship?

While I’m completely ecstatic about the Pirates making the playoffs (and clinching a home game, to boot), I can’t help but see the dark side of this situation.  Call me a pessimist, but the success of the Pirates (and A’s and Rays and Indians and Royals) this year gives the large market a means of dismissing the need for wholesale MLB economic reform.

The fact that small budget teams are winning is fantastic.  It proves that front office intelligence has the ability to defeat the brute force spendthuggery of teams like the Yankees and Angels.  We love that stuff.

Hell, even big markets fans love that stuff.  I can’t tell you how many Red Sox and Yankees fans told me that they were rooting for the Pirates this year.  They’d usually see my hat; say something nice about McCutchen (McClutchen, McCrutchen, etc.); say something about Pittsburgh deserving a winner; that they’ve heard that PNC is an amazing place to see a game; and express some well wishes toward the playoffs.

They get it.  Even in their big money blindness, they get it.  They understand that it’s just more exciting to see the underdog win.  And from that we must assume that, at some level (maybe a deep, dark, unexplored level) Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers fans know how unattractive and obnoxious their teams are – with their bloated payrolls, stances of entitlement, and abuse of the forgiving wrist-slap spending rules/penalties of Major League Baseball.

So let’s revel in the success of the Pirates.  I really, really (really, really!) hope they meet the Red Sox in the World Series (rematch of ’03 – best of nine anyone?).  That would truly be a dream come true.

But let’s not forget that just because the Pirates and A’s (and probably Rays) will be playing this October, it doesn’t mean we still don’t need a hard salary cap in baseball.  The players union has been weakened by the drug abuse of its own members.  They don’t have as strong a leg to stand on these days (as evidenced by the momentum MLB is gaining with PED penalties), so the time might be right to score a big win for competitive balance.

Bud Selig could make this his legacy.  Instead of being remembered as a wishy-washy drug enabler, he could become the champion of the common man.  We need a salary cap now.   Email Bud today at allan.selig@mlb.com  Tell him what you think!

Cole clinches future

I’ve been pulling back a bit lately.  As the Pirates approached their 81st win (and then more importantly their 82nd win), I realized more and more how conspicuous my fandom is.  I observed that I was trying a little too hard to care about breaking the losing streak and found, in all honesty, that watching the Pirates to a winning season is not all that interesting to me.  Does that make me less of a Pirates fan?  Probably.  But I’m not kidding anyone here.  I don’t presume to be anything more than I am: Some guy that started following one team on a daily basis after his team-of-origin betrayed him.  I do think, however, that this gives me a neat perspective on the 2013 Pirates to this point.

The fact that Gerrit Cole pitched a gem to clinch a winning season is not lost on me.  Neal Huntington’s approach to the draft has been aggressive and, frankly, a bit reckless (in draft spending terms) for the past 5 years or so.  I once heard him summarize his thoughts very succinctly with two questions: What does $5M get you on the free agent market?  What does $5M get you in the draft?  And relevant to Monday night’s game: What does $8M get you in the draft?

Some people say there are no coincidences, and I’ll choose to be one of those people while writing this piece.  Gerrit Cole was nothing short of dominant.  He outpitched a Cy Young candidate against a strong(ish) American League offense.  He struck out nine in seven innings, at times making good hitters look foolish.  He just turned 23.  Theoretically, he’ll still be pitching in his ‘prime’ years in a decade.

If this is what we can expect from Gerrit Cole, the all-but-guaranteed game(s) in October should be very, very intriguing. And that’s what I’m interested in. I love experiments – and that’s exactly what small market teams have to do to compete.  There are no sure bets in baseball and the high-stakes riverboat gamblers General Managers must be in MLB’s second-tier cities is the kind of drama I love.  Sure, fans in New York and LA can fabricate interesting sub-plots when a $150M free agent get signed: Can he stand the pressure cooker?  Will the power numbers improve with the little league right field fence?  But nothing beats the long-term soap opera of the draft-high and develop story line – especially when it culminates with a call up into a pennant race.  And that, fans, it what we saw in Monday night’s game.

And let’s not overlook the additions of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau.  Waiver trades rarely (never?) get a team middle-of-the-order bats, and that’s just what the Pirates pulled off – not once, but twice.  The Pirates somehow got past the trade deadline in (or close to) first place on pitching, defensive, and bunts alone.  With only one offensive star and a few spare parts with spike skills, the Pirates have managed to outscore opponents more often than not.  This is true mainly because they pitch, throw, and catch the ball very, very well.  So without losing any of the winning combo that got them to this point, they added a couple 4-6 hitters.

September should be entertaining.  But based on the emergence of Gerrit Cole and more shrewd personnel moves by Neal Huntington, October should be even better – this year, and likely for years to come.

The imposed sanity of the small market

The Pirates just saw their closer walk off the mound in pain.  Never a good situation. We can argue all we want about the ‘closer mentality’ and the value of a 1-inning pitcher, but it sure is nice to have that same number nail down each victory.  Not only does it stabilize the bullpen usage in front of him, but we get conditioned to associate that guy’s face with winning.  So it’s understandable that some fans panic in a moment like this.  But it’s a good thing that Neal Huntington won’t.

As already written up by others , the Pirates are not likely to go out and trade for a big name closer.  I’ll bet the money under my driver’s seat that the closer question will be answered by a guy already on the 25-man roster.  Before Grilli grabbed his arm, Neal Huntington already said  that he may add to the bullpen at the deadline (my interpretation: proven mid-bullpen arms).  While that quote annoyed some at the time (why not a RF bat?), relief pitchers are affordable and always needed – as evidence by the 9th inning of last night’s game.

This, friends, is the beauty of small-market baseball.  It forces sanity onto any GM that actually desires to be sane.   Closers are horribly overvalued in baseball.  If it weren’t for the invention of the worst fake stat in the world, the ‘save’, so-called closers would simply be the failed starters they discovered they were once they hit AA-ball.

Neal Huntington is a smart man.  He doesn’t seem to acquire players for media ‘splash’ value.  He seems to know what is reasonably within his power and the limitations of the smaller baseball market.  And within those parameters he seems to make moves that contribute to winning – regardless of how far the may stray from ‘conventional’ approaches.  Because (please remember) conventional approaches are simply the strategies employed by the dominant class.  And in the case of MLB, the dominant class consists of those teams that dominate the media outlets – i.e., New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, etc.; those with $150M+ payrolls: at least two higher-profile free agents over two-times that of Pittsburgh’s payroll, that is.  Conventional approaches are actually impossible for about 1/3 of the teams in baseball.  And yet, media heads and fanbases often hold teams accountable to the spending standards and acquisition strategies of the Yankees.  Things are getting better – thanks to the A’s, Rays, and now the Pirates – but it’s really quite insane to perpetuate the fiction of the big market model.

So let’s smile a little smile at the imposed sanity a $65M payroll will do for a team.  Jonathan Papelbon is not walking through that clubhouse door.  And thank God for that!

Back from The Gathering (and the Red Sox still suck)

I drove about 1,400 miles this past weekend.   Not much in this life would inspire me to subject myself to that particular layer of hell.  But when Pirates fans and bloggers call, it’s to The Gathering we go.

This was my second visit to PNC with all of you Pittsburgh Sports Forum & Bucs Dugout types (and other assorted degenerates).  Having shaken off the rookie jitters from last time, I sat in Gold Lot #2 with comfort this year.  (I forgot a chair, so I don’t know who to thank for all of the sitting comfort – but thanks.  Sitting on the pavement would’ve been difficult.)

A few post-thoughts:

  • Most importantly, the Pirates won!  I’m 3-0 at PNC in my short life of Pittsburgh fandom.
  • David Wright did his part to make the hometown fans happy: 2 K’s; failed on 1st/3rd no outs; winning hit off his glove; and grounded out to end the game.  Sweet.
  • Cocktailsfor2 continues to be the most profane and yet most welcoming event organizer I’ve ever met.  His inclusive style of irreverence is a truly exemplary model of community-building.
  • Who knew there was a novelist among us?  If you weren’t aware, one of our own is writing a story that includes (but is not limited to) post-apocalyptic dragon zombies and telepathic cats.  Take a guess!
  •  And who knew there were two (2) Gathering attendees that milk cows?!  To be fair, one milks over 100 Holsteins while the other only milks 4 Jerseys.  Bonus points to anyone that’s ever milked a Hereford!

OK. So I had a blast.  Sorry that my buddy El Cinturon couldn’t make it.  He’s got good Nutting stories from college.  Or at least he keeps telling me that.  But back to the baseball…

I haven’t written much this season.  It’s my sophomore slump I suppose.  But really, I’ve been busy.  I know that’s not much of an excuse, but it’s true.  Just so you know, the Boston media continues to offer punchline after punchline to the joke the Red Sox have become.   Sure, they’re winning.  But the juxtaposition of this year vs. last year – and more interestingly, the juxtaposition of the Boston media and the Pittsburgh media (with a backdrop of the national media) is striking.

The level-headed few in New England knew all along that the old chicken n’ beer story from 2011 was simply a byproduct of losing.  Anyone with a moderately reliable memory knows that the same writers were celebrating shots in the dugout just seven years prior.  So, the media reaction to the team’s turnaround this year is predictable.  A recent story suggested that the Sox were winning again because all the players like each other.  (Ha!) But an even more recent story let me know that they’re trying to fire up some of the old we’re-soooooo-special-(it’s-hard-to-be-us) propaganda again.  It’s ugly.  And this time, one of our beloved Pirates is the foil.

Dateline: Boston.  It’s All-Star weekend!  We’re in 1st place!  Let’s belittle other teams’ All Stars!  Headline: MARK MELANCON: MARKET WASN’T RESPONSIBLE FOR STRUGGLES IN BOSTON. <link>

Before we dissect this, let’s count the embedded assumptions.

  1. Mark Melancon was an abject failure on the Red Sox.  Considering that he was brought in as a closer (for the offensively gifted but oft-injured shortstop Jed Lowrie) this isn’t such a stretch.  But then again, they went out and got Andrew Bailey later that off-season…
  2. The Boston ‘Market’ is unique in some way.  And by unique, I mean more badass.  (btw- the ‘Boston Market’ restaurant chain used to be called ‘Boston Chicken’.  Ha!)
  3. Certain players can handle the Boston market while others can’t.  (Yankees fans believe this about New York, too.)
  4. People who read don’t know the manipulative trick of negative-word titles.  We all know the message in a headline like: John Doe didn’t beat his wife.  The assumption prior to reading anything is that he did, in fact, beat his wife.  Why else would we be reading the article?

If you actually read this piece, make sure you do one thing – read every quote from Mark Melancon in a sing-songy sarcastic tone.  Because that’s how Alex Speier wants it to be.  Now don’t get me wrong – I like Alex Speier.  But he does his job in the town of Boston.  An article like this is only printed to show how silly and naive players on other teams are.  Mark Melancon denying that the high-pressure atmosphere in Boston affected his performance is only evidence that the high-pressure atmosphere in Boston, in fact, affected his performance.  While he mentioned that word ‘mechanics’, he also mentioned ‘mentality’.  And you know that that means – he couldn’t cut it in front of baseball’s most knowledgeable and intimidating fans.  While Melancon described it differently, it really doesn’t matter.

This story has been played to 100 different tunes in the Boston media: a player’s mental ‘make-up’ needs to be considered before gracing him with an opportunity to play in beloved Fenway Park.  It’s a good thing, though.  It’s one of the vulnerable spots in the seemingly invincible armor of teams like the Yankees and Red Sox.  If GMs actually believe this garbage, it gives guys like Neal Huntington the window to bag guys (read: All Stars) like Melancon from the league’s wealthiest teams.

Oh, and go Bucs!  I hope no one gets hurt in that dumb game tonight.

Neal Huntington’s sling shot

The Pirates have the second best record in the majors right now.  At roughly the one-third mark, we can’t ignore the fact that they appear to be squarely in the National League mix.  So we’re left with the Pirates-fan dilemma: convince ourselves that this year is different (and the Bucs break the streak and push for a spot in the post-season); or resign ourselves that it’s not (and hang our heads, waiting for another epic second-half collapse).  And as fans, the choice is ours…

But here’s what I’ve really been thinking about… Joel Hanrahan and Alex Presley.  Neal Huntington has made two trades since last July that have, again, proven the power of the small-market paradigm.  

For teams that simply have no money to spend, gambling must be a high-stakes and fearless endeavor.  Conventional wisdom in the major leagues of baseball tells us that there is a certain financial investment needed for production at certain positions.  If you don’t have much cash, then you simply decide which positions you’ll pay and leave the rest to chance.  But the A’s and Rays (and now apparently the Pirates) keep shining the spotlight on this fallacy.  In certain circumstances, the cost/value relationship is skewed.  This is most obviously displayed in the case of the closer.  There is no need to pay a man $10M a year (or even $5M) to throw 70 innings.  I don’t care what anyone thinks of the ‘closer mentality’ or any of that.  If you can give the ball to a guy that is more likely to get 3 outs before imploding (or having a stroke on the mound), then you have a closer.  Same with the 8th inning closer (read: set-up man).  Take a look at this…

 

Jason Grilli: 24.2 IP, 38:5 K:BB, 0 HR, 1.09 ERA, 0.69 WHIP

Mark Melancon: 29 IP, 29:2 K:BB, 1 HR, 0.93 ERA, 0.79 WHIP

Together: 53.3 IP, 67:7 K:BB, 1 HR, 1.01 ERA, 0.75 WHIP

’05 Mo Rivera (#2 CY voting): 78.1 IP,  80:18 K:BB, 2 HR, 1.38 ERA, 0.87 WHIP

 

Joel Hanrahan: 7.1 IP, 5:6 K:BB, 4 HR, 9.82 ERA, 2.18 WHIP

Brad Lincoln: 15.2 IP, 15:11 K:BB, 3 HR, 6.89 ERA, 1.85 WHIP

Together: 23 IP, 20:17 K:BB, 7 HR, 7.83 ERA, 1.96 WHIP

 

On the offensive side of things, the trade that saw the invaluable and versatile Brad Lincoln leave manifested the swap of lefties Travis Snider and Alex Presley in the outfield.  (No stats needed for that one…)

I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to say that the two trades that reconfigured the back end of the Pirates’ bullpen has done more to put the team in the position they’re in right now – near the top of the entire league – than anything else.  Effectively, the Pirates are batting 9 times against their opponents’ 7.  An average offense can win with those odds most days.  And it also creates more come-from-behind opportunities (which we’ve seen the Pirates take advantage of plenty so far).

In baseball’s continual battle of David v. Goliath, chalk this up as a GM victory for Pittsburgh.  It’s still early (always the caveat), but it’s a great example of a shrewd tactician capitalizing on the fiction of big money economics.  

 

Hope and vasectomies

I’ve been a bit preoccupied these days.  I have a post from the same time last spring.  It’s the hockey playoffs.

I’m a Bruins fan.  I understand that most of you reading this are likely Penguins fans.  (Hopefully we’ll get to live this together next round.)  Oh – and there’s at least one Canadiens fan.  <pause… clears throat>  Anyway, the game 7 the other night was ridiculous.  If you love hockey and have a break in your day, this 30-minute highlight video is well worth your time – click it.  If you saw the game, you know that the Bruins were down 4-1 in the third.  Honestly, I walked away from it.  I followed here and there on the internet.  But if you know the Bruins season this year, you’ll understand that there was really no reason to believe they had anything to offer and Reimer looked unbeatable.

Tangent: I had a vasectomy done this spring.  For those of you who haven’t had the experience, it’s really not that bad.  In fact, it’s kind of interesting.  In a matter of 30 minutes you drop your pants, lay down, and lose your ability to reproduce.  Against the doctor’s suggestion, I refused the sedative.  Then, half-way through I thought, What the hell am I doing?!! This is ridiculous!  (Maybe that’s common; hence the sedative.) But then I calmed down.  I calmed down because the doctor started talking hockey.  I noticed his Canadian accent and assumed he was into hockey.  The accent didn’t have any French to it, so I thought maybe he was a Leafs fan.  Turns out I was right.

So while he was sawing away at my manhood, we talked about goaltending (he’s not very confident in Reimer), the Kessel/Seguin/Hamiton trade (we agreed it seemed to be a win-win), and the possibilities going toward the playoffs.  (This was in April.)  I found it interesting, when Kessel put the Leafs up 3-1 the other night, that while Toronto seemed to have just killed my hockey dreams, a Leafs fan had already cut off my sack a month earlier…

Back to reality… So, the Pirates won last night.  When the Brewers went up 3-1, I walked away from the game.  I was up for work at 5:00 in the morning and knew I’d be up at 5:00 again today (turns out it was 4:30), so I figured I’d get some sleep while I could.  Well, the Buccos came back.  Cutch hit the walk-off.  And they’re looking good again this year.

However, right now hockey is dominating my sports consciousness.  And it will be that way until the Bruins raise the Cup (…or get eliminated… hmph…).  But in the midst of my relative baseball apathy, I have turned off the Pirates three (3) times when they were losing 3-1.  All three times they have come back to win.  This is good.  While I don’t know the bullpen that well yet this season (the bullpen is my true indicator of how closely I’m following), I’ve seen/read enough to know that this offense can score runs in any inning – they aren’t the ’27 Yankees, but I think you know what I’m saying.   Yes, El Toro needs to go on a tear if he wants to hit .200 this year.  And Barmes is on (relative) fire with his .580 OPS.  But tell me you don’t want any of these guys up with a runner on in the 9th (against a right-handed pitcher): Marte, Martin, Jones, Snider, Walker, and of course Cutch.  (And Sanchez vs the lefty.)  Yes, there a problems in the line-up.  But that’s 6 guys that are hitting comfortably right now.  And Pedro could make it a 7th pretty quickly.

Sports are funny.  Sometimes I wonder why it matters so much – why I can’t stop watching replays of grown men on skates hacking away at a chunk of rubber.  But every time I go down that road I come back to the same thing: sports offer us hope in any situation (if you don’t believe me, go up the page and click on that link).

Without any clock, baseball is the game that can offer that hope the most.  I’m looking forward to coming back to the Pirates full time.  But for now, the B’s have my heart.  It’s tough being a 2-sport guy.  Now I know how Bo Jackson must’ve felt.

Canadian baseball memories

I just spent the weekend with about 15 guys from Montreal.  As you might imagine, all of them are hockey fans that happened to watch the Expos a little before the team left for Washington.  While not hardcore baseball guys, they certainly understand the worst possible outcome for small market teams in today’s un-capped, draft-pinching MLB.  It was a depressing glimpse into the possible future for fans in small- and mid-population/interest cities across North America as they recounted the bitter, final days of the team.  There is nothing lost on sports fans from Montreal when talking about Jeffery Loria’s publicly funded stadium in south Florida contrasted with the empty beast of Olympic Stadium sitting to the East of downtown – the cavernous monument to the city’s wise decision not to pony up for Loria’s dream park.  With 42 still in theatres, it was also good to hear about the year Jackie Robinson played in front of a more racially accepting crowd for the Montreal Royals prior to moving on to the Dodgers.

When the team moved to Washington, many of these Montrealers switched allegiance to the Red Sox.  The Sox aren’t that far away, after all.  The Nationals weren’t an option.  And the other team in Canada is from the home of the hated Maple Leafs, so the BJs were out of the question, too.   But the Sox have worn out their welcome for many in Montreal.  I heard more than one voice saying that they are no different than the Yankees these days.  With the hockey playoffs extending into mid-June, there isn’t a tremendous sports void to fill in the summer.  But some of the older guys still have a soft spot for America’s National Pastime.  So where do they turn?  Some of them just follow Montreakl’s home grown talent.  One man chose the Pirates thanks to Russell Martin.  Pickin’ fans up one-at-a-time…

My Pirates hat is a big hit around with these guys.  It’s a big hit most anywhere I go, in fact.  People love it.  This past weekend, I heard a bunch of stories from when the Pirates used to come play at the old Jarry Park (when Montreal had an outdoor park downtown) – most notably a mammoth home run by Willie Stargell.  I also heard of the heartbreak at the hands of the Pirates late in the 1979 pennant chase.

And then I heard this story…  A guy named Vic told it to me.  In the summers when he was a kid, he use to go watch the Expos with his friends.  One day he was there with 7-8 other kids looking for autographs and  Willie Stargell walked by.   They all went nuts – screaming and begging for his to sign something – anything!  Willie said if he signed for one kid, he’d have to sign for them all and he just didn’t have time.  But there was one thing he could do… He asked them all to take off their hats.  (The pack of 12-year olds promptly obeyed.)  In awe of the  living legend standing mere feet away, 12-year old Vic couldn’t believe it when the giant balled his meaty hand into a fist and licked the bottom.  He then announced, ‘I’ll give you all the Stargell Stamp‘, and lightly pounded each kid on the top of their head. ‘Now go home and tell your moms not to wash your hair for a week.  You do that and you’ll grow up to be stars in the big leagues.’

Well, Vic’s mom washed his hair anyway.  Now, at 58, he plays in summer hockey leagues – working his ass off to keep up with the 40-year olds.  But that story was a gem.  It’s just another example of how baseball simply transcends.  Being the lone Bruins guy in a room full of hockey-crazed Habs fans, this man took the time to share a special childhood memory simply because I was wearing a cap with a P on it.  Stanley Cup playoff seeds were being determined, and the story of a larger-than-life hero bringing just a moment of pure joy to an otherwise difficult childhood brought the room together.

I wasn’t a fan of the Pirates back in the 70’s.  But apparently I’m getting some of the benefit of Pirate teams of your by becoming a fan now.  Another benefit?  Having a 1st-place team to watch!  Whodathunkit…