A summer fling
Last spring, we were putting our shaky hopes into the winning-record-basket, but we certainly weren’t betting the mortgage on it. Even yours truly, who has looked at the Pirates through rose-tinted glasses the past few years, even I thought the Pirates might take a small step backward this year. I didn’t believe that Burnett could bring it again at his age. I didn’t believe in Francisco Liriano, a post-Tommy John surgery free agent who broke his arm at home in the off-season. I didn’t believe a new .240-hitting catcher would make that big a difference. I didn’t believe in Jason Grilli as a closer to replace Hanrahan. And I was beginning to think that Pedro Alvarez might just be a bust.
Then, summer happened. And as the calendar turned to September, the Pirates refused to turn into pumpkins, as they had in seasons past. They just kept on winning. And this city revealed itself to be a true baseball town, waking up after a two-decade-long hibernation. And you know what happens after you wake up from hibernation? You are ravenously hungry.
I have been a baseball fan since 1969, when Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Ferguson Jenkins, Billy Williams and the rest of the Chicago Cubs were in first place for 155 games before losing 17 of their last 25 and allowing the Miracle Mets to pass them by. You never forget your first heartbreak, even at age 7. Especially at age 7. Since then, I can count on one hand the number of times a baseball team I cheered for has played in the postseason. And for the most part, those postseasons have been houses of horror.
There was 1984, when Leon Durham let a dribbler through his legs and the Padres (the frigging Padres!) came back from down 0-2 to win the last 3 games and go on to the World Series. I still have a gag reflex whenever I see Steve Garvey or those brown, gold, and red uniforms that made their players look like Taco Bell employees.
There were other brief and failed appearances by the Cubs against the Giants and Braves. And then came 2003, when the Cubs were 6 outs away from the World Series and fan-boy Steve Bartman interfered with Moises Alou’s attempt to catch a foul ball. The Cubs proceeded to lose their water, the game, and the next game, and the Marlins (the frigging Marlins!) went on to the World Series.
My baseball playoff history is the stuff of nightmares. My World Series history is non-existent. Oh, I went to a World Series game between the Diamondbacks and Yankees in 2001 (one month after 9/11), but I really didn’t have a horse in that race. I watched the White Sox (the frigging White Sox!) win the 2005 World Series by sweeping the Astros. It was all just salt in the long-festering wound.
But this year is different. I can honestly say that this is my favorite baseball season ever. Mostly because it was unexpected. But also because of the way Pittsburgh fell back in love with baseball and the Buccos. We nonchalantly passed the 82-win mark in early September. We battled for the division lead before settling for a Wild Card spot. We entered the dreaded one-game playoff and all the critics said that the Pirates were just happy to be here. And we won. Decisively.
We entered the divisional round and got killed in the first game 9-1. Once again, the critics said the Pirates were just happy to be here. That this was as far as it would go. Then we came back and won game 2 just as decisively… in St. Louis. Then we came home and won game 3.
I headed out to game 4 hoping for some real baseball magic. I was pretty confident that the Buccos would wrap this up at home and win the series and I would be there.
It was a beautiful fall day. The temps had dropped around 30 degrees from game 3 the day before. This was fall baseball.
The crowd was huge. It would set an attendance record by four people. I think they are dribbling out a few more SRO tickets each game to set a new record each time. That’s cool. I’m assuming we were 2 of the four that set the record. The only tickets I could get were standing room only. On the plus side, they were cheap. I didn’t have to plunk down $75 per seat. As soon as I got there, I paid homage to the statue of Willie Stargell and began to look for a good place to camp out.
I could tell that getting a good spot to watch the game was going to be rough. The rotunda was already filling up and about 3 people deep. I knew that Jean wouldn’t be able to see. The crowd was ready for a heavy weight bout, or a rock concert. Forty thousand-plus were absolutely out of their minds. I think it was the closest I will ever come to experiencing what an English soccer game must be like. They were ready to explode at any moment and were hanging on every pitch.
Lucky for me, Jean had a stroke of Jean-ius! She came from work and proceeded directly to the Rivertowne Brewing restaurant directly below the scoreboard. They have an outside observation deck where Jean had grabbed a table. She called me and I hauled my booty there. Again, genius. We had seats and they brought food and beer directly to us! No waiting in line. And how about the view!
We stayed there the entire game, although we were still standing with everyone else for most of the game. It was chilly. There was a stiff and constant gale blowing from home plate straight at us. But we were bundled up and comfortable. Jean even had her own personal heater, which looks a lot warmer than it actually was.
Of course, the magic never quite materialized. But the crowd never gave up hope. They cheered. They sang. They beat the shit out of that stadium as a rhythm section to the cheering. As I said before, they were locked and loaded to go completely bonkers. They had one opportunity when Pedro homered. And the ninth inning was deafening. All we wanted was a chance, which we got when McCutchen came to the plate with two outs and the tying run on first. A part of me truly thought he was going to jack a walk-off blast that would break the stadium. But, alas, his bat was just an inch too low and he popped it up. With that, the crowd went from totally insane to “let’s go home” in a matter of seconds.
But here’s the thing about my favorite baseball season ever… there’s no heartbreak this year. Sure, we could lose tonight. Sure, it will be sad to see it end. But it doesn’t diminish from the epic ride it has been. And this team tends to come up big just when you think they can’t. It would be just like this team to pull one out tonight and keep this fling going a couple more weeks. Isn’t it something for it to be the second week of October, and people for the most part couldn’t care less about football? It’s all about the Buccos!
So don’t give up hope for tonight. The sun hasn’t yet set on the Pirates’ season. If this is as far as it goes, it’s been a magical summer. If they keep it going tonight, my favorite baseball season ever will have gone to a whole new level. Let’s go Bucs!