The Winning Season
By: Matt Gronsky
It was a warm night in Atlanta on October 14, 1992 and game seven of the National League Championship series seemed as good as done. The Pittsburgh Pirates held a two run lead over the Atlanta Braves and were just three outs away from the pennant and a shot at the World Series title. However, after a series of hits, walks, and an error by a Gold Glove second baseman who had only six errors all season (I see you José Lind), the Pirates found themselves with the bases loaded and two outs with the score at 2-1. Pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera walked up to the plate and worked a 2-1 count. Then, pitcher Stan Belinda then threw a fastball high. Not a good idea. Cabrera blooped a single over the short stop that landed in front of 1992 MVP Barry Bonds in left field. David Justice scored easily from third to tie the game. Sid Bream represented the winning run at second, however his injury history (both knees were reconstructed) it was not a given that he could beat the ensuing throw. Bonds fired home across his body and catcher Mike LaValliere swept his glove back to the plate just a split second too late. To everyone’s surprise (including Bream), Bream beat the throw. Game over. Pennant race over. Last winning season for twenty years over
The following season Barry Bonds left for San Francisco (where he would go on to take massive amounts of steroids and break Hank Aaron’s all time home run record) and ace pitcher Doug Drabek left for Houston. After the departure of their two biggest stars the Pirates were unable to recover. The next season they finished 75-87, thus beginning the longest seasonal losing streak in all of North American sports. During that stretch, stars weren’t exactly common in Pittsburgh, and the slim few that did don the black and gold were routinely shipped out of town in trades or free agency. Jason Kendall, for example, played 8 seasons for the Pirates and had 471 RBIs and had his season batting average dip below .300 only twice. So what did the Pirates do halfway through his contract extension? They traded him for two scrubs and cash. The Pirates just refused to pay in order to keep players. This left them in a void of instability and a period of constant rebuilding.
All that changed in 2005. With the eleventh pick in the 2005 MLB draft the Pirates selected Andrew McCutchen from Fort Meade High School in Florida. The guy was just an all around athlete. Not only did he bat over .700 in his senior year of high school, he was also a state champion in track and one of the top football recruits in the state of Florida. To be clear, the guy is good at sports.
“Cutch” shot up through the minors in just 3 and a half years and was starting in center field by June of 2009. Over the next few years Cutch became a beacon of hope for Pirates fans. They believed in him and the team slowly building up around him. Would he be the one to lead the Pirates out of this funk and finally bring a winning season to Pittsburgh? Yes.
That brings us to 2013. The team was looking to improve upon their 2012 season, one where they squandered an open opportunity to stop the bleeding of losing seasons, however collapsed in a way most heartbreaking, finishing an absurdly close 79-83.
This team looked better. Cutch was batting .320 and Pedro Alvarez was leading the National League with 32 home runs. Starling Marte had been called up late in the 2012 season and started hitting his stride in the major leagues.
Then there was the pitching. The starters were nothing to scoff at: AJ Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez, and eventually Gerrit Cole. The true all stars were found in the bullpen. The “Shark Tank,” coined after set up man Mark “the Shark” Melancon partook in swimming with sharks in the offseason and are (as of print date) ranked 3rd in the MLB in ERA (2.90), tied for 1st in saves (49), and 3rd for total innings pitched, even when closer Jason Grilli spent a month on the disabled list. Grilli and Melancon have been lights out, giving the Pirates the pitching edge they needed.
It must also be noted that two late season additions were made in an effort to better stabilize the batting order. Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau joined the team and immediately started contributing to an already impressive season.
It finally happened about a week and a half ago. I was sitting in my dorm with my roommate and another friend of ours. We were conducting the draft for the fantasy football league that a few of the guys on my floor put together. I had the TV turned to ROOT Sports to watch the Pirates take on the Brewers for what could be their 81st win; which would ensure at least a .500 season. The Pirates took the lead in the first with Andrew McCutchen’s 100th career home run, but the lead immediately disappeared due to a two run single from the Brewers in the bottom of the first. Marlon Byrd tied it back up with an RBI single in the third, then provided the runs for the lead in the eighth with another RBI. The game was again tied in the bottom of the eighth. With the game entering the ninth, I didn’t even care about the fantasy draft any more. Travis Snider came in to pinch hit. He took the first pich for ball one, swung and missed on strike one, and proceeded to foul off the next two pitches. Then, with the count at 1-2, Snider launched the ball over the right field fence. The Pirates fans in my hall went crazy. With Grilli just barely off the disabled list, Mark Melancon came in to close. Melancon struck out Khris Davis, ending a losing streak 20 years in the making.
The guys in my hall were really going crazy now. Our RA had to come out to calm us down. I mean it’s not like we won the World Series right? Actually, that is exactly how it felt. I have loved baseball my entire life and to see my team finally scratch and claw their way out this streak compared to the joy I felt when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL or when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009. It was a feeling of pride.
About a week later the Pirates beat the Texas Rangers to secure their 82nd win and ensure a winning season. What makes this great is the relationship Pittsburgh fans have with their players. This may sound odd, but allow me to explain. The fans in Pittsburgh treat their players almost like family. A player can go out to eat with his friends and not instantly get mobbed. Fans give a casual “great game last night” or “have a good one tonight.” The Pirates, in a way, owed this season to the fans especially after that monster collapse they had last year. These are some of the best and most loyal fans in the world, (#Homer) because they stuck by their team over the past 20 years and now it’s time for the Pirates to pay them back. Today a winning season, in a few weeks a playoff spot, and who knows maybe a pennant race somewhere in the near future. The city of Pittsburgh is feeling good about this current team and I have a feeling that they will be competitive for several years to come. Pride. Passion. Pittsburgh Pirates.
Matt Gronsky (@gronkopotamus) is a freshman at Penn State, majoring in Civil Engineering. He is a die hard Pirates fan.