Generation Twenty

I’m a Pirates fan. I am also 19 20 years old.  The last time that the Pirates were in the playoffs, when Sid Bream slid into home plate, I was barely six months old.  They have not had a winning season since, setting a record for ineptitude that stands alone in major American sports.  There have been worse teams, no doubt, but no other has gone two decades without a .500 season.

I haven’t known good times.  After coming back from living in Europe as a six-year-old, where baseball was a way to be distinctly American, my “good” memories of the Pirates are the Brian Giles/Jason Kendall years, and they were only “good” because I was too young to understand anything more than that I wanted the Pirates to win every individual game, and that they sometimes did.  I didn’t understand that the playoffs weren’t the exclusive realm of the big market teams.  I didn’t understand that there was an alternative to bringing in Raul Mondesi. Most of all, I didn’t understand that Jason Kendall welcomed new members of the team to Pittsburgh with the (apt) phrase “welcome to hell”.

Instead, this nine year-old simply embraced the joy of Baseball.  I played catch with my friends or my father for hours.  My parents bought me a pitch-back for my birthday and I was out there everyday trying to hit the corners of the white tape that represented the strike-zone.  First, that broke apart at the corners from use.  I kept using it until the bungee cords holding it together snapped one by one.  I loved the game and it would have taken a lot to disillusion me.

Yet, the Pirates found a way.  Eventually, my adolescent self came to understand what my nine-year-old self couldn’t .  I understood that the salary dump of Aramis Ramirez was a catastrophe, and that watching him rack up All-Star seasons in a Cubs uniform was a slap to the face for any Pirates fan.  I understood that the playoffs were significant and not just an extra few games to enjoy on the television.  Most of all, I realized that we didn’t have a plan to get better.

I was crushed by the lack of hope for my team, and took refuge in other sports.  I fell away from baseball.  I picked up hockey, started to get really into football, and didn’t look back.  When vacationing in Boston, my Dad mentioned that the guy he’d been talking to at the bar was really upset that we’d gotten some guy named Sanchez from Boston in a trade.  He was, he said, “a great hitter”.  I wasn’t excited.  I wasn’t even intrigued.  I put on a happy face, said “cool”, and promptly forgot about it until I found out our second baseman Freddy Sanchez might win the batting title.  I didn’t just not care about baseball; I actively disliked it.

So why am I writing about the Pirates in the free time that I don’t have one week before finals in my second year of college?  I came back to baseball.  My friends still loved it and would have impassioned discussions about which marginal player should play more, and I felt left out.  And then, something amazing happened.  Nate McLouth, all-star and gold glove winner, was traded to the Atlanta Braves.  I saw it as more evidence that the Pirates simply couldn’t hold on to good players, and that baseball was a broken system where the haves lorded it over the have-nots.  Instead, as you probably know if you’re reading this, it freed Andrew McCutchen, who immediately became the best, the most exciting, and the most interesting player on the Pirates.  Nate McLouth imploded in Atlanta.

So I looked into the Pirates by doing what I do.  I’m a nerd, so I started to read.  Google searches yielded stories.  Some were interesting, some were not.  I started to watch games, and found them to be fun to watch, even when the Pirates came up short (which was most of the time).  In doing so, I happened onto Fangraphs.com, which is more responsible for my return to baseball than any other force.  The passion about the minutiae of the game really came through in the writing, and I realized that there was something to this slow, “boring” game that made me fall in love with it ten years earlier.  The dynamic nature of the one-on-one matchup between pitcher and batter.  The drama of a three-two count with two outs and runners on.  I’d forgotten these things over the years.  I found that this, and the advanced statistics that allowed them to really delve into the game, was something that I could really get into.  I certainly couldn’t get into the team (besides McCutchen) at that point.

Now, here I am, one of the biggest fans of the Pirates you’re likely to find.  I follow every game that they play, in any way that I can (often it’s not ideal, the Pirates aren’t on TV where I go to school).  When I got off my eight hour shift at Walmart over the summer that ended at eleven P.M., I expected the game to be over.  Instead, when I turned on the car radio, the Pirates were deep into extra innings in Atlanta.  I drove home, and half an hour later, when I got home, I turned on the TV.  I stayed up until 3 in the morning.  It was amazing.  When the Braves threatened to score in the 19th inning, I prepared myself to lose. Daniel McCutchen was out of gas, and there was no way that he gets out of second and third with one out.  I told myself “oh well, this was a great game and a lot of fun to watch”.  And then, well, Jerry Meals happened.

“He got a groundball!  He’s got a play! He’s…WHAT?!!!!”

I was angrier than I may have ever been about a sports play.  I jumped up, I yelped (at 4 am with people asleep, oops), and I had a visceral reaction to the play.  Pat Lackey, who runs the admirable Pirates blog “Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke” (whygavs.com), articulated what it caused a lot of Pirates fans to realize beautifully: “The reality of being a Pirate fan that almost no one realizes is this: if you really keep on watching, the losses never stop stinging. Maybe they stop surprising you, but they never stop stinging.”

This seems a horribly depressing thought, and yet it was a wonderful realization for me at the time.  This loss stung.  I had been watching games again, sure. And we’d lost most of them, sure.  But no individual loss had really stung me, because I expected them to lose.  The fact that this loss did affirmed that I was, once more, a true Pirates fan.  And so, here I am almost a year later, writing a blog that probably no one will read because I care so much about this team.

Now, a note about the name of the blog itself.  When I went to Pirates games before my disillusionment, one thing that I vividly remember is the song “New Pirates Generation”.  At first, it was a catchy way to advertise a youthful team.  However, as it went on, it became a sick joke as, with the massive roster turnover, ever year was a “new Pirates generation”.  And so here we are, probably on our way to a twentieth losing season…thus, generation 20.

That is not to say that I have no hope.  If I didn’t, I doubt that I would be sitting down and writing this right now.  I’m not writing this to have it read; I doubt that anyone will read it.  I’m writing for myself, and while I hope I’m wrong and that by some miracle people read my bad writing, my motivation is mostly selfish.  I have no one to talk about the Pirates with where I am, and this is my outlet.

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