Cards fans have been driven to distraction, trying to uncover the true nature of the team, and wondering when and if we can catch fire in time for the playoffs. Frustration levels are high, and we can't escape the feeling that, come October, we will only be bringing a knife into the American League's gunfight.
Better a knife than nothing at all, say (p)irate fans.
On April 3rd, Pittsburgh lost 5-2 to Milwaukee to open the season 0-1, a record that still stands as the high-water mark for this team.
In this wide-open National League, every team but three, the Pirates, the Marlins and the Nationals, has been over .500 at some point after May 1st. The Marlins are ferociously swimming upstream, and are nearly there now, and even the Nats were plucky enough to even their opening record to 1-1 before they began to swoon. Not so the Pittsburgh unfortunates, who opened 0-6 and never looked back.
That this team wins any games at all at this point of the season is testament to the spite and pride of its individual players, and to the gentility and unpredictability of baseball. By comparison, football's truly atrocious teams are completely overmatched, physically and mentally, and are lucky to win two or three games out of 16. Baseball's worst still win better than 50 games a year, and are capable of spurts of spirited play that can greatly damage the hopes of a much stronger team.
This is exactly what happened during three games in August, two weeks ago in Pittsburgh – the Pirates swept the Cards decisively behind Zach Duke, Ian Snell, and Paul Maholm, who allowed only three runs between them. The Cardinals come into this series to face Duke, who had perhaps his most dominant start of the year that weekend, and Snell with the chance to avenge those losses.
A lose-lose-lose situation
Fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates are in a no-win situation, both literally and figuratively. The team is nose-diving to its 14th consecutive losing season, and has just completed another mid-season salary dump of any and all tradable commodities it had, getting little in return. Owner Kevin McClatchy praises the job done by hapless general manager Dave Littlefield, who praises the incoming players for their ability to wear uniforms and walk on two legs, and praises field manager Jim Tracy for his ability to swallow his pride before writing out the lineup card. They all praise Bud Selig for allowing this theft of a once-proud franchise to continue, and enabling them to make profits through the magic of revenue sharing.
This is all-too-common behavior in the business world, shaking hands and smiling for the cameras when the only victims of provably bad business practice are the customers. One Pittsburgh follower recognized this storyline as being lifted directly from The Producers – it can their power that they can do. Really, it comes down to three choices:
Close your eyes and ears, and stretch the very boundaries of faith itself while putting your trust in the socalled "new direction" of the team, and allowing hope to gush forth in the Spring, only to be crushed by an arid, lifeless summer of the same ol' crap. Fans who go this route eventually start blaming the players for the team's poor performance, and nod their heads furiously when management gets on the radio to explain why a strong young hitter like player like Craig Wilson has to be traded away to the Yankees for washed-up Shawn Chacon, because the starting pitching has also disappointed. Meanwhile, Jeromy Burnitz and his .236 average (.294 on-base percentage!) is still cashing a huge paycheck and batting fifth.
You can join the growing ranks of the angry, and can even buy your own t-shirts. The local media, always eager to tap into growing audiences, has jumped on board as well. Some, like local columnist John Steigerwald, look at the Yankees and focus their anger at the economic inequalities of the game, while others like Ron Cook look at the small-market A's and Marlins and blame the team's management, decrying the Pirates' deadline deals as "Trader Dave's Follies," and putting pressure on ownership. One emerging story – the surprise drama of the summer – focuses on two powerful men named "Nutting" who have been hidden from public view on the team's Board of Directors, and appear to be pulling the strings. This is perfect fodder for the furious few who, like Agent Fox Mulder, insist on knowing the Truth behind the misery of their team. pay well to be this bad.
And the steel-town loyal have little in through the magic of revenue sharing.
Directing your anger specifically at the Pirates may lead you to the next step: boycott the team, give up the season tickets, and evangelize to all your friends to join your protest to keep your money from landing in the pockets of the Enemy, defined as the morons who are perpetuating bad baseball in Pittsburgh.
This anger, while noble, has a sad endgame: if fans stop investing in the team, owners will stop investing in its upkeep, including the stadium. And if the number of empty seats reaches Montreal-esque levels, Bud Selig will advocate that your team be moved, or even contracted. After all, the Expos' Olympic Stadium was, like the new PNC Park, once hailed as a crown jewel among ballparks.
Close your eyes to the big picture, and just enjoy the game. Watch baseball played on lush grass under bright lights where you know that anything can happen and probably will, knowing but not caring of the fate of your home nine. Then when September rolls around, root like hell for the Steelers.
In this way, you can accept a 13- game losing streak as part of your Path to spiritual enlightenment. You can ponder the twin mysteries of Zach Duke, the talented young lefty who has stumbled mightily in his sophomore season, and Oliver Perez, the evenmore- gifted lefty who lost his way on the mound two years ago, and was just traded to the Mets. And you can quietly celebrate a three-game sweep of the Cubs, while empathizing with the misery of the Cub fan who has just suffered a winless six-game home stand.
By going the third route, Pirates fans may be the closest among us to completely forgoing material concerns and attaining a Zen state of mind, which would be good news for them but more bad news for the Pirates themselves, who have no use for penniless Buddhas in their fan base.
What to Expect
The Cardinals have struggled mightily against left-handed starters this year, dropping to 18-30 on the season after being stymied by Florida's Scott Olsen, who calls his fastball "Ashley" and his slider "Mary Kate" – despite being worth a few million bucks each, no one is hitting either of them. [Editor's note: Thursday night's dramatic win after Dontrelle's domination helped raise this mark to 19-30! Yay!] For the Pirates, lefty Zach Duke has posted two quality starts in his last three outings since facing us last, and could be finally rounding into form as he takes the mound against us in game 1.
Outfielder Jason Bay (team-leading 29 HR) and third baseman Freddy Sanchez (league-leading .347 average) are the two bright lights of the offense, anchoring the lineup from the 3 and 4 spots, and newcomer Xavier Nady has acquitted himself well, hitting for average (.448 in his last 7 games) since arriving from the Mets in the Oliver Perez trade. Nady should probably be leading off instead of CF Chris Duffy, who is barely over the Mendoza Line in both hitting and on-base percentage, and has been generally unhappy in all walks of life.
In a snapshot that perfectly crystallizes the sorrow of this team, the .213- hitting Duffy was recently quoted as being disappointed in getting called up to the Pirates from the minor leagues. As Baseball Prospectus' Will Carroll writes:
Chris Duffy, who took a month off after getting sent down, was angry to be called up! "I don't like it there," he told Pirates officials. "I did all this hoping to get traded."
EDITOR's NOTE: St. Louis Game Time is the official print publication of The Birdhouse. It can be purchased before all home games at the stadium and is also available by email subscription. For more content, visit www.StLouisGameTime.com.