- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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Neal Huntington and I have patched things up. You read it here first. The Pirates' GM didn't actually know I was mad at him. But that's neither here nor there. It's all over now -- that's the important thing. It all started two years ago when the Pirates' record streak of losing seasons was at a mere 18 years, not the current 20, and Huntington declared the Pirates "buyers" for a change at the trade deadline. Us! Buyers! Being a native Pittsburgher and lifelong Pirates fan, I immediately dialed Huntington up -- there were only 17 shopping days left, after all -- and he responded to my question about whether he might try to pry free-agent-to-be Jose Reyes away from the Mets despite the hefty price tag this way:
"Ha ha haha ha ha!"
"That's not a no!" I almost sang.
"That's not a yes, either," Huntington shot back, laughing some more.
It was funny then. It was admittedly pie-in-the-sky dreaming. You may recall what happened next. The Pirates collapsed in the second half of the 2011 season. Reyes stayed put and won the batting title before moving on. The 2012 Pirates also started well, but they cratered late in the season, too. And just like that, two more painful chapters were added to the Herculean job of being a Pirates fan, a heavy-lifting existence for two decades now. Crabgrass wishes it was as tough to kill as we are.
As I've pointed out here before, the franchise's luck is so bad we've had the only man to throw 12 innings of no-hit ball in a game and lose (Harvey Haddix), the only man to claim to throw a no-hitter while on LSD (Dock Ellis), and the only man in MLB history whose alias became "The Weiner Whacker." (That would be Randall Simon, who was arrested by Milwaukee police and served a three-day suspension in 2003 for clobbering the Italian Sausage with a bat during the Brewers' always riveting between-innings race.) Mario Mendoza, the guy the Mendoza Line of hitting futility was named after? He was ours, too. I've always believed Pirates fans have a special kinship with the Kansas City Royals faithful, who live in a sort of small-market parallel universe over there in the American League, knowing our paths are never, ever destined to cross for anything important like -- stop, you're killing me! -- a World Series.
So why is all forgiven now? Because the Pirates are off to an even better start this season and it is time to stride boldly toward the sunshine, that's why.
The Pirates' 48-30 record as of Thursday tied them with NL Central rival St. Louis for the best mark in baseball. If the season ended today (Can it? No, seriously …), the Pirates would be a playoff team -- in which case the city might just as well line all the walkways in Point State Park with handrails, because people would be so intoxicatingly happy they might just absentmindedly walk into the river on their way to PNC Park. And all the paddle wheels might just fly off the Gateway Clipper boat fleet. And even the Roberto Clemente statue might crack a smile.
It would be like skies opened and it started raining Willie Stargell bobbleheads as angels sang.
As it is, the winning has already been so dizzying, Pirates announcer and '71 World Series star Steve Blass said it feels "kinky." Then he was smart enough not to elaborate.
The point is, the Pirates making the playoffs just three years after losing 105 games would mark the sort of seismic shift in destiny that has been flowing against them since a date that every die-hard Pirates fan can recite as easily as their birthday:
Oct. 14, 1992.
That's the day that Barry Bonds -- two words that are still better left unspoken in Pittsburgh -- forgot he was a Gold Glove left fielder and failed to throw out plodding Sid Bream at home to lose Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves. This, though Sid ran like a whooping crane.
And that was the last time the Pirates were relevant before now.
The way the Pirates' past two seasons have ended has naturally made people skeptical that they will avoid another face plant.
But I am not afraid to believe, because I already have seen the bookend to the streak that Bonds started -- a new cosmic sign that this season will be different.
It happened Sunday. Top of the ninth in Anaheim. The Pirates were seeking to finish off a sweep of the Angels and they rallied for three runs, went ahead by four in the top of the 10th, then hung on for an all-hands-on-deck 10-9 win when Jason Grilli, their 36-year-old journeyman closer who is having the season of his life, struck out Mike Trout with two men in scoring position.
Then Grilli screamed like a man with 26 saves and a 1.82 ERA is permitted to. Thank you very much.
The Pirates went on to Seattle and polished off a two-game sweep there, too, overcoming an 11-strikeout day by Felix Hernandez with another ninth-inning uprising Wednesday.
Even before all that, there were signs change is afoot.
Over the winter the Pirates outbid the Yankees for catcher Russell Martin.
(That is not a typo.)
Pirates star outfielder Andrew McCutchen has also signed a six-year deal to stay.
And nobody forced him to.
It hasn't been hard to see how these Pirates are winning this much.
Grilli and setup man Mark Melancon (who has a 0.94 ERA) give the Pirates one of the best bullpens in baseball.
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez is third in the NL in homers, with 19. Outfielder Starling Marte (22 steals, 24 RBIs) is a terrific spark plug with a WAR ranking better than Domonic Brown's or Ryan Braun's. McCutchen is playing well. And look out if Neil Walker really heats up.
The Pirates are getting quality starting pitching too. The staff has a nice mix of experience (A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano), depth (Wandy Rodriguez, Jeff Locke) and youth (rookie Gerrit Cole, if he and his 100 mph fastball aren't sent back to the minors to stop his arbitration clock).
Locke is a red-hot 7-1 with an ERA (2.05) that is just a fraction higher than Mets sensation Matt Harvey's league-leading mark of 2.04.
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage has had a terrific impact. Manager Clint Hurdle, who arrived in 2011, has enough can-do optimism to float the entire organization.
Of course, the number-crunchers have thrown out persuasive reasons why this fast start will not last. The Pirates' offense ranks only 19th in runs scored. They've already had a whole lot of magic go their way. They've rallied for 11 wins in games they trailed after the seventh inning.
But what if that scrappiness underscores that this Pirates team is weary of the losing seasons, too?
Something that Melancon recently told Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic was more encouraging proof of why this season can be different: "I've never been part of a team where every man hangs on every pitch the way we do," Melancon said.
That's already true daily, and it's only June?
So Neal Huntington -- all is forgiven.
But you, Barry Bonds?
No. Not you, too.
The way the Pirates’ last two seasons have ended has naturally made people skeptical that the Pirates will avoid another face plant. But I am not afraid to believe.