In the latter third of the 1948 season a huge Pirates fan, my father, wrote a letter to Rosey Rowswell, the team’s lead radio announcer, and included a check for World Series tickets. The Pirates, surprisingly, were threatening to win the National League pennant, and with the letter and the check my father was expressing confidence in the team and its chances of playing in the World Series for the first time since 1927.
Rowswell, however, returned the check, writing in a note, “Brother, you’re too optimistic for me.”
The Pirates were only a game and a half out of first Aug. 31 and 2 ½ games out Sept. 12, but the Boston Braves clung to their lead and won the pennant.
My father isn’t around to write any checks this season, but if he were watching, he would have sent one on July 4, the day the Pirates snatched sole possession of the N.L. Central lead or the next day when they sent their record 10 games over .500 for the first time since the 1992 season. Pittsburgh fans aren’t sure what to make of it, but they’ll take it.
“It’s so strange, but it sounds so nice,” said Sally O’Leary of the Pirates’ alumni association. “Go with it for the moment. Let’s enjoy it.”
While it has been rare for the Pirates to taste first place in the last two decades, it is not unique. They reached the top of the division in a tie with St. Louis on July 15 of last season (in honor of my mother’s birthday; she was a more passionate fan than my father) and held first place alone on four subsequent days – July 18, 19, 21 and 25.
However, from their last day in first, they struggled to the end of the season with a 19-43 record and finished in fourth place 24 games behind the Brewers.
“I think everybody’s a little leery because it happened last year,” O’Leary said, “but I think the team is entirely different. Most of the players went through it and are better prepared.”
Neal Huntington, who in 2007 was given the daunting task of building a competitive team out of a perennial loser, cited injuries, inexperience and lack of depth as the reasons the Pirates couldn’t sustain their improvement last season.
“Our young players had played just 100 competitive games,” Huntington said in a telephone interview Friday. “Now they’ve experienced that. They’re better prepared for that. Our bench is better, our pitching deeper. We’ve added players who have more experience in big games.”
Harrington doesn’t regret what happened last season. “If we hadn’t been there late July a year ago,” he said, “it wouldn’t have been familiar. Now we know we have to work as hard as we can to stay there.”
The Pirates’ work ethic under manager Clint Hurdle has improved as the season has progressed and has been responsible for the Pirates’ climb to first.
“We’ve won a good amount of games and we still haven’t played good baseball,” Huntington said. “The first couple months we didn’t swing the bats well. Since the beginning of June our hitters have put together some good at bats. The starting pitchers give us chances to win games, and the bullpen has been nails.”
In April and May the Pirates averaged 2.94 runs a game and had a 25-25 record, putting them in third place, three games out of first. Since then, entering Saturday’s games, the Pirates had averaged nearly twice as many runs, 5.52 a game, and had a 21-12 record.
In June the Pirates had a 17-10 record and led the major leagues with 146 runs scored and the National League with 39 home runs.
Since May 12 the Pirates have had a league-best 32-19 record. Since June 14 they have won five of six series, tying the other. Expanding that period, the Pirates have won 10 of 12 series, losing only one. In other words, the Pirates did not get to first place by accident.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen has clearly been the team’s sparkplug and depending on where and how the Pirates finish could very well be the N.L. most valuable player.
Going into Saturday’s games, McCutchen had the best batting average in the majors, .360; led the National League with 183 total bases and was second or third in the league in slugging (.610) and on-base percentages (.463) and hits (108).
The 25-year-old’s performance, in his fourth major league season, has been especially impressive because it has come after he signed a six-year $51.5 million contract.
McCutchen, though, is a given; the Pirates know they will have his offensive production. What they need is steady offensive production from their young third baseman, q.
The second player chosen in the 2008 draft and recipient of a then record $6 million signing bonus, Alvarez performed poorly last season, hitting .191 with 4 homers and 19 r.b.i. in 74 games, and early in this season he threatened to duplicate that performance.
At mid-June, the 25-year-old Alvarez was hitting.189, but Hurdle and Huntington remained confident that he would someday begin hitting.
“He’s not the first player to struggle in his second year,” Huntington said of the 2011 Alvarez. “He’s had ups and downs in his third year.” He then cited Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose fourth year, he said, was a struggle, but then he had a breakout year in his fifth season.
In his struggling season, though, Kemp was far more productive than Alvarez. He hit 28 homers and drove in 89 runs.
This could be Alvarez’s breakout half year. Since June 15 he has hit .366.
“Pedro’s had two stretches where he’s been as dangerous as any hitter in baseball,” Huntington said. “He’s also had stretches where he’s done dangerous things to himself. He’s going to be like other power hitters. He’ll miss but also connect.”
O’Leary credited the manager for the Alvarez turnaround. “Hurdle had faith in him and knew he had the talent,” she said. “He has confidence Pedro can do the job.” Then she added, drawing on her first-hand knowledge of the six managers the Pirates have had during their 19 losing seasons,
“Hurdle is the right guy for the team at this time. His patience with Pedro has paid off.”
If Alvarez maintains his mushrooming production, he may provide Huntington with his payoff. The general manager is eager to make a trade or two to bolster the team for the stretch run and the playoffs.
He recalled that last year he traded for first baseman Derrek Lee and outfielder Ryan Ludwick just before the July 31 trading deadline.
“Derrek got hurt right away,” he said, referring to Lee’s fracturing his wrist two weeks after he joined the Pirates, “and Ludwick struggled for us.”
The experience will not discourage Huntington from trying it again. “We’re going to try to improve if we can,” he said. “We have the flexibility to do what we have to do. We’re looking to buy instead of selling.”
Those words are sweet music to the fans, even those who were skeptical that the team’s latest plan from its latest management team would work. It may be premature to draw any conclusions, but this plan may be the one that returns the Pirates to respectability, winning records and – oh my goodness – even a championship one day in the near future.
“The fans are very, very excited,” O’Leary said. “It’s a complete turnaround. The fans are so into it. This generation of fans hasn’t ever seen it. They deserve it, but we old-timers do, too.”
LOOK AT SIGH YOUNG NOW
The Pirates have had two intriguing developments with their pitching staff, which has the fourth lowest earned run average (3.49) in the league. The first development is named A.J. Burnett.
Wasn’t he the winner two years ago of my inaugural Sigh Young award as the worst pitcher in the majors? That’s correct, but his trade to the Pirates last February has turned him into a different pitcher. Working in the final year of his $82.5 million contract, the 35-year-old Burnett has a 9-2 record and a 3.71 earned run average.
“As we looked at A.J. and a dozen other pitchers as trade targets, ones we felt we had a legitimate shot at,” general manager Neil Huntington said, “our scouts still saw the talent – a ground ball guy who gets strikeouts. He gets out of the American League, out of Yankee Stadium, out of the American League East and goes into the National League Central and a pitcher-friendly park.
“To hear the hunger and the passion in his voice, for a competitive general manager, we knew we had a hungry, passionate guy coming here. He would like to have done it in New York.”
Burnett’s younger colleague, James McDonald, is the Pirates’ other intriguing development. A 27-year-old right-hander, McDonald has a 9-3 record and 2.37 e.r.a.
Before last season with the Pirates, his first complete season in the majors. McDonald spent parts or all of seven seasons pitching in the minors and one season in the minors becoming an outfielder. He pitched in the majors parts of three seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers and one part with the Pirates after they acquired him from the Dodgers in 2010 in a trade deadline deal for Octavio Dotel.
What’s intriguing about the McDonald acquisition is young players acquired in trade deadline deals usually don’t make it to the majors. Teams dumping a salary, as the Pirates did with Dotel’s in 2010, generally just want a breathing body or two in return so they have something to show their fans.
McDonald, however, has developed into a legitimate starting pitcher after struggling for so long to make it as a starter, a reliever or an outfielder. A 4-5 record with a 3.52 e.r.a. in 11 post-trade starts earned him a shot at a full-time spot in the Pirates’ rotation. He responded with a 9-9 record and 4.21 e.r.a. in 31 starts last season.
Now with Burnett he is a co-ace of the Pittsburgh staff. Except they are not equal in pay. Burnett’s salary is $16.5 million. McDonald’s is about $16 million less – $502,500.
LATEST LESSON: USE HEAD BEFORE MOUTH
Joe Torre has always seemed like one of the more intelligent people in baseball, but even he can put his foot where his teeth belong.
The former player and manager and currently high-ranking baseball executive was asked recently if he thought one of his former players, Roger Clemens should be elected to the Hall of Fame. He acknowledged the messy steroids business but said yes, he believes the former pitcher is a Hall of Famer.
Torre is executive vice president for baseball operations in the commissioner’s office and has a responsibility to speak on the commissioner’s behalf. Bud Selig hasn’t said and won’t say if asked what he thinks about Clemens and the Hall of Fame. But he has made it clear that he doesn’t want to see Barry Bonds in the Hall of Fame, and Clemens is on the same low level as Bonds.
Sure, Clemens was acquitted by a Federal jury of lying to a grand jury, but the circumstantial evidence, much of which was not admitted at his trial, has convicted him in the eyes of more than a few members of the public jury.
Should Torre have lied when asked the question? Absolutely not. But he didn’t have to. Among other things, he could have said “I cannot respond to the question because of my position in baseball.” I’m certain his boss would have appreciated that reply more than the one Torre gave.
TELLING US WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
It gets tiresome reading or hearing self-proclaimed experts telling those who don’t hold their views that they are wrong.
Just the other day a television announcer, talking about last year’s National League most valuable player, Ryan Braun, said matter of factly, as if everyone except the dumbos who voted for Braun, that the m.v.p. was Matt Kemp.
Just a few days before that I saw this gem on a Web site in a column, or blog, if you prefer, about voting for the All-Star game:
“…I’ve already accepted that the players and managers don’t quite grasp the part about saves being a meaningless statistic.”
That’s not simply the writer’s opinion obviously; that is truth. It’s the same thinking that has informed me that the least important pitching statistic is wins. The people, mostly advocates of the new-age statistics, who spout this stuff know these things, and those of us who don‘t are ignorant dummies.
Saves are meaningless? Ask managers whose closers can’t get the last three outs if saves are meaningless. Have the geniuses who know these things ever tried to get the last three outs of a game? Is that achievement meaningless? When closers for teams playing the Yankees in the World Series couldn’t get the last three outs and Mariano Rivera could, was his achievement meaningless?
I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t know enough. I mean, I got along without saves before they came into existence, and I could probably get along without them now. I suspect one of the reasons the anti-save faction doesn’t like saves is they didn’t think of it first. Someone else did.
It seems from what I’ve read that many of the new-age statistics exist because Stat Guy B didn’t want to be outnumbered by Stat Guy A so he concocted his own variation of the same statistic.
I say we all should be free to be as smart or as dumb as we choose, but let’s not proclaim ourselves as geniuses and the other guys as dopes, like those players and managers who don’t understand that saves are meaningless.
By the way, I read no further into the blog in which the author proclaimed himself a genius for knowing that saves are meaningless.