What else can baseball fans do in January but dream of October? In You May Say I’m a Dreamer, the Outside Corner staff will imagine the route to a World Series in 2012 title for all 30 teams.
“Same Old Pirates.” For a long time, every single glimmer of hope on Pittsburgh’s North Shore was followed with that phrase. A good trade followed by an injury. A promising draft pick resulting in a bust. A first place surge in July followed by a historically bad August. Every year, the Same Old Pirates seemed to find a way out, and so you’ll forgive me if I need just a minute or two for this to sink in.
In March, we saw the slim Pedro Alvarez for the first time. Early on in the spring, he took three straight pitches to fall behind in the count 1-2, then waved weakly at a curveball in the dirt for strike three. Same Old Pirates. Except that next time up, he expected a curve with the first pitch, stuck with it, and laced it through the left side of the infield for a single. And the next day at McKechnie, he lasered a first pitch fastball 425 feet through the spring breeze to dead center field. I remember then that the thought crept into my head for the first time: “Maybe this year will be different.”
That sort of realization doesn’t happen all at once, though. It happens bit by bit as the long season wears on. On June 1st, Ryan Braun made his return to the Brewers lineup against the Pirates in Milwaukee and the Brew crew lit the Pirates up 10-1. That dropped the Pirates to the .500 mark for the first time since early April and a lot of Pirate fans started to say it: “Same old Pirates.” The Pirates bounced right back from that, though, and took the next two games in Milwaukee and pressed on from there. That wasn’t what any Pirate fan expected.
In late June, people started to notice that Charlie Morton’s strikeout rate was creeping up towards 7.0 K/9 and he wasn’t sacrificing a ton of groundballs to get there. As July started, Jose Tabata had a .300 batting average and a .370 OBP. When the trade deadline came around, Erik Bedard was still healthy. In mid-August, Andrew McCutchen’s OPS sat at exactly .900 with no signs of the late-season fade he suffered in 2010 and 2011. On September 1st, the Pirates were in first place and Pedro Alvarez had 28 home runs. That’s the strange thing about a season like the one the Pirates just finished: nothing that happened to get them into the playoffs was that surprising by itself, but to have every single thing go right and fall into place is staggeringly improbable and it’s hard to even process how crazy this sort of thing is.
It’s always magical when a sports team comes together to make a championship run, even when the team is a talented team people expect to see there. But when that team is the Pittsburgh Pirates? A team everyone thought would be lucky to win 75 games before the season? It was the world’s greatest plate-spinning act. Barmes and Barajas looked ageless. Tabata and Alvarez made the talk about their pre-season status as disappointing prospects seem ludicrous. Think about it this way: Everything had to go right to get the Pirates into first place on September 1st, but even after that everything had to keep on going right to make sure they were there at the end of the season.
And that’s not even mentioning the playoffs! If there was ever a fan base just happy to be in the playoffs, it was Pirate fans. Who could blame them after 20 straight losing seasons? But while their fans held playoff keggers through the Division Series, the Pirates went about their business like veterans who’d all been there before. They took care of the Phillies in four games before the initial playoff euphoria had a chance to subside, and from there it all feels like one big dream made up of Andrew McCutchen making diving catches and Neil Walker mashing home runs in front of hometown fans and Jose Tabata legging out doubles and Pedro Alvarez making balls disappear into October nights, all while Charlie Morton made Reds and Phillies and Yankees pound groundouts into cold grass and James McDonald baffling baseball’s best hitters. It’s all there, right up to the huge dogpile on Joel Hanrahan just behind the PNC Park mound after ending Game 7 with a strikeout of Mark Teixeira.
The 2012 World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. Even having seen it happen, it seems ridiculous to type.