William Miller: So, Russell, what do you love about music?
Russell Hammond: To begin with? Everything.
The truth is that the Pittsburgh Pirates of the early 90s weren’t perfect; they were good and sometimes they were even great, but they were never good enough when it mattered and that’s the only reason anyone outside of Pittsburgh will remember them at all in 50 years. That doesn’t matter; they’ll always be my favorite baseball team and they always will be and that might not change even if the Pirates win the World Series sometime during my life.
Take, for example, Jay Bell. When I see Jay Bell’s name, I always smile. I remember turning double plays in my driveway, making side-arm throws to an invisible first baseman because that was the way Bell made them. I would play fake games in my driveway and Jay Bell would always bat second and Jay Bell would always bunt Orlando Merced to second base in my little simulations. Even now, I don’t think twice about it. So here’s a question that I want you to try to answer without checking Baseball-Reference: How many times do you think Jay Bell laid down a sacrifice bunt between the first day of the 1990 season and the last day of 1991?
The answer is 69. He laid down 39 sacrifices in 1990 and came back for 30 more in 1991. His OBP was .329 in 1990 and .330 in 1991, but he batted second so that he could bunt leadoff hitters over. He made outs in front of Andy Van Slyke, Bobby Bonilla, and Barry Bonds (who batted fifth in 1991, despite already being the best hitter alive, despite running away with the 1990 NL MVP Award) like it was his job because it was his job! And don’t waste your breath telling me that style of play was normal in 1990; Bell finished 25 sacrifice bunts ahead of the player with the second most sac bunts that year and that person was Dwight Gooden, a pitcher. Check the all-time sac bunt leaders: Bell’s 1990 is the only season in the top 50 that took place before the Depression. Imagine for a second if the Pirates did that today. If that happened today, I’d be apoplectic. I’d write horrible pseudo-swear words in all caps with tons of exclamation points. I would write awful things about Jim Leyland. But in 1990? I was five. Jay Bell and his bunts were perfect and I’ll never remember them any other way.
I could do that up and down the roster. In 1990, Doug Drabek was 10th in Wins Above Replacement for National League pitchers. He was almost two wins worse than both Ed Whitson and Frank Viola. He won the Cy Young on the strength of his 22-6 record. That sort of thing drives me nuts today. But Drabek? He’s always the mulleted ace; the clutch pitcher that started the clincher in 1990 and 1991, the guy that pitched his guts out in the NLCS every single year even though he never got any offensive support.
I think that the most interesting aspect of the current stats debate is the one that was outlined on, of all places, The Simpsons, last Sunday. Baseball is a fun, beautiful, exciting sport that can become cold and calculating with over-analysis. Don’t misread me: I think there’s plenty of room for sabermetric analysis in baseball. Outside the box thinking anywhere intrigues me, whether it’s in the lab or on a baseball diamond or in a front office. Teams that question age-old baseball axioms and challenge them because they’re wrong deserve to win over teams that don’t. But it is easy to get lost in the numbers, especially when following a team like the Pirates. The numbers are all the Pirates have. Take a player like Garrett Jones, for example. Jones had a wonderful 2009 season. It was one of the great stories of the last 18 years for the Pirates. The guy came out of nowhere and just destroyed the ball for a half of a season. It was the stuff of legend; the kind of thing that would put him in the collective memory of Pirate fans forever if it had happened during a pennant race. It didn’t happen during a pennant race, though, and so Jones’ final superb stat line in 2009 didn’t matter nearly as much to the Pirates as his ability to replicate that line, and anyone could’ve told you with half a glance that that was a long shot. You could’ve said the same thing about Andy LaRoche and Charlie Morton in September last year. You can say the same thing about Neil Walker right now. The performance is great, but until the Pirates can contend the performance is much less important than the ability to maintain a high level of play, and some guys just won’t do that.
That’s really a soulless way of looking at baseball, though, and it drains me sometimes. But those teams from the early 90s? I never have to worry about Andy Van Slyke’s isolated power. The number of times Jay Bell bunted doesn’t matter. Doug Drabek’s strikeout rate is meaningless. Only the performances matter. Van Slyke’s home run in the first game I attended or his ridiculous unassisted double play from center field. Drubbing the Mets 19-2 the day before clinching the old NL East in 1992. Curtis Wilkerson’s improbable grand slam. Don Slaught. Bob Walk. Trading a former number one overall pick for Steve Buechele and not worrying if it was too much to pay for a third baseman. The way Barry Bonds owned Lee Smith and made baseball look as easy as brushing your teeth. Bell and Chico Lind. I can think fondly about Orlando Merced’s obvious joy at playing the same right field that his countryman and idol Roberto Clemente played without every worrying that his bat might not be good enough to stick at first base or right field. It all happened and maybe it wasn’t as great as it could’ve been, but it was it was certainly good enough for me when I was a little kid. And until the Pirates can turn things around, they’re really all I have.