Luke: What’s in there?
Yoda: Only what you take with you.
When the season ended last week and I wrote up my season review and how I thought that the 2010 season must surely be the proverbial Grand Canyon for the longest losing streak in the history of professional sports, two thoughts struck me. The first was that while I’d happily trade the long, blunt pain of a dreadful losing season for a playoff berth, the acute pain of a playoff loss is always going to be worse, even if it’s a much different kind of pain. The second thing that occurred to me was that I’ve spent a lot of time writing about bad Pirate teams over the last six years (I mean, the six Pirate seasons I’ve blogged about have been awful and my biggest side project was The Road to 17, which was a long look at the first 16 years of this losing streak) but relatively little time on the three Pirate teams that have more influence on my baseball fandom than the 18 that have come since them: the 1990-1992 Pirates.
It’s not hard to see how those two thoughts fit together. As bad as the Pirates have been since 1993, it’s the sort of bad that’s so absurd that we can mostly laugh, either about how bad the Pirates are or how silly we the fans are for following them off the cliff. As good as the three teams that immediately preceded this losing streak were, the ends of those seasons caused more pain than anything the Pirates have done since then. Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS is one of the most painful losses in baseball history; it’s the only time a team has ever blown a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning of a Game 7 and it’s the loss that sent the Pirates’ franchise reeling into oblivion.
It’s also a baseball game that I’ve never seen. I know I’ve told the story here before; I went to bed in the middle of the game with the Pirates leading 1-0, and woke up only to be told that they’d blown it. I know how it ended and I’ve seen all or almost all of the ninth inning. I’ve seen Pendelton’s double, Lind’s error, Gant’s sac fly, and Hunter’s pop-up. I’ve certainly seen The Play That Ended Pirate Baseball As We Know It more times than I can count. But I’ve never seen it all.
For some reason, I’ve been drawn to the game lately. About three weeks ago, I asked on Twitter if people would be interested in doing some kind of online community re-watching of the game on Thursday for the 18th anniversary. I got a larger volume of responses to that question than I ever have to anything and the verdict was probably split 60/40 in favor of watching it, but I decided not to. Setting up an online re-watching would a public exorcism lead by a person that doesn’t believe in the demon being expelled. The misfortune the Pirates have suffered since October 14, 1992 had nothing to do with a curse descending on the club and everything to do with inept management, bad luck, and the tragic intersection of the two.
What really struck me was the 40% of the people who wanted nothing to do with a community viewing. They had almost universally experienced the game in isolation — not alone, but instead as the only Pirate fan among a crowd of Braves fans or neutral fans who just couldn’t understand the pain of what was happening. That’s how this game was meant to be experienced and doing it differently would, for me, somehow rob it of its gravitas.
Why now? That seems like a fair question. I think it’s the number: 18 years. I’m not superstitious, but one of the things that I love about baseball is the way the numbers and the history create superstitions. Growing up, Andy Van Slyke was my favorite player and part of my initial draw to him was that he wore number 18 and I was born on January 18th. After Van Slyke left the Pirates, my next favorite player, Jason Kendall, donned the number. Now the player that I see more than a little bit of myself in (at least in terms of age and Pirate fandom), Neil Walker, wears the same number. One player to start the streak, one player to bear the brunt of it, and now hopefully one to pull the Pirates out of it. Someone asked me why I wanted to do it for the 18th anniversary, why I wasn’t waiting for the 20th. The answer is that I don’t want there to be a 20th, and once the Pirates pull themselves out of this pit I have no intention of ever looking back into it or what started it. Context is everything and a successful Pirate team will change the lens through which I see baseball.
So I’m going to watch the game, because I can (it’s cheap on iTunes) and because I need to for reasons that I’m not even sure I fully understand myself. I’m going to write about, too, because a big part of this blog is about being a Pirate fan and this game will always be a seminal moment in Pirate and baseball history. You don’t have to read about it if you don’t want to, but I hope I can do more with it than just rehash the events of October 14, 1992. First, though, I’m going to go back to the teams that lead up to that date. Those teams are the reason I love baseball, and after a season like this one I kind of feel like maybe I need a refresher.