I have a confession to make. I don’t remember anything about Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. I certainly have baseball memories before October 14, 1992, but not one thing from that night itself has any place in my permanent memory banks. Given that I vividly remember Joe Carter’s home run in 1993 and several other things about that season, that makes me the proverbial line of demarcation between Pirate Fans That Remember, and Pirate Fans That Don’t.
This is strange; the Pirates’ meltdown in that game — Jim Leyland’s refusal to take Doug Drabek out, Francisco Cabrera’s hit, Barry Bonds’ subsequent bad throw, and Andy Van Slyke’s dejected reaction in the outfield — is the seminal moment in my life as a baseball fan. I haven’t repressed the memory, either. I was seven years old and it was a school night so I was in bed when all this happened. I can imagine how the next morning went, though. I almost certainly went to bed with the Pirates leading 1-0, which means that when my alarm went off the next morning around 7:00 AM I probably jumped out of bed and towards my parents bathroom to ask my dad the same question I asked every morning at that point in my life: “Did we win last night?” My dad then would have sadly related the entire meltdown, mentioning that Leyland shouldn’t have let Drabek start the inning, that Belinda had nothing, that Lind’s error was inconcievable, that even though Bonds’ throw was terrible that the game had been lost long before that moment.1 My reaction is harder for me guess; there was a time in my life when I took sports way too seriously (as in, way more seriously than I do now, which says quite a bit) and with every disappointing loss, I’d throw a tantrum.2 This was before that, though. Most likely, I got a little upset, shrugged, and thought, “We’ll get ‘em next year.”
Of course, we’re all still waiting for next year. Earlier this spring, I’d kicked around the idea of buying it out of the MLB.tv vaults just to experience it, but I eventually thought better of it. With a seventeen season losing streak, it’s hard to not be held hostage by the past — both the losing streak itself and the last glimmer of success are always weigh heavily on the fans’ minds because that’s what we think about.
I’m excited about this team in 2010, maybe more so than any recent Pirate team, and it’s because they’re different. It’s because for once, we’re headed into a season that I don’t feel like I have all the answers for before it even begins. It’s because this 2010 team might not be the club that moves us beyond this never-ending losing streak, but they’re the first team that has a chance to even lay a foundation towards doing that in at least five years.
In his 2 1/2 seasons on the job, Neal Huntington’s primary goal has been to rebuild the entire organization from the bottom up with good drafting and international signings. It’s a great goal, but it’s a really slow process. We’ve spent the better part of the winter talking about his attempts to bridge the gap between the Dave Littlefield Memorial All-Stars, who were mostly traded away in 2008 and 2009, and his draft picks; the plan has been to buy low on talent that was at least at one point well-regarded, then try to polish it up and hope that some of these guys blossom into something with the Pirates. The fun part about 2010 is that we’re going to get an idea of how well this plan is going to work.
That’s why I think I’m so excited about this year; it’s the first true season of the Neal Huntington era. The minor leaguers are, for the most part, his guys. The Major League team is full of guys he aquired that are auditioning for long-term roles. Everything that happens now has a bearing on the future of the club, which is something that just couldn’t be said when Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez and Jason Bay and Adam LaRoche were playing regularly with the team.
Even though a lot of things would have to go right for this season to top out anywhere above about 75 wins for the Pirates, this is a hugely important year. How guys like Milledge, LaRoche, Clement, Jones, and Morton fare in Pittsburgh and how Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Brad Lincoln, and Tony Sanchez fare in the minors will have a huge impact on what kind of season 2011 is going to be. How the young pitchers, from Tim Alderson, Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens, Quinton Miller, and Bryan Morris on down to the guys acquired in the Jack Wilson trade and all the draftees from 2009 perform in the lower minors will dictate future drafts and all of the seasons beyond 2012.
Maybe the one question I get asked more than any other is “If you don’t think the Pirates can win in 2010, when do you think it’s going to happen?” The truth is, I don’t know the answer to that question. There are still too many moving parts to get a good read on how long it’s going to take. After 2010, we’re all going to have a much better idea.