I don't know how I feel about there being two wild cards. I assume that I'll be against it if the Pirates finish ahead of the Reds and for it if the Pirates finish behind them. I don't know how I feel about the way the Pirates have played since the All-Star Break. On the one hand, it seems like they're going to stay in the division race right until the bitter end and that was all I really hoped for at mid-season. I can intellectually appreciate that the Cardinals and Reds are two of the best teams in the National League and that two teams have to lose a three-team race and that being one of those two teams doesn't have to necessarily reflect poorly on the Pirates. And on the other, I can certainly count enough games the Pirates should have won and didn't that could have flipped this division race. I don't know how to feel about the bullpen or what to make of the rotation or how to construct a playoff rotation in which the third and fourth starters are much more consistent than the first and second guys. I have no idea if the Pirates can score runs in a playoff series against teams like the Braves and Dodgers.
Here's what I do know: the Pirates are going back to the playoffs for the first time since 1992. I know that these concerns are so much better than wondering if Busted Prospect X could somehow find a way to regain his luster or if Waiver Claim Y was even worth opening up a laptop screen to write about. They're light years beyond legitimately wondering if Dave Littlefield was a robot sent from the future intent on eliminating the Pittsburgh Pirates as a viable entity. I know that it's this moment that I've been waiting for since 1992, and not an 82nd win.
Once upon a time, I used to predict a return to prominence for the Pirates every single year. I did it in 1994 and 1995 and 1996. I don't think I did it in 1997, but I'm sure that I did in 1998 and 1999. I don't remember exactly when I stopped. I think that it must've been right around when I read Moneyball, which was after the 2003 season. Like so many other people, that book flipped a light switch for me. Unlike most of those other people, it came with a depressing realization for me: the Pirates had no idea what they were doing. In 2005, when I started WHYGAVS, I started really trying to understand baseball analytically (I played through high school and, like most baseball players, never really thought much about the wheels and cogs) and I got more and more horrified by the Pirates every year. When the Pirates hired Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington late in 2007, it became simultaneously clear to me that they had a plan to build a good Pirate team, and that the hole dug by the previous front office was so much deeper than I had previously imagined. 2008 and 2009 and 2010 all passed without the Pirates sniffing a respectable team. They got closer in 2011 and closer still in 2012, but I still spent most of my week in Bradenton this spring fretting about the Pirates being incomplete and worrying about wasting another year of Andrew McCutchen and trying to figure out how the puzzle was going to fit together in 2014 or 2015 or 2016.
One of the things that I've certainly learned in life is that sometimes you are incapable of knowing how much something affects you until it's over. When it comes to the Pirates for me, it hasn't so much been the constant losing or the terrible baseball, it's been the complete and utter lack of hope that accompanies each Pirate season. I don't even know how to describe this without feeling foolish for being a Pirate fan; it's impossible to describe what it's like to be excited for baseball every spring, but resigned to know baseball will end in September for Pirate fans while other teams and their fans get to live through the playoffs. It's been profoundly strange to watch the Rays and Nationals rise to prominence over the last few years, fall short, see their fans wail in agony over finally having a real baseball team to care about only to have it break their hearts again, to sympathize with them, and then to think, "Why are you complaining? I would kill to just be in that position with the Pirates."
I understand that that sounds dangerously close to saying, "I don't care what happens from here on out, the Pirates made the playoffs and that's good enough for me," but that's not the emotion that I'm feeling or what I'm trying to convey tonight. What this is an incredible and unexpected relieving of a burden. The Pirates weren't really supposed to be this good this year, but suddenly, they are. They're in the playoffs and I have no idea what's going to happen next. They could get hot and shock the hell out of the world one or two or three more times, because why not? If they don't, well, that's something we can deal with when it happens.
I'm going to repeat a sentiment that I've been hitting on since the Pirates won their 81st game a few weeks ago, because I think that it's particularly true now that we know they're going to be in the playoffs. What's always been hard about being a Pirate fan is the concept that you are watching the Pirates and rooting for a future result. It's hard to have the best part of your year as a fan be seeing Andrew McCutchen in person in a Triple-A game and realizing that he might be the real deal. It's hard to isolate and distill the few good things from awful seasons into some sort of unknown building block for the future. What's great about clinching a playoff spot is that there's no more worrying about building blocks. There's no more wondering about windows and when they'll open or how long they'll stay open for. There's a real, tangible, good baseball team wearing a Pirate uniform this year, and that finally takes precedence over everything else. I don't know what's going to happen to the Pirates next and I can't promise that it will be good, but I do know that this is much better than the certain doom that's surrounded other Pirate teams of the recent past.
In a lot of ways, I feel like i've been watching the Pirates build and build and build during the Huntington years, but I've been doing it without ever looking up from what I thought the blueprints were. Suddenly, the building is finished and I'm not sure that it looks like what I thought it'd look like, but all I want to do is go inside and explore it. The Pirates are in the playoffs. They made it. I made it, as a fan. You made it. We all made it through the worst times. There's something new and different ahead, and whatever it is, it has to be better than what's behind us.