Any one second: he remembered: the thought of feeling like he’d be feeling this second for 60 more of these seconds — he couldn’t deal. He could not f—ing deal. He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down into like one second — less: the space between two heartbeats. A breath and a second, the pause and gather between each cramp. An endless Now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat. And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive. Living in the Present between two pulses. – David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
As Pirate fans, we’re conditioned to expect the worst. We should be. No sports team in the history of American sports has ever been as bad for as long as the Pittsburgh Pirates have been bad. It’s possible that no team will be this bad for this long ever again. When the high schools in Western PA graduate their 2011 classes in May, most of the students graduating will have never seen a winning Pirates team. We’d be crazy to expect anything except the worst.
It’s easy to let the past bleed into the present when the past is so ugly. So what if the Pirates start 2011 25-20? A three-game losing streak will have fans saying, “Same old Pirates.” So what if Pedro Alvarez hits 10 home runs in his first 20 games? A three-strikeout night will have people saying, “Same old Pirates.” Maybe Charlie Morton makes two excellent starts and halfway through his third, he walks two batters and serves up a three-run homer. “Same old Pirates.”
But sometimes I think the Chicken Little mentality that we all have as Pirate fans makes it hard to see this 2011 club for what it is. What if the Pirates didn’t lose 105 games last year? What if the team wasn’t lining up for their 19th consecutive losing season? Most of the position players on the club weren’t with them on Opening Day last year. Only two have really been part of more than two of the last 19 years. What if we build a wall around 2011? What if we view whatever happens (or from this point in time, going to happen) in the context of only itself and not in the context of the nightmare run that’s been the entire post-Bonds era in Pittsburgh? What do we really have in the 2011 Pirates?
We’ve got a young team with some real talent including one of the most exciting players to watch anywhere in Andrew McCutchen and another guy that’s a joy to watch in Jose Tabata. We’ve got a third baseman that can hit a ball as far as anyone if he can cut down on his strikeouts. We’ve got a second baseman who refused to give his career up for dead even when people like me had written him off and who just might turn out alright if he can take a walk or two and keep hitting the ball hard. We’ve got some talented pitchers who could surprise people if they manage to stay within themselves. We’ve got a heck of a back end of a bullpen that might be able to hold whatever leads the starters can actually get them.
We’ve also got no guarantees with this club; young players can always go in two directions and only one of them is good. The pitching staff is certainly thin and Charlie Morton and James McDonald, who are definitely the most talented members of the staff, both carry considerable risk. Alvarez and Walker carry considerable risk as well, and we may find that Tabata’s upside is more limited than we’d hoped. But the beauty of a team with young players is that a 70 or 72 or 73 or 75 win season in 2011 doesn’t have to represent a ceiling. In the past, in say 2008 or 2009, the Pirates were capable of 73 or 74 wins without the trades that were made, but that was the most they were capable of. Because the Pirates have fielded so many of those teams in recent seasons, it would be easy to see a 70 or 73-win season in 2011 as more of the same thing. But if we just live in 2011, maybe it’d be easier to see it as something more. Easier to be less cynical about the future of the Pirates because of the way the past has treated the team and the fans.
Of course, we don’t know what 2011 holds in store for the Pirates or for us as Pirate fans. It could be more disappointment, more unfulfilled promise and wasted talent, more losing; that’s always a risk in sports and in life. But if this Pirate team does have the core of the the first winning Pirate team in almost a generation on it right now, then we should be thinking of them as the beginning of something good and not the end of something bad.
It’s Opening Day. Opening Day is always a day for hope. And it’s sad that as Pirate fans, we don’t have the hope that we could be watching a World Series Champion or NL Pennant winner or an NL Central winner or even a .500 team. But what we do have is the hope that maybe if things go right this year, that we’re watching the start of something better than what we’ve seen in prior years. If 2011 can be The Season Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata Conquered the World or The Season Pedro Alvarez Found His Swing or The Season Charlie Morton Suddenly Realized His Talent, then it doesn’t have to be just the 19th consecutive losing season. If we build a wall around it, maybe we’ll all be able to enjoy it for what it is and not hate it for what it isn’t.