Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Return of Zeke, and the Return of the Wild Card Game

This is the first thing I’ve written about the Pirates since 2006. It comes at a time when all of us here in BucNation are bouncing of the walls waiting for Wednesday’s one-game Wild Card playoff vs. the Giants at PNC Park. As my dad noted earlier, we will be in attendance. We are privileged. 
Needless to say, things have changed a lot over the last eight years.

First, a quick aside: Charlie Wilmoth’s excellent book Dry Land: Winning After 20 Years at Sea with the Pittsburgh Pirates tells the story of 1993-2013 — from the brutality of the Bonifay and Littlefield administrations to the collective sigh of relief when the Bucs crossed the 82-win threshold last year — better than anything else I've read. In my opinion, Charlie should’ve taglined it “a People’s History of the Pittsburgh Pirates, 1993-2013.” It is remarkably insightful and admirably grassroots, capturing perfectly what being a Pirate fan all those years was like. It also features a reference to this very blog, in the section where Charlie narrates the growth years of the Pirates blogosphere:
My blog and Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke? were among the first Pirates blogs to develop readerships, alongside now-forgotten names like Honest Wagner, Batting Third, Bucco Beyond, and Romo Phone Home. (31)
If you’re a lifelong Pirates fan and you haven’t read Charlie's book yet, you’re not doing it right.

Anyways, in the eight years since this blog went on hiatus, some mildly important things happened. Let's start off with the most important: Romo phoned home. And the Pirates — led by Neal Huntington, Clint Hurdle, Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, Ray Searage, Jim Benedict, Mike Fitzgerald, Dan Fox, and countless others whom I now consider personal heroes — answered the call.

In other words, the Pirates became a relevant baseball team once again. That is a cataclysmic change, one that would seem to subvert this blog’s central, founding purpose. This blog’s last post — I mean, the last post before my dad brought us back from the dead earlier today — was published in 2006. The Pirates were still more than a year away from even hiring Neal Huntington. My dad and I were anti-Nutting and McClatchy ideologues back then, and with good reason: at that point, ownership had already stuck with Littlefield through five years of leadership so abhorrent it made George W. Bush’s concurrent reign look inspired, prudent and beneficent by comparison. It was a dark, dark time. For example, here’s one illustrative nugget from my dad’s entry following the 2006 All Star game (which PNC Park hosted, and which the two of us attended in our Irate Fans t-shirts):
The reason I'm so despondent about the Pirates lately, and the reason I haven't been able to bring myself to write a post in a week or so, is that I'm convinced [that Nutting and McClatchy are not going to sell the team anytime soon.] I sit in helpless, impotent anticipation of the inevitable signing of Sean Casey — sitting with three home runs at the All-Star break — to a three-year, $18M contract, announced with great fanfare at a press conference at which McClatchy, Littlefield, and Tracy enthusiastically catalogue the many intangible assets that Casey will bring to the 2007-2009 Pirates.
If you can recall how that felt, then maybe you can understand why we all but gave up on posting after 2006. But that isn’t to say that our misery ended just because we stopped documenting it here.

Even after NH took over as GM in late 2007 and remade the franchise in his image, the Pirates didn’t really see improvements bubble up from their dramatically improved farm system for another four years. I can barely remember the Pirates teams of 2007-2010. I followed Huntington’s drafts and the performances of individual players in the minor leagues, occasionally making an effort to watch games that would feature newly-promoted players. Those were the only meaningful games, and after so many years of losing, the hope that those players seemed to offer was difficult to take seriously.

Then, the first-half successes and second-half collapses of 2011 and 2012 happened, and it seemed that the Pirates franchise had, amazingly, found a whole new way to annually crush our spirits. Those years stretched my fandom to its limits; I willfully disengaged during both second-half swoons, unable to bear the pain. At least I know that I wasn't the only one.

But in 2013, things… changed. Finally. It was just my luck that the year that things improved for the Buccos for real, I had no other option but to follow their entire season on my computer. You see, I was living in Beijing, the capital city of the People’s Republic of China, working as a copy editor for a small educational newspaper. Due to the time difference, I had to wake up at surreal hours to catch Bucs games live — and on the mornings after, when my Chinese co-workers would ask me why I was so sluggish at my desk, I had difficulty explaining my “baseball habit”. Following a Pirates pennant race from a distant timezone had seemingly turned me into a strung-out junkie. But I loved every second of it: if anything, the incongruity of my immediate geographical and cultural contexts enriched the dreamlike quality of the Bucs' season. And keeping up with it was a great way to stay connected to Pittsburgh and the people I loved. Even though I didn’t get to see a single game in person, just knowing that the Pirates were contending brought me boundless joy.

So on the morning of Oct 2, 2013 in Beijing, China, I called in sick to watch a baseball game. I streamed it live on my MacBook in my state-owned one-bedroom apartment, but I wasn’t alone: I used the Chinese app WeChat to keep in constant contact with my dad on location at PNC Park (the lucky fuck), and I was also joined in person by my good friend David, a fellow American ex-pat and a self-proclaimed Cubs fan. David supported the Bucs over the Reds in this case, obviously, because the Reds had enjoyed many seasons of competing for the National League Central title while the Cubs had, during the same period, been in the cellar along with the Pirates. The game itself, I don’t need to tell you, ending up being a stone cold masterpiece. By around 11 in the morning, we found ourselves jumping around, high-fiving furiously, popping open big bottles of Yanjing píjiǔ (a flavorless Chinese beer) in celebration of the Pirates’ 6-2 drubbing of Cincinnati and Johnny “CUEEEEEEE-TO!” Cueto. In this obscure corner of the Chinese police state, I had formed my own independent nation — the People’s Republic of BucNation. It was one of the happiest mornings of my life.

Of course, the 2013 playoffs didn’t end the way they should have. AJ Burnett, a player whom I’d grown to like but whose true character and ability I still questioned, coughed it up in Game 1 of the NLDS. Young ace Gerrit Cole couldn’t save the Bucs in Game 5. Though it was a disappointing ending, the season had still been a miracle, and what made it truly miraculous was that there were plenty of reasons to believe it could be repeated. The Pirates entered the 2013-2014 offseason with a young, talented core that still had upside, and even younger talent knocking on the door.

So, here we are, a year later, less than two days away from another WC game at PNC Park. This time, "Zeke" and "Billy" will be in the stands together. In its own way, this year's team is every bit as great and lovable as the 2013 edition, this season just as fun and exciting to behold. Who knows whether the postseason results will reflect that fact? I’ll have a great time either way.

From late 2006 until last year, engaging with the experience of Pirate fandom on the level that my father and I did during this blog’s heyday felt like a waste of time. Life was too short, we told ourselves. But two straight years of World Series contention changes our rhetorical situation dramatically. Let's take a second to bask in the fact that the Pittsburgh Pirates are in the playoffs for the second year in a row. And that Enrique Romo and the Bucs are now texting each other on the regular.

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