Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The St. Louis Nemesis

The most unpleasant thing for me about the playoffs every year is having to reconcile myself to how good the Cardinals are.

Being in the same division as the Cardinals, currently residing at the top of the WSJ Baseball Playoffs Hateability Index, is like having an older brother who is president of the senior class, all-state quarterback on the football team, letterman in four other sports, boyfriend of the hottest girl in school, volunteer at the homeless shelter, and accomplished violinist. You spend your whole life trying to measure up and you resent him, your parents, yourself, and the vagaries of fate for the certainty that you never can.

In my impotent rage, I now find myself rooting for any team that can be this year's Red Sox and drive a stake through their cornfed hearts, disfigure their gracious, bright-eyed, smug countenances, and knock them temporarily from their throne of self-satisfied superiority. I like the Giants a lot more than the Nationals, but I think the Nats are a better team; so I find myself pulling now for the Nats as the team most likely to keep the Cardinals out of the World Series. I have a lot of friends in Baltimore and always liked the O's, but the prospect of a KC-St. Louis series in which the Cardinals, like everyone else in baseball, can be flummoxed, baffled, and humiliated by NedBall is just too delicious to contemplate.

I hope I'm wrong, but I think the Dodgers are a lost cause at this point, Kershaw notwithstanding. That bullpen. Yeesh.

Update: Probably now is as good a time as any to resurrect this masterpiece of bilious anti-Cardinal rage.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Ned, The Royals, and Organizational Alignment

Much to the annoyance of overworked, underpaid hirelings worldwide, Jim Collins popularized the concept of organizational alignment in the books Built to Last and Good to Great, among others. These books annoyed the working stiffs because of their outsized popularity among inhabitants of the C-suite, leading them to exhort people in the ranks to pursue BHAGs (big, hairy, audacious goals) and affirm the core values that the management team came up with at an offsite somewhere in the forest (in most cases, platitudes such as excellence, quality, service and the like) with unbridled enthusiasm throughout the work day.

The idea was based on research indicating that the most successful companies were those that aligned around a belief in some principle larger and weightier than just making money or being successful. So, for example, Johnson & Johnson outperformed other similar companies because of its credo of putting the needs and well-being of the customers it serves first. So went the theory, anyhow.

One of the few things I recall clearly from the time when I was made to read these books is the insight that it didn't much matter what value the outperforming companies aligned around, as long as it was something. The most striking example I recall was Philip Morris. Unlike other competing tobacco companies during the time that government regulators were escalating their sanctions against cigarette smoking, Philip Morris framed this struggle as a freedom-of-expression issue. The consequence of aligning its employees around such ethical gymnastics was that Philip Morris outperformed its competitors. It was able to get its people to believe that they weren't just selling cigarettes; no, they were participating in a quest to defend freedom against government intervention and encroachment.

Which brings us to Ned Yost and the Royals. As we watch this strange baseball team win games in the playoffs, let's be clear about one thing before we get too carried away: as an in-game tactician, making the small decisions that must be made in a baseball game from day to day, Ned Yost is a disaster. Clint Hurdle isn't so great either, but man, this guy: lineup construction that defies everything we know about optimizing offensive efficiency; rigid, algorithmic bullpen management; giving away outs like Halloween candy. He drives analytically minded baseball fans insane, and he has richly earned their derision.

But it's also impossible to deny that something is working here. I don't want to make too much of it. Grant Brisbee is right when he says that "the postseason is nothing more than an isolated sample of games to which we pay too much attention." It's entirely possible that the Angels will wake up tomorrow like a sleepy cat that has been playing with a half-dead mouse all night, finish the job, and move on to the food bowl in the kitchen. But in the context of the Royals' peculiar alignment around pitching, stellar outfield defense, speed, well-executed bunting, and a shutdown bullpen, Ned Yost's tactics kind of work, don't they? As someone said in Twitter during one of the games this week, Ned doesn't care what we think.

What we may be seeing here is the baseball equivalent of alignment around a set of clearly defined core values. Alignment around something, whatever that something is, is always better than no alignment at all. There may be greater aesthetic appeal to alignment around the Earl Weaver values of walks, great pitching, and three-run homers, but on the other hand, those plays in the outfield and stolen bases by Dyson and Gore sure have been nifty, haven't they?

Go Royals.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

This Wild Card Game Was Different

And not just because we lost.

First, an apology to Zeke: I'm about to write about the ways in which last night's game was not the equal of the game in 2013, and you of course were unable to attend last year. I hope that you will read this and find some compensatory solace in your unique experience of following the game on a computer from Beijing in the middle of the night.

2013 had a quality of emergence. It was something that has never happened before--a one-game, winner-take-all playoff in a city that hadn't hosted a playoff game for an entire generation. No one knew how the crowd would behave, how they would act and react. The emergent results were magical, now forever burnished into our memories by the defining moment of the Cueto chant, the dropped ball, the Martin home run. As we saw last night, the circumstances of the game were a determining factor. None of what happened last year could have happened if the events in the game hadn't conspired perfectly to allow the legend of the Pittsburgh Wild Card fans at PNC to emerge. But they did. Things interacted, and magic emerged. I'm glad that I was there.

This year, ESPN and MLB talking heads in the pre-game chatter explicitly identified the Pittsburgh home crowd as a potential factor in the Pirates' favor, based on last year. That identification of the Wild Card crowd as a something caused me as a member of that crowd to be aware that something was expected of me. I now had a defined role. Right before ESPN went live, the scoreboard admonished us to go crazy for the TV audience, and we did. The same thing happened last year. But this year, it felt more like we were part of a staged TV event. Last year, we were just going nuts, and we didn't need any of the stage direction--we would have anyway because, holy shit, here we were.

I was also acutely aware last night that I don't and can't hate the Giants. Last year it was Chapman hitting Cutch with what seemed like a clear intention to intimidate, Dusty Baker and his subsequent dissembling, echoes of Phillips vs. Hughes, the culmination of a couple of years of apparently bad blood between division rivals. Contrast that with the Giants. The Panda. A bunch of white guys named Brandon. Can you really summon any bloodlust over the Panda and the Brandons as adversaries? One of the Brandons will soon be Gerritt Cole's brother-in-law.

I can't. Hell, I like the Giants. I was at their stadium and am not entirely sure I don't like it better than PNC. I ate the Gilroy garlic fries and am pretty sure I do like them better than those served up by the IMO overrated Primanti's. They would be damn good on a sandwich.

We tried to summon up this year's version of the Cueto chant, but all we could come up with was a half-hearted "Madd--eee," subliminally suggested by the name of the National Anthem singer, which happened to be Maddie George. Maaad-i-son, emphasis on the first syllable, would have worked better.

So yes, this was different. The game was too.

The Enrique Romo Story

is all here, thanks to the magic of the Internet.

An RPH tip of the cap to my old CMU classmate Marjorie Radella.

That Didn't Go Well

It turns out that good pitching does stop good hitting.

I don't recall being at such a one-sided game before, ever. Usually, even in the worst drubbings, there is one moment of ultimately false hope when you can rev yourself up with the possibility that if this happened and then that happened, the Bucs could get back into it. But after Crawford's response to the Volquez hanging curve in the third made its sickening trajectory in the direction of the right-field seats and plopped in with the finality and irrevocability of a cell phone plopping into a toilet...nothing. All hope, for this game and for the season, was lost, and things only got worse.

But that moment of the Crawford home run was remarkable. Before it happened and despite the troubling contrast between the methodical ease with which Bumgarner was slicing up the Pirates hitters and the well-directed line drives and long pitch counts that the increasingly comfortable and opportunistic Giants' hitters were taking vs. Eddie, it was still possible for us to delude ourselves into thinking that we were part of that magical PNC Park Wild Card crowd, last seen a year ago, that could will the game the Pirates' way with the sheer force of its collective psychic energy. The bases were loaded with no outs and things already looked grim, but when Volquez got two strikes on Crawford, everybody rose to their feet, black hand towels were waving all over the park, and the noise rose again to a deafening pitch. And then...plop...silence. The contrast was stunning. Suddenly, there we were in the quietest ballpark I have ever stood in. I just looked at Cal and said something like, "Oh my."

Clint, whom I have come to love after having been a frequent critic of his in-game management during his tenure, can now get that hip replacement he has courageously been deferring. He didn't manage this game particularly well. He wasn't Ned Yost bad, but there were troubling similarities. I like Joe Posnanski's comparison of Yost's formulaic management style to assembling Ikea furniture. Leave Eddie in, despite the obvious warning signs, and wait until his place in the lineup comes up and you can pinch hit for him. Man on base and a lefty reliever needed? First guy in line is Justin Wilson*. C'mon in, Justin, and just do what you always do with inherited runners--help him find his way home. Inherited runners? Jared Hughes is good with inherited runners. And after he does what he does and wiggles his way out of trouble, leave him in for another inning, because Jared is one of those relievers whom we have mysteriously determined to be able to go more than one inning. Locke? Worley? Sure, they are on the roster for the game, but did you see what happened to Yost last night when he put his starter Ventura into a Wild Card game in an unfamiliar role?

It was all kind of sickeningly inevitable, watching the Clint managing machine follow its pre-programmed formulas and move the game to its ultimate, inexorable conclusion. Bumgarner was good enough, of course, that none of this mattered a whit, but still, as we transition to the cold, depressing Season of the Up and Down Sports (Red Smith), you'd have liked to see a little creativity from the manager in the final game of the year.

Oh well. It was a hell of a season. More about that in a subsequent post.

* I would prefer never to see Justin Wilson pitch in a game ever again.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014


...is the day.

There's no way I can fully articulate how much today means to me, but I'm going to try my best anyways. Last year, I was in China, so I watched the Pirates' first playoff game in 21 years on a computer screen. Today, I get to watch a playoff game take place mere feet away from my face.

I have been a Pirates fan since I was a speck. The story goes that while my mother was giving birth to me, my father (whom you know as "Billy") was in the hospital eating a peanut butter sandwich and watching the Pirates play the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Bucs won that game, 7-4.

As a toddler, I had many strange habits. One of them was that, after taking a bath, I'd run from the bathroom to my room, wearing a towel like a cape, screaming: "
I'm Andy Van Slyke!!!"

In the years that followed, I attended, watched, and listened to thousands of Buccos games in my life. Despite the losing, rooting for the Bucs was an essential part of every Spring, Summer and Fall. And I spent every Winter huddled around the hot stove.

And now, today, one of my dreams will come true. No matter how it ends, I'm going to watch a Pirates playoff game in person.
It's happening.

Here is a by-no-means-exhaustive list of some moments I'm excited to witness tonight:

1. Edinson "Eddie" Volquez records his first strike.

2. J-Hay strolls to the plate for his first at-bat.

3. A Pirates hitter flashes the first Zoltan of the night.

4. The first absurdly insulting anti-Giants chant starts up amongst the PNC Park faithful.

5. Cutch hears the words "MVP!" ringing all around the stadium.

6. The Pirates dugout goes insane, for whatever reason.

7. Clint Hurdle hobbles out onto the field, for whatever reason. Our gimpy skipper is going to receive quite the welcome.

I don't know how to end except to underscore what today means to me. Today is a day I feel blessed to be alive, in this city, with these privileges. And I won't be alone. This blog is evidence that love for the Bucs is probably the most important thing I share with my dad. So most of all, I'm happy we're going to watch this game together.

Let's go Bucs.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

On philosophies of baseball knowledge and the 2014 WC game

One viewfrom Pat Lackey last night:

And a second, from philosopher Kenneth Burke in 1966:

Admittedly, I lean toward the latter point-of-view. Over the past few years, I've come to reject the notion that logical positivism is the only valid perspective on the world. But currently-dominant paradigms in baseball thought post-Moneyball are such that Lackey- and Wilmoth-style sabermetric analysis is, to borrow a term from a 1981 lecture by Michel Foucault, "dans le vrai." And alternative ways of thinking about the game are now "subjugated knowledges."

I should be very careful to clarify what I am not saying here. I'm not saying that I reject sabermetrics or that such an approach isn't valuable. Rather, I want to suggest that we are permitted more than one way of thinking about baseball... and that the sabermetric mood isn't necessarily the most fun one to apply to a contending Pirates team.

I thought my dad hit the nail on the head earlier today when he problematized the dominant saberhead reaction to Hurdle's decision to pitch Gerrit Cole on Sunday:
And yet, how do you watch Josh Harrison play third base and fail to see something that can't entirely be explained by rational analysis? There were a couple of games this season in which Harrison appeared to single-handedly win the game for the Pirates from the sheer force of his indomitable will.
There was a time in the early days of sabermetrics when a lot of fans actually were smarter and more knowledgeable about how you win baseball games than the people who were directing and making decisions for professional baseball teams. But those days are now long past (with the possible exception of the Phillies). And they are certainly long past with the Pirates. Can any of us still pretend that we know more about what the Pirates should do than Dan Fox, Mike Fitzgerald, Hurdle, and Huntington? That we have thought more about it and have access to information that they don't have? It was reasonable to criticize Bonifay and Littlefield on the basis of the things we learned from sabermetrics. But these guys know what they are doing, and by now they have earned our trust.
Historically, this is a new experience for Pirates fans: questioning whether we — even with the substantial support that Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and PitchFX provide us — are actually better at understanding baseball than our favorite team's brain trust. Just look at this blog's archives to see how convinced we used to be that we knew better. And back then, to be fair, we probably did (or maybe Littlefield and McClatchy knew the same things that we knew but they were acting in bad faith).

In 2014, though, I think that rooting for the Bucs is ultimately more satisfying when approached as an aesthetic or emotional pursuit. Thus, I have to applaud Dejan Kovacevic for some of his recent posts: 1. this one, 2. this one, and 3. especially this one. The latter is an eloquent and poignant recap of the spectacular September 14 home game (which I was lucky enough to attend) when three amazing things happened: Josh Harrison started an around-the-horn triple play, Neil Walker broke the single-season home run record for Pirates second basemen, and the Pirates put up six runs in the fifth inning. In his recap, Kovacevic placed special emphasis on the triple play and what such a rare event might mean to the broader emotional and aesthetic narrative of the team. In the crowd at PNC Park, it really did feel like a transformative moment. But in a post published the day after that game, Lackey didn't even mention the TP. I was offended by the omission, so I somewhat clumsily attacked him for it on Twitter:

As you can see, it's also possible to approach Pirates fandom a little too emotionally. In this case, I was a dick to a writer I respect, and whose work I've cherished for years. But I'm sure Pat knows that I love him, as the amount I mention his name in this post demonstrates conclusively.

I'm hoping and praying that Buctober 2014 is long and fruitful, for so many reasons — and perhaps the biggest is that I can't wait to read what both Pat and Dejan have to say about it (not to mention Charlie, Brian McElhinny, and others). Peculiar outcomes, I would argue, are the one thing that's actually predictable about baseball, and in our discourse about them, we can subject them to both rigorous statistical analysis and rich aesthetic criticism.

Now... is it tomorrow yet?

Clint's Choice

By now the futility of sending Gerritt Cole onto the mound on Sunday vs. Cueto and the Reds, as Wainwright stood poised in Arizona ready to dissect the Dbacks, is apparent. Tomorrow's game now rests on the hope that Eddie Volquez can come through for us at least one more time. If we could have seen Cole stalk out to the mound tomorrow night at 8 instead of Eddie, the butterflies in our bellies would have beaten their wings more gently.

But still, I like it. Analytically, it was the wrong decision, and I and everyone else knew that before it was announced. I think we also knew exactly what Clint and the Pirates were going to do, though, and when Cole was announced, no one was surprised.

I can't believe I like it, but I do. I loved it when Leyland started Ted Power in that playoff game to turn the opposition right-handed and then get the righty platoon guys out of the game after one time through the lineup. I love that kind of bold creativity, and part of me wanted to see something like that on Sunday. Since first reading Bill James in the 80s, my bias has been toward sober analysis and away from superimposed narratives about heart, guts, big-money players, clutch performances, and all of the other baloney that sells newspapers and gets people listening to sports talk shows. We create these narratives because the experience of watching a baseball game with a rooting interest in one of the two teams is primarily an emotional one, and the emotions love to tell stories. But much of the time, the stories aren't true (or at least they are unprovable).

And yet, how do you watch Josh Harrison play third base and fail to see something that can't entirely be explained by rational analysis? There were a couple of games this season in which Harrison appeared to single-handedly win the game for the Pirates from the sheer force of his indomitable will.

There was a time in the early days of sabermetrics when a lot of fans actually were smarter and more knowledgeable about how you win baseball games than the people who were directing and making decisions for professional baseball teams. But those days are now long past (with the possible exception of the Phillies). And they are certainly long past with the Pirates. Can any of us still pretend that we know more about what the Pirates should do than Dan Fox, Mike Fitzgerald, Hurdle, and Huntington? That we have thought more about it and have access to information that they don't have? It was reasonable to criticize Bonifay and Littlefield on the basis of the things we learned from sabermetrics. But these guys know what they are doing, and by now they have earned our trust.

They made the decision deliberately and, maybe as most expected, including them, it didn't work out. But adopting a pose of intellectual superiority about it just doesn't wash anymore.

I have no idea if the emotional message management sent to the team by sending Cole out on Sunday to go for the division title against long odds will translate into an edge, borne of commitment and engagement, that will tip the game in the direction of the Pirates on Wednesday. But I think that is what the team thinks, from management down to the players. I think that this is who this team is, and I don't think I'd want them to be otherwise.

It will be fun to watch it play out.

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.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Billy and Zeke are Back

And are attending Wednesday's Wild Card game.

Look for Enrique Romo to warm in the bullpen if Volqy runs into any trouble.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Bucs out of the cellar

Today is a day to stretch out and enjoy the dizzying heights of fifth place. The Pirates suffer from chronic incompetence, but our rivals the Cubs this year are showing what acute incompetence looks like. It's fitting that the winning run came on a wild pitch last night; so many of these games have not so much been won by the Pirates as they have been surrendered by the Cubs.

Remember one-run losses in the first half? The Pirates were 9-25 in one-run games before the All-Star break and are 12-2 in such games since, for a record of 21-27 overall. If you accept as a premise that luck is a greater factor in determining the outcome of one-run games than it is in other games, then what we're seeing has something to do with the tendency of luck to even out over time, as small-sample anomalies disappear. Following that premise, it's possible to believe that the Pirates were not as bad a team as they appeared to be in the first half of the season. However, they are also not as good as they appear to be now. 21-27 is closer to their true abilities than 9-25 or 12-2. Charlie at Bucs Dugout gets it right--the thin air of fifth place should not intoxicate us into thinking that this team is close to contending. It isn't.

That is exactly what the Pirates public-relations machine will assert in the off-season, though. Tracy beats the drum to the press every day, but his relentless optimism doesn't really bother me; as a leader, conveying optimism is central to his job. Littlefield, on the other hand, is a shameless and cynical purveyor of untruths for the purpose of distracting the public and his bosses from his record of incompetence. He is the worst general manager in baseball at building a team and at judging, acquiring, and retaining talent, but when it comes to self-promotion through subterfuge and guile, he is a master without peer.