Pirates have finally given their jaded fans reason to believe
Led by makeshift roster, the Pirates are half-game out in NL Central
There hasn't been much to cheer for in Pittsburgh since loss in 1992 NLCS
Reason says Bucs don't have pitching offense to contend, but who knows?
They could do it, couldn't they?
The Pittsburgh Pirates are hangin' in, they're starting to believe. It takes a great leap of faith and imagination to look at Michael McKenry and see October. But when you are a Pirates fan, faith and imagination are about all you've got.
McKenry is Pittsburgh's seventh catcher this season. He is 26 years old. Until the Pirates desperately acquired him from the Red Sox on June 12, McKenry had eight major league at-bats and zero major league hits. He spent six years and had nearly 2,200 plate appearances in the minors. He wasn't just in the bushes. He could identify the species of bush.
Yet here he is, handling pitches from the staff with the eighth-best ERA in baseball. The Pirates are 18-8 when McKenry is catching.
I'm a Pirates fan. I'd never heard of the guy.
Nor rookie Chase d'Arnaud, who is Pittsburgh's shortstop of the moment and not a member of the Swiss national fencing team. Nor Xavier Paul, nor Jay Harrison, nor ...
Every box score is an adventure with these guys. Every morning for at least a month, I squinted at the small print to discover another player I'd never heard of. A few weeks ago, Eric Fryer was catching pitches from Tim Wood. Well all right, then.
Yet here they are, 96 games into it, a half-game out of first place in the NL Central. The Pirates pitch, they defend, they do the proverbial little things. On Monday and Tuesday, they beat the far more talented Cincinnati Reds 2-0 and 1-0. The runs scored on two groundouts and a sacrifice fly.
The Pirates have the mojo to stay in the mix in the egalitarian Central. Which is incredible in itself, given the words "mojo'' and "Pirates'' have been aliens for 18 years.
I covered Game 7 of the '92 NLCS. Talk about mojo. The Atlanta Braves won it with three runs in the bottom of the 9th. They won on a hard single to short leftfield by a guy who'd had 10 at-bats all year. The player who scored the winning run from second base couldn't outrun Captain Ahab in a 100-meter dash.
The names Francisco Cabrera and Sid Bream are forever etched upon the tortured psyches of Pirates fans. That loss would define a franchise and its fan base for a generation. It was closing time for the once-mighty Buccos and everyone knew it.
Bobby Bonilla had left a year earlier. Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek departed a couple weeks after the Cabrera Game. In '92, the Pirates won 96 games. In '93, they won 75, a total they've topped exactly once since. Their spectacular run of failure has no rivals: Eighteen consecutive losing seasons, seven last-place finishes. Overnight, the Pirates became everyone's Homecoming opponent.
They were symbolic of baseball's aristocratic system. They once played the Yankees with a team payroll lower than the salary of Alex Rodriguez. Every time Bud Selig would crow about parity, we in Bucco Nation (a hamlet, really) would point to our forlorn men and say, "Ptooey.'' Or something like that.
Even as teams such as the Florida Marlins, Oakland As and Minnesota Twins rose above their serf status to become temporary princes, the Pirates wallowed. It seemed hopeless. Last year, the Bucs lost 105 games and finished sixth in the six-team Central for the fourth year in a row.
Early last season, I did an interview with Pirates president Frank Coonelly for SI.com. Coonelly said he believed the Pirates would contend. I asked him if he thought that would be before or after my great grandchildren died. Coonelly said no, the Pirates would contend in 2010. He really said that.
I spent a few hundred words making fun of him. Turns out, Coonelly was only a year off. Which, after 18 years of Siberia-wandering, isn't far off at all.
Can they maintain? Can my Pirates -- they've always been my Pirates, even when they were junk -- serve up a surprise unlike any seen since the 1969 Mets?
Head and heart, enter the Octagon.
Head: Are you kidding? This team wheels out an Everyday Eight that couldn't beat the Braves. The Gwinnett Braves. If something happens to Neil Walker and/or Andrew McCutchen, they'll have fewer hits than Nancy Sinatra. No team that's 23rd in MLB in runs scored can sustain anything but September heartbreak. By the way, Seaver, Koosman and McGraw aren't coming.
Heart: Frank Coonelly says the Pirates will be buyers on the trade market. The cavalry is coming, in the form of healing hitters, especially Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez has been a bust, but the potential is there. We dream because we love.
Head: Even the pitching is questionable. The best of the best -- starters Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens and James McDonald, everyone in the bullpen -- have no track record to suggest they can keep the zeros rolling. Once the pitching slips, mateys, the galleon sinks.
Heart: Have you been watching this division? Bigger names don't make for better teams. The Reds are a mess, the Cardinals have been hurt, the Brewers are underachieving. It's not unrealistic to think 85-88 wins could take it. At their current pace, the Pirates will finish with 86 wins.
They have 51 already. Last year, No. 51 came on Sept. 19. Realistically, they're another McCutchen or two from being taken seriously. But you lead with your hope in sports, don't you? The Theory Of Anything's Possible keeps you coming back.
Now, leave us to our dreams. We're doing our homework on this kid Alex Presley.
Paul Daugherty is a columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer.
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