16 April 2008

The Mighty Pirates

I keep thinking about what it's like to be a Pirates fan. To know -- know -- that your team has no hope. The Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992.

1992. The Dodgers opened the season 11-20. They looked bad. Beloved catching stalwart Mike Scioscia, in what would turn out to be his last season, could no longer hit. The Dodgers' best offensive player, Darryl Strawberry, had just gone down with an injury. Other than Brett Butler there really wasn't a good offensive player on the team. And the pitching was not picking up the slack --- it was average at best.

But then Dodgers began to turn it around. They went 4-1 over their next five games. And then the mighty Pittsburgh Pirates came into town for a three game series, ready to stop the Dodgers' momentum cold. It's so strange to think that the Pirates were once mighty, but they were, with three straight NL East titles in the early 90's. Bonds and Bonilla, the B-twins, are the players I most associate with those Pirates. Back then I didn't know any better, didn't realize how much better Bonds was. In fact Bonilla was gone to the Mets after 1991, but the Pirates still had Bonds, who would put up an awesome 205 OPS+ in 1992. They also had Andy Van Slyke, and Doug Drabek leading a solid though not spectacular pitching staff.

The Pirates won the first game of the series, and they led in the ninth inning of the second game, 4-1. The series loss was all but assured. The end of the Dodgers' brief turnaround was all but assured. And then they rallied. Todd Benzinger, starting his eighth consecutive game at first base, opened the bottom of the ninth with a single. He was wild pitched to second, and then Mike Scioscia singled him home. The old catcher still had something left in his bat. Dave Hansen, who would go on to be a pinch hitting hero for the Dodgers in the late 90's, but who in 1992 was just an overmatched starting third baseman, walked. The tying runs were on base. Jose Offerman sac bunted the runners over. The tying runs were in scoring position, with one out. The pitcher's spot was due up next. Erik Karros, rookie first baseman, came up to pinch hit. He battled for seven pitches, fouling off several. The count was full.

Everything I've written in the previous paragraph I had to look up on Baseball-Reference. What happened next I will never forget. Erik Karros launched the eighth pitch of his at bat into the stands. The Dodgers won 5-4.

I remember hearing it on the radio. I don't remember who the announcer was; I want to say it was Ross Porter. What has stayed with me the most is the feeling of that home run. The Dodgers were still just 16-22, but they were on their way back. They didn't need Strawberry. Eric Karros would fill that void, and more. That home run was magic. After that I felt like anything was possible. It's really strange to me that a moment from that awful 1992 season is one of my fondest memories as a Dodger fan.

Eric Karros would start every game at first base for the rest of the season, and win the NL Rookie of the Year award, though he wasn't really much more than an average first baseman that season. And the Dodgers, indeed, were not done winning after that magic home run. They won their next game to finish off a series win over the mighty Pirates. After one loss, the Dodgers reeled off 5 in a row to reach a record of 22-23. They were almost all the way back from the dead. Who stood in their way? Once again, the mighty Pirates.

Given the way 1992 ultimately ended, it would have been more honest, in a way, if the Dodgers had gone ahead and lost the first game of that series in Pittsburgh. But they won it 8-6. They were back. We were back. The Dodgers were contenders. I truly believed that. The Dodgers were 23-23, only 2.5 games back of three teams tied for first. The mighty Pirates were a mere 26-23. Anything seemed possible.

Then, reality. The Pirates won the next two games of the series. The Dodgers were, in fact, as bad as they had looked when they were 11-20. They finished the season in last place in the west, at 63-99. The Pirates were still mighty, and won the east at 96-66. Reality would not catch up to the Pirates until 1993, when Barry Bonds left them and joined the Giants as a free agent. Call it the curse of Barry. Now that he is in forced retirement, can the Pirates have a winning season again?

Maybe there is hope for the Pirates. They're 7-7 right now. They seem to have some good players. That McClouth guy looks good. That dramatic home run he hit two days ago, to beat the Dodgers and give the Pirates a winning record at 7-6: did that create a special memory for some young fan? Perhaps, but not for a very young fan --- it did happen close to 1am local time. Let's see, I was 16 in 1992. But I'm not sure I would have been staying up after midnight, not even for a baseball game.

Both the Dodgers and the Pirates have played 14 games this season. That is such an insubstantial number of games. It's nothing. Fourteen games is a few rusty starts from your ace. It's a slump from your stalwart catcher. It's a slow start from the new free agent outfielder. It's a decent stretch for a young in-over-his-head AA third baseman. It's a save and a shocking blown save from the reliable closer. Reality is hard to find this early.

I find myself hoping that the Pirates have a winning record when the Dodgers play the Pirates next, in September. And the Dodgers too, of course. A clash of contenders in September. Maybe. By then, we'll know what is real.


Apryl DeLancey said...

Unfortunately the Dodgers keep letting us down...I know how Pirates fans feel...

Griffster said...

Y'know - that's just what I thought after the Braves series:

Hmmm, so this is what it's like to be a fan of an under performing / plain bad team ( since the end result, lots of losses, is the same! )

Heck, I don't even know what the Dodgers' record is anymore, or where they are in the standings, or who they play next and who pitches! Last year I'd look at the match ups and get all excited about it and everything.