Pat Higgins | Asst. Sports Editor
The Pirates clinched a berth in the postseason on Tuesday night in Chicago for the first time in 21 years. Hollywood couldn’t have written a more fitting script for a franchise that’s been marred by injuries, bad luck, poor scouting and routinely miserable personnel decisions for as long as I’ve been alive: Marlon Byrd botched a routine play on a single to right-center in the bottom of the ninth at Wrigley, Andrew McCutchen gunned one in on a rope to Justin Morneau, who chucked it to catcher Russell Martin for a tag out at the plate to end the game and bring the team’s magic number to one. Moments later, the Cardinals defeated the Nationals, and the Buccos were spraying champagne in Chicago.
If you’re a fan, you likely already know this. But if you’ve managed to stick with the Pirates through the disappointments and despair that’s characterized the last two decades, here’s what you might not know: it only gets better from here.
Since baseball’s dawn in America in the late 19th century, through its transition as this country’s pastime and to the present day, the game has barely changed. From April through September each season, pitchers toe the rubber exactly 60 feet and six inches from home plate on elevated mounds of dirt in ballparks around the country. They hurl seamed balls at a players wielding sticks of maple at 90 plus miles per hour about 150 times a game, five or six times a week for 162 games a year, all vying for the right to play in the postseason, the Fall Classic.
September passes the torch on to October, and the pressure and drama of playoff baseball replace the monotony of the regular season. Ten teams earn the right to forge on when the regular season schedule concludes, and a select group of pitchers and batters continue to throw and hit a tiny white spec of energy at each other into the autumn.
I’m a Phillies fan currently living on the wrong side of Pennsylvania. I was born roughly two months before Joe Carter abrubtly ended the 1993 World Series in Toronto when he yanked a walk-off homerun over the left field fence to win the series for the Blue Jays. For the first 15 years of my life, I watched the Phillies field less than mediocre teams in the cellar of the NL East while the Atlanta Braves ripped off 13 straight division titles. Other than Pat Burrell, I’m talking players like Jason Michaels, Tomas Perez and Rheal Cormier – there’s a reason no one’s ever heard of them.
And then things turned around in 2007, when they won their first division title since 1993. They sputtered in the first round and were swept out of the Division Series. But they returned in 2008, won their second division title in as many years and took me on a wild ride through October all the way to a World Series title. I was a sophomore in high school at the time – homework didn’t happen in October.
In the years since Ruben Amaro Jr. has run the franchise into the ground from his seat in the general manager’s office. I still follow the postseason, enjoy the drama and love watching role players come off the bench for some of the biggest at bats of their careers. But it’s not the same when your team is golfing instead of playing every other day.
Every pitch counts, and one mistake on a fastball belt high over the plate can cripple a team’s shot at a World Series title at any given moment. My stomach turned every time the Brewers, Dodgers or Rays put a base runner on first and watched from the edge of my seat when he advanced into scoring position for an entire month. School was cancelled across the city the day two million people showed up for the parade down Broad Street.
Grown men play a kid’s game at the highest stakes; the first team to survive the league’s playoff format and rip off twelve wins celebrates like Little Leaguers, hoists the Commissioner’s trophy in front of 50,000 fans every year and joins an elite list of professionals with a championship ring.
Time will tell if the Pirates have what it takes to play through October, but get ready for the ride. Because whether they lose to the Reds in the Wild Card round or face the AL Champion in a seven game series for all the marbles in a month, you may not experience anything like it for another 21 years.