They're a game out of first and they might try to get better at the trade deadline
By Johnette Howard
July 15, 2011
Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen(notes) (22) warms up on deck during the bottom of the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs in Pittsburgh Saturday, July 9, 2011. It was announced during the game that McCutchen was added to the National League All-Star team. The Cubs won 6-3.(AP)
The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar."
-- Shirley Povich on Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series
Pirates management has spoken. Now I am studying what Clint Hurdle and the boys still lack. I am scanning every corner of baseball -- the Triple-A rosters, the injury lists, the doghouses and top-shelf talent of every big league team -- and I'm asking myself what'll it be: pitching or hitting? Hitting or pitching? I am a native Pittsburgher and, for the first time in forever, the Pirates have declared themselves buyers, not sellers, as the July 31 trade deadline approaches.
Do you know what a rare, strange, intoxicating change this is?
As baseball pulled out from the All-Star break this week, the Pirates sat just one game out of first place in the National League Central. A year ago, they lost a soul-numbing 105 games. As the second half begins, they're 47-43 and threatening to end their skid of 18 straight losing seasons, a record among the four major North American pro sports.
Do you know what this means?
Don't bother answering just now if you need a reply from me right away. There are only 17 shopping days 'til baseball's Christmas and I still have WAR, RISP, OPS and bar tab numbers to crunch before the trade deadline. (Can you believe what they charge for Iron City nowadays? I know it's the champagne of beers, but still …) The paranoid part of me wants the Pirates' surprising season to freeze in place right now -- where's a lockout when you really need one? -- and another part of me wants the Pirates to swing a buyer's trade just for the hell of it, just so we can say we did.
I don't care if it's a deal for a pine tar rag with a big upside and an exorcism to be named later. Just do it. Throw a news conference. Backslaps all around.
For too long, the Pirates have been the team only U-Haul could love. Our franchise didn't invent the roster fire sale, but it damn sure perfected it. Budding talent (Nate McLouth), a past batting-title winner (fan favorite Freddy Sanchez), players on the brink of salary raises -- we had 'em all and traded them away in other years. The Pirates were a club that made other teams' dreams come true. The last deadline move that looks like a get-better-now trade to me is when former general manager Dave Littlefield dealt Oliver Perez and Roberto Hernandez to the Mets for Xavier Nady in 2006.
But now, the Pirates are in a tight division race with co-leaders Milwaukee and St. Louis. We're ahead of Cincinnati. And we're buyers again, baby.
"We absolutely are willing to add to this club if the right opportunity comes along," Pirates GM Neal Huntington said Wednesday in a phone interview.
Well, as long as we're out shopping then, I told Huntington, any chance we could pry Jose Reyes away from the Mets?
"Ah ha ha ha ha ha," Huntington said.
"That's not a 'no,'" I nearly sang.
"It's not a 'yes,'" he shot back, still laughing.
Eh. I know. Perhaps I overreached. Reyes is an MVP candidate in his contract year and he's expected to seek at least $20 million a season over seven. The Pirates, whose entire payroll was only $51 million on Opening Day, always fight small-market constraints.
Still, this season has gone a whole lot better than last year, when I wrote this lament about being a Pirates fan. We're a lot like long-suffering Cubbies fans -- just without the sense of humor. We have the same free-floating anxiety as Mets fans, but without the sticker shock.
You may recall -- we certainly never forgot -- that we had a chance way back in the 1992 playoffs to stop the Atlanta Braves and that infernal Tomahawk Chop from ever really taking off, and we blew it. Or to be precise, Barry Lamar Bonds, our Gold Glove left fielder, blew it. He failed to throw out ex-Pirate Sid Bream at home plate in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. It can happen, you say? Sid ran as well as any first baseman with a knee brace and two invisible bear traps on his feet could be expected to run.
No Pirates team has had a winning record since. That play still looks like our Bucky Dent/Buckner/Aaron "Freaking" Boone moment all rolled into one. If it weren't for bad luck, we'd have no luck at all. We had Bonds before BALCO. We had current slugging sensation Jose Bautista when he was still Jose Who?
Pittsburgh Pirates three All-Stars, closer Joel Hanrahan(notes) (52), center fielder Andrew McCutchen(notes), center, and starting pitcher Kevin Correia(notes) (29) are introduced to fans between innings of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs in Pittsburgh Sunday, July 10, 2011. (AP)
Now look: The Milwaukee Brewers are hearing enough footsteps in the NL Central race that they swung a midnight trade Tuesday for Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez. To which we Pirates fans yawned and said, "So?"
Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan was chosen for the All-Star Game. He's 26-for-26 in save situations this season. A closer we've got.
A right-handed power bat is what the Pirates need. The Pirates need more offensive firepower across the board. The Brewers have Weeks-Fielder-Braun. The Cards have Pujols and Holliday.
Perhaps I should call Huntington back and see if it would be too much to ask for Reyes and a Carlos Beltran rental and a hitting upgrade at first, too?
"Fantasy baseball is a wonderful thing," Huntington said, laughing again, before we hung up. "But if the right piece is out there, we may stretch a little and we may stretch a lot. Or …"
"Yes?" I said.
"We may do nothing at all," Huntington added.
The Pirates' surprising start has happened for a lot of reasons. Since taking over as GM in September 2007, Huntington and his staff overhauled the organization top to bottom, knowing scouting and development have to be huge strengths. Hurdle, in his first year as manager, has been a godsend. Ray Searage, who was hired last August as pitching coach, has had a huge impact, too. The Bucs' pitching staff came out of the All-Star break with the fifth-lowest ERA in the majors. Some of their young everyday players like All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen and second-year second baseman Neil Walker (59 RBIs already) have shone.
To say Hurdle, a barrel-chested man with a granite jaw and booming voice, is a glass-half-full guy doesn't begin to capture him. After taking the Pirates job rather than wait for a second interview with the Mets, Hurdle declared, "This is one of the greatest opportunities in all of sports." Huh? Last year's Pirates just missed a grand slam for futility. In addition to having the worst record, they also had the majors' worst ERA (5.00), tied for the most errors (127) and were next-to-last in team batting average (.242). They were outscored by 279 runs. This year, they're plus-8.
This Pirates club has also grabbed attention by ripping to a 19-11 division mark so far, and by grabbing two out of three from the Phillies and then the visiting Red Sox in June. At one point, the Pirates drew four straight sellout crowds for the first time ever at picturesque PNC Park. Cynicism is falling away.
As Huntington says, "The great thing about those sellouts is the fans have been our fans. We've had home sellouts in the past when Philadelphia came to town, when Boston came here. But quite honestly, a lot of their fans made the trip. But last weekend, we sold out when we played the Cubs and it was our fans. That was a blast. I had a reporter tell me it was as loud as he's ever heard it here."
It reminds me of that scene in "Young Frankenstein" in which Gene Wilder, looking quite smart with his fright wig hair and lab coat, flips a big electrical switch and the cadaver blinks and Wilder backs away bellowing, "It's ALIVE! It's A-LIVE!"
In baseball terms, it's not quite the same as shouting, "The Pirates win the pennant! The Pirates win the pennant!" But if by some magical confluence of events, the Pirates make the playoffs this year, meet me on the South Side when the postseason starts. Pull up a stool and say hello.
As we like to say in Pittsburgh these days, I'm buying.
And after what we've been through, may it always be so.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at email@example.com.