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Friday, September 09, 2005

Last Chance Corral?

With certain exceptions, most baseball fans have something to despair about.

For example, if you're a Phillies' fan, you're not as enthusiastic as you were during the Mike Schmidt/Steve Carlton era because the ownership group that purchased the team from Ruly Carpenter, you believe has either betrayed or failed you. They have made bad free agent signings (Gregg Jefferies, for one, and now, the Jim Thome signing doesn't look so good), bad trades (do you remember who they got for Scott Rolen or Curt Schilling), bad selections of managers (remember Nick Leyva? Jim Fregosi? How about Charlie Manuel -- choosing him over Jim Leyland?) and bad management decisions (building a field with Little League dimensions in their new stadium for a team that had good pitching the years prior to the move from The Vet). Put simply, you believe that the management group is out of touch, isn't committed to winning the way their neighbors to the north are, and you are skeptical that under this administration your team can get to the World Series. So you don't turn out the way you used to.

If you're a Diamondbacks fan, you wonder how your World Championship team of a few years ago could plummet off the proverbial cliff and smash into the ground with last season's woeful record. If you're a Giants fan, you have the bittersweetness of Barry Bonds, great player, but he makes himself hard to root for. And then there's the issue of his relationship with his personal trainer and his training and ingestion methods. If you're a Rangers' fan, you're wondering when you'll get the pitching staff to make the hitters proud. And so on and so forth.

If you're a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, you wonder if you'll ever get the magic back, now that you've clinched your thirteenth straight losing season. You might as well call the time after Barry Bonds departed for the Giants as the P.B. era in Pittsburgh (post-Barry), because your once-feared franchise is now the cupcake on the schedule for teams in the playoff hunt. People used to fear a lineup that included Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Mike Easler, Manny Sanguillen, Richie Hebner, Rennie Stennett, Bill Madlock and many others. Akin to the way the city itself used to make steel and now provides services like many other cities, the Steel City has lost its muscle baseball-wise. Thirteen straight losing seasons? How many more can this franchise endure? Do fans honestly go into the season thinking that they have a shot at the playoffs with the roster they have? What do they root for?

Then again, there are the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers, who haven't fared much better, either. It's not that the Pirates are alone among once-proud franchises with their plight, but they're close to it.

And it's a shame.

Anyone who watched the Pirates in the 1970's witnessed a great rivalry with their cross-state rivals, the Phillies, especially from 1975 on. Those teams would save up something extra special for one another, and the games were just great to watch. I remember once when Jay Johnstone, the outstanding hitting (and flaky) RF for the Phillies snuck in from right field to pick Dave Parker off first base, as the first baseman wasn't holding the runner. Clutch hits by Easler, moon shots by Stargell, steals by Omar Moreno, great fielding by Mike Schmidt, clutch strikeouts by Steve Carlton, all wonderful memories.

Today it's hard to name a Pirates' player.

And that's sad.

Sad for the Pirates' fans, who deserve better. Sad for baseball, because a once-proud franchise is in a bad way. Emblematic of the dynamics of the modern world, where you have to work hard and smart to figure out a way to keep up and compete. Billy Beane has found a way in Oakland; there hasn't been similar thinking in Pittsburgh.

So if you're a Royals' fan, a Tigers' fan, or a fan of any team who isn't a perennial playoff contender, take heart.

At least your team isn't the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But Pittsburgh natives can take some consolation.

The NFL season starts this weekend.


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