High Seas: Pirates start season in classic Pirates fashion

Friends, welcome back to another Pittsburgh Pirates season.

Let’s first deal with the elephant in the room. The Pirates suck, and they have sucked for a long time. In each of the past two years, they lost a hundred games; they haven’t finished outside of the bottom two in their division since 2016, they haven’t made the playoffs since 2015, and they boast four — just four — winning seasons since 1992. This is a city of champions. The Steelers are one of most storied franchises in the National Football League, and no team has won more Lombardi Trophies; the Penguins have not missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2006, winning three Stanley Cups in that time. Yet in this city of champions, a town that thrives on sports, an exception is made for the Pirates. They are allowed to be our lovable losers. We don’t expect much from our Bucs, and for the most part, they don’t deliver — a structure backed up by dirt-cheap tickets for fairweather fans to enjoy a summer afternoon at the park, and an owner unwavering in his belief that every dollar spent on improving his baseball team could be better spent on improving his hair.

But do you remember, dear reader — do you remember when the Pirates were good? The answer is probably not, and there is no shame in answering “no,” for I too would answer no if not for the circumstances of my childhood. I was a middle-school boy in central Pennsylvania, at the very periphery of Pirates country, but culturally Appalachian enough that all but the odd sports fan bled black and gold. To fairweather fans like us, the Pirates’ 2013 run to the NLDS, and the playoff seasons in 2014 and 2015, came out of nowhere. Andrew McCutchen was in the prime of his career, Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte were providing juice from the batter’s box, and veteran Francisco Liriano and wunderkind Gerrit Cole were letting it fly from the mound. I was too young to stay up and watch the Bucs play night games on TV, and we didn’t have cable anyway, but every morning I would bounce out of bed, log on to my dad’s old Lenovo Thinkpad, and check the score from the day before, and take note of how we were faring in the standings, both in the division and the wild-card. Those three years were electric to me, a solitary boy more than a hundred miles from PNC Park. What it was like here, I can’t even imagine.

But then the run ended, just as abruptly as it started. In 2016, the Pirates sucked again, and the Penguins won the Stanley Cup; as a fickle child with fickle loyalties, a greater and greater share of my sports brain was filled with hockey, and baseball fell by the wayside. They were the lovable losers, and I’d check in on how they were doing once in a while, but seeing loss after loss pile up from afar, for six years in a row, gradually stopped hurting. As I got into high school, I had bigger worries. Learning how to solve integrals, how to drive a car, how to talk to girls, how to wear a mask, how to apply to college.

But then, after coming to college, something funny happened. That was the year I fell back in love with baseball, even if it was with the warped Bucco version of baseball, a game in which you trade your good players for prospects, and then just as they blossom into ballplayers in their own rights, trade them for more prospects. I cheered Daniel Vogelbach, Mitch Keller, Oneil Cruz, Jack Suwinski, Cal Mitchell, Tyler Heineman, and the rest of the band of upstarts and misfits as they staggered their way to a 62-100 record.

My hope with this column — which will be weekly during the overlap of our school year and the baseball season — is that if you, too, are in love with baseball, I can provide you with a fellow sufferer, someone who will rejoice with you in every win and feign surprise at every two-hitter blowout loss. But more than that, if you don’t love baseball yet — and I know that many of you who have never, by choice, sat through a ballgame will look skeptically at the word “yet” — I hope to slowly, over the course a hundred and sixty two games of Pirates baseball, change your mind. I hope you fall in love with the rhythmic melody that is the baseball season, with the smell of freshly cut grass and overpriced ballpark hot dogs, and with the team that will jog out onto the field, seen only by the truest of the Pirate faithful, to prove that they’re more than just the lovable losers from the City of Champions.

And if they don’t suck — if they actually cobble together a decent season — then won’t it be beautiful to behold it together?

Game 1

I have to admit that, even as an esteemed baseball columnist, I did not watch the game. I watched bits and pieces of it, but my priority was cramming for my 6:30 machine learning midterm. How did the midterm go, you ask? Let’s talk about baseball.

Pirates’ manager Derek Shelton chose Mitch Keller (5-12, 3.91 ERA in 2022) as his Opening Day starter, and Keller responded in true Pirates fashion, which was by imploding. In the bottom of the first, a single, a walk, and another single loaded the bases for Cincinnati, but Keller got out of it, allowing only one run, when catcher Tyler Stephenson grounded into a double play. He kept things together until the fourth, when he gave up a long home run to Spencer Steer, and then it all fell apart in the fifth. A walk, a single, and a long triple later, suddenly the number next to “CIN” on the board was a four, and Shelton came out of the dugout to relieve Keller. Final statline: six hits, four runs (all earned), and ten baserunners, all in less than five innings of work.

But the Pirates stayed on the board, although the bats were all but silent. In the top of the third, Oneil Cruz, the young, huge, fast, but painfully inconsistent shortstop who many expect to have a breakout season, launched a Hunter Greene fastball into the stands. In the fourth, with one out, the bases loaded, and having chased Greene from the ballgame, the Pirates scored in the most Pirates way imaginable. Bryan Reynolds and Andrew McCutchen walked, driving in two runs and taking a 3-1 lead. Then Cruz (Cincinnati) uncorked a pitch into the dirt, getting away from Stephenson, and Cruz (Pittsburgh), who was by then on third, scored before Stephenson could even collect the ball. The Pirates had one hit in the fourth inning, and were walked four times. If the only way this team can get on base and score is when the other team shoots themselves in the foot, we might be in for a long, long year.

But never mind that, because the Pirates bullpen took it from there and methodically shut down the Reds the rest of the way. Dauri Moreta, Rob Zastryzny, Colin Holderman, and David Bednar allowed no runs and only two baserunners, one of the better Pirates bullpen outings we’ve seen in a long time. Pittsburgh added only one run — a fly ball from Cruz allowing the wily Ji-hwan Bae to score — but it was enough. Pittsburgh 5, Cincinnati 4. Final.

This win was more of a relief than anything else. Keller was awful, the bats were okay, the bullpen was lights-out. But I can’t complain. The Pirates won, my ML exam is over, and we’ve got another ballgame teed up for Saturday. And I do believe that, in the NL Central, these hapless Buccos own a share of first place.