My great-grandmother used to say, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Wonder what she'd think of my annual cockamamie optimism as the Pirates trudge inexorably, it seems toward their 14th straight losing season? Isn't there some law against cruel and unusual punishment that applies to Major League Baseball fans? Can't we invoke the mercy rule on an entire season, Mr. Selig?
While the sky isn't falling, yet, the Pirates' record is. Again.
How could I have been so optimistic when I wrote just last month! about this pitching staff: "[C]ompared to years we've entered the season with starters such as Jimmy Anderson, Josh Fogg and Todd Ritchie, I'll take these guys, experience be damned."
Ah, youth. Not mine theirs.
I still believe the starting pitching can come around. They've shown some flashes of late, and if they can continue that, along with their surprising hitting, well, that falling sky isn't the limit, but you get the idea. Still optimistic? Less so, but stubbornly, yes, because I just can't bring myself to give up on this team. At least, not before Jets fans throw themselves from the rafters at the Garden on draft day.
I do wonder, though: Short of matching Little Lord Steinbrenner dollar for dollar, what can the Pirates do to turn this thing around?
As I write this, there are two teams with worse records than the Bucs the Royals and the Marlins. And it made me wonder, why can't the Pirates (and Royals) seem to do what the Marlins have done?
For a team that spends very little, the Marlins manage to win at least some of the time. They get a lot of bang for their buck. In their existence, the Marlins put two World Series trophies in their case. The Pirates haven't been able to pull off a single winning season that entire time. It isn't just money, either: Even when the Pirates outspent the Marlins, they were still awful. So what do the Marlins know that the Pirates don't?
Florida didn't spend willy-nilly in their quest for post-season glory. They cultivated young (i.e., relatively cheap) talent, and in 2003, they added one huge free agent in Pudge Rodriquez: Shake, stir and win it all. Mind you, they did all of this while sporting the fifth-lowest payroll in baseball that season.
They also pulled that off in a year when their very young staff struggled early. On May 11, 2003, they had the worst record in baseball (19-29). It's just the end of April by my reckoning, so there's still some hope that Jim Tracy can turn this mess around.
Am I saying that I think the Pirates have a chance to replicate the Marlins' accomplishment of 2003? Well, I'm optimistic, not stupid. But they can salvage the season.
Marlins management dismantled their championship team, spending just under $15 million this year, and they're being pilloried for it. Why? Marlins fans had a great ride and two championships in 10 years. Tell the truth: Would you rather be a Pirates fan or a Marlins fan? Wouldn't you rather be sitting in the stands thinking, "Well, we have to endure about five or six more years of this crap, but if form holds, our team will be in contention for a championship again"? What's so terrible about that? Isn't it better than eternally losing?
The real problem is not merely that the Pirates lack the money to compete with Steinbrenner and his ilk; it's that they lack the savvy the Marlins have shown. Even when the Pirates have opened up the coffers, they've often been very unwise. (Can we get refunds from Pat Meares and Derek Bell?) And any franchise that is made a fool by the Detroit Tigers scouting staff (see Shelton, Chris) clearly has little or no baseball smarts.
Since taking over the Pirates, the Nuttings and Kevin McClatchy have never given any indication that they know the first thing about running a moderately successful ball club. Either they have no interest in winning or they simply don't know how. And it's a shame, because the fans are desperate for something anything from this club.