Who are these guys and why are they at or near the top of National League Central? Yes I’m talking about the mighty Pittsburgh Pirates, who entered play on July 20, in sole possession of first place in the division. The Pirates have not finished in first place in 18 seasons; in fact they haven’t had a winning record in any of those years. They last made the National League Playoffs in 1992 when they were managed by Jim Leyland and their star players were Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, Doug Drabek and Bobby Bonilla.
But in recent years hard times have fallen on the baseball team from the Steel City. Poor, disinterested ownership only wanting to line their pockets did not help. Neither did a front office whom over time only wanted to move the fledgling stars out and cut the payroll. Plus several poor managerial hires did nothing to help any of it.
Some of the talent they sent packing over the last few years include Jason Bay, Aramis Ramirez, Freddy Sanchez, Nate McLouth, Ronny Paulino, Xavier Nady, Matt Stairs, Victor Zambrano, Mike Gonzalez, Arthur Rhodes, Jose Bautista, Sean Casey, Jeff Suppan, Brandon Lyon, Brian Giles and Jason Schmidt. All let go for nothing or near nothing,
Among the manager’s paraded into Pittsburgh since Leyland left after the 1996 season include Gene LaMont, Lloyd McClendon, Jim Tracy, Torey Lovullo, John Russell and now Clint Hurdle.
Hurdle, though to his credit, has taken a team of virtual nobody’s and turned them into the 2011 MLB Cinderella Story, they are currently 51-45 and playing well. Led on the mound by Jeff Karstens (8-5; 2.28 ERA), closer Joel Hanrahan (28 saves and a 1.24 ERA), Paul Maholm (6-9; 3.06 ERA), Kevin Correia (11-7; 4.04 ERA) and Charlie Morton (8-5; 3.62 ERA). And at the plate by Garrett Jones (9 HR – 34 RBI), Andrew McCutheon (.277 – 14 HR – 59 RBI – 15 SB), Lyle Overbay (7 HR – 35 RBI) and Neil Walker (.275 – 9 HR – 62 RBI). You need to ask exactly who are these guys and what are they doing in a dog fight with the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds? What ever Hurdle is doing he is pushing the right buttons.
Pirates fans, which are some of the greatest in the game, are turning out at their beautiful ballpark in droves and the team even has 10 sellouts this season. The excitement for Pirates baseball has returned.
Back in February I ran into three Pirates fans at a Red Sox-Astros spring training game. They were true baseball fans, even if it meant being a fan for a bad team they said would still watch and show up to Pirates games. They were lamenting the fact that the team was bad and there appeared to be no hope. They hated the front office for bad deals and the ownership for worse decisions. They told me all they wanted right now was a team that was competitive and fought. They wanted a team they could look at on August 1st and say they might have a playoff shot. They wanted a team that was buyers on July 31st and not sellers.
Well to those three guys whose names I can’t recall, you and Bucs fans everywhere apparently are getting your wish. Who would have thought it would be a former baseball phenom in Hurdle to bring it to you?
Steve Michaels is a contributor to Sox & Dawgs, a blog that concentrates on the Boston Red Sox, UConn Huskies and New England Patriots. You can contact Steve through his Twitter account @djstevem.