During the Pittsburgh Pirates' gut-wrenching 19-inning loss to the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday, I found myself shouting at the television. I was frustrated with Pirates first baseman Lyle Overbay -- "Overpay," I angrily called him after yet another out -- and livid with umpire Jerry Meals.
I pumped a fist when second baseman Neil Walker ripped a triple off the wall in right in the top of the first. I roared my approval when newly signed relief pitcher Jason Grilli extricated himself from a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the 12th by getting the Braves' Julio Lugo to ground to third.
And I howled in protest when Meals called Lugo safe on a tag play at home in the 19th, giving the Braves a 4-3 victory that knocked the Pirates out of first place in the National League Central.
It was a frustrating, crushing loss for a Pirates fan of more than 45 years. Not long after the game ended and I realized I had sat through every pitch of the six-hour, 39-minute game, it occurred to me that there is something good happening in Pittsburgh if it's OK to get angry and shout at the television while watching a Pirates game.
It's fun again to be a Pirates fan.
There are people who are now in college who have never been alive to see the Pirates finish a season with a .500 record. Even after that devastatingly difficult-to-swallow loss on Tuesday, the Pirates were still 53-48 and only a half-game out of first place.
I was born and raised in Pittsburgh and I never quit being a fan, though it was hard to get too excited when for the last 18 years, one of the most anticipated days on the calendar was always the Rule V draft. While teams like the Yankees and Red Sox began positioning themselves for the cream of the free agent crop, the best Pirates fans could hope for was to swipe an unheralded minor leaguer in the Rule V draft every December and hope he would amount to something.
I'd bet a lot of money that most Yankees and Red Sox fans have no idea what the Rule V draft is and when it is held. Believe me, though, Pirates fans know.
It hasn't always been like this, of course. The Pirates won World Series titles in 1960, 1971 and 1979 and also made it to the postseason in 1970, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1990, 1991 and 1992.
Some of the game's greatest players have played for the Pirates over that time. When I was a kid, we used to fight over who got to be Roberto Clemente and who got to be Willie Stargell during our wiffle ball games. A normal-sized Barry Bonds won National League Most Valuable Player Awards with the Pirates in 1990 and 1992.
I've loved the Pirates, win or lose, for as long as I could remember. But I'll be honest: I thought it was all over on Sept. 29, 2009.
That day isn't significant in the lives of most baseball fans, but to me, it was a day I needed to reassess my loyalty to what had turned into a sad sack of a franchise.
Earlier that summer, media reports indicated that Miguel Angel Sano, a 16-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic, wanted to sign with the Pirates. The word was that Sano would be a star. Some scouts were comparing his offensive potential to the great Albert Pujols.
But when Sano signed, it was not with the Pirates, the team that he'd said he wanted to play for and that he'd followed for so long. Rather, he signed with the Twins, who offered him a bonus of $3.15 million. The Pirates' top offer was reportedly $2.6 million.
To me, that was the day I needed to take a moment to assess whether I even wanted to be a baseball fan anymore. The Pirates had preached about developing their own talent and when one of the best young prospects in the game wanted to sign with them, they weren't able to get it done.
This wasn't Mark Teixeira or C.C. Sabathia they were chasing. Signing Sano was a no-brainer, and it was a sickening, sinking feeling to learn Sano had signed with the Twins instead of the Pirates because of a measly $515,000.
If you were a Pirates fan and had any hope after they failed to sign Sano, you're a better person than I.
It couldn't get any lower, until it did a few months later. The Pirates played a three-game series with the Milwaukee Brewers in Pittsburgh from April 20-22, 2010. The Brewers won the opener 8-1 and took the second game 8-0. When they won 20-0 in the series finale, it was clear that this was worse than losing out on Sano.
The Pirates fittingly wound up 2010 with Major League Baseball's worst record. And given their luck, there was no Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper available with the first pick, as there had been the two previous seasons, when the Pirates drafted fourth and second overall, respectively.
Pittsburgh entered the 2011 season with a mess of a rotation. Ross Ohlendorf was coming off a 1-11 season. Charlie Morton had a 7.57 ERA in 2010. Paul Maholm, the supposed ace, was 9-15 with a 5.10. Kevin Correira, the club's big free agent signing, was coming off a season with a 5.40 ERA.
But though all the trends pointed toward the gutter, the Pirates somehow have found their way into a pennant race. Sometimes, I say that, and I have to repeat it, as if I need to convince myself: The Pirates somehow have found their way into a pennant race.
It's been the most enjoyable baseball season I can ever remember. This isn't the best team in baseball. It's not the best team in the National League. It's not even the best team in Pennsylvania.
But they play hard. They compete on every pitch. They show an exuberance for the game that hasn't been seen in Pittsburgh for years.
Andrew McCutchen has developed into one of the best players in baseball. Neil Walker is among the game's elite second baseman and Joel Hanrahan one of its best closers. Jeff Karstens – yes, Jeff Karstens – is a Cy Young candidate, albeit a long shot.
They dive for balls and fly around the bases. They work the count and foul off an interminable number of pitches. They play every pitch like it's the most important pitch of the season.
The lack of talent is probably going to catch up with them over the final couple of months. The Pirates have a lot of outs in their lineup. It seems almost impossible for the pitchers to keep up this pace. The team can't keep losing guys to the disabled list and act as if it's no big deal.
They'll probably fade and the Cardinals, Brewers and the Reds will battle it out for the National League Central crown.
None of that matters, though. This enthusiastic band of misfits has made baseball fun again.
And I'm no longer afraid to admit I'm a Pirates fan.
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