Pittsburgh Pirates: A Season Built on Ifs

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PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 08: Jameson Taillon #50 is doused with Powerade and bubble gum by Starling Marte #6 and Josh Bell #55 of the Pittsburgh Pirates after throwing a complete game shutout against the Cincinnati Reds at PNC Park on April 8, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 08: Jameson Taillon #50 is doused with Powerade and bubble gum by Starling Marte #6 and Josh Bell #55 of the Pittsburgh Pirates after throwing a complete game shutout against the Cincinnati Reds at PNC Park on April 8, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) /
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Baseball is back in Pittsburgh Pirates, but what should fans be expecting with the season seemingly being built on ‘ifs’?

With the Pittsburgh Pirates’ season just underway, I’m already sensing from the fan base that hope springs eternal everywhere but in Pittsburgh. As far as my own prediction on how this season might play out, I’m reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” as it relates to the noble, enlightened, and steadfast Bob Nutting.

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…

Wait, actually Nutting is to blame for robbing Pirates fans of an annual rite of spring, creating an apathetic populace and ruining baseball in Pittsburgh. My mistake.

The nonsense spewed by Nutting and Frank Coonelly at their pre-season media day has been well documented and rightly mocked. Nutting can’t control the payroll scale? Who can, the Politburo? These two men consistently insult the intelligence of anyone who listens. Kipling is nonetheless relevant in that Nutting and Coonelly’s bogus optimism seems rooted in several dubious variables:

IF Erik Gonzalez hits more like Jay Bell than Rafael Belliard

IF Lonnie Chisenhall stays off the DL (Oops)

IF the team repeats last year’s remarkable feat of going 10 games over .500 against NL Central teams (they were 10 under in ‘17; they’ve gone over.500 one other time)

IF Starling Marte doesn’t show signs of decline at age 30

IF Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams all stay healthy, all year

I could go on. If all those things happen, and the bullpen pulls it together, the Bucs will compete for a Wild Card spot.

Coonelly believes the team needn’t worry about a play-in game. “My expectations are that the Pirates will win the NL Central,” he said at aforementioned media day, apparently with a straight face. I suppose it’s better to seem delusional than fraudulent. To that prediction I say that while, as Dennis Hopper pointed out, ‘if’ is the middle word in ‘life’, it’s also the middle word in ‘whiff.’

The speaker in Kipling’s poem is a father advising his son on how to be an honorable man. It leaves me wondering how many father-child relationships in Pittsburgh are impoverished because dads don’t talk to their kids about baseball — don’t preach patience, precision, and determination to succeed despite a 70% failure rate, if you’re good.

How many summer nights pass with parents surfing Netflix and their kids playing Xbox in a separate room, instead of watching the ballgame together? I can’t talk to my own brother about the Pirates because he thinks anyone who follows is wasting their time.

Baseball stands alone as the one transcendent American sport. It is part of this country’s mythical culture, tied to identity, social upheaval, renewal, and rites of passage. It bonds brothers, parents and children, and children to their hometown while forging childhood friendships that last a lifetime.

This is what makes Nutting, Coonelly, and those in the league office that enable them unforgivable. Nutting is a man completely without honor. Coonelly is a well-dressed shill, and those in the league office who have allowed Nutting to dim Pittsburgh’s summer sun are greedy, short-sighted cowards.

People like myself who grew up with the team — whose childhood was shaped by it, who think 1979 the greatest year in the annals of time, and 1992 the worst, who still get chills at the image of Omar Moreno squeezing it in Memorial Stadium’s centerfield and Kent Tekulve leaping halfway to the moon — now face the annual question: Why should I care? I’m not certain that anyone should. Caring means embracing hope, which means buying the snake oil Nutting is peddling and being as foolish and naïve as he believes us all to be. We didn’t sign any meaningful free agents and our payroll is one-third of the Cubs’, but hey, we improved the nutrition and workout facilities of our Dominican Republic training complex.

It seems to me that clinging to hope is more desirable than allowing a charlatan to extinguish it, even if doing so plays into his hands. So okay, sure, the Bucs have a chance. The NL Central, while formidable, is winnable. Many see regression for this year’s Brewers. The Cubs and Cards look daunting on paper, but neither was around for the divisional playoff round last year. Despite their upgrades, I’m not convinced that the Reds won’t stink again. (Have you seen their pitching staff?)

Next. Previewing AAA Indy. dark

Coonelly is correct: The Pirates will win the Central, if Jung Ho Kang returns to form, and if Adam Frazier hits .300, and so on, and so on. Supposing that doesn’t happen, remember all the money the team spent enhancing the Dominican Republic training complex. If you still care.

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