Monday, October 01, 2012

The Collapse

Sad Pirates fan is sad.
There's never room for all the underdogs.
A month or two ago, if you'd asked me which of the unlikely upstarts charging pell-mell toward a playoff spot was most likely to collapse, I would have picked the Baltimore Orioles. They had a negative run differential. They had an offense built out of spare parts and castoffs. They had the Yankees ahead of them and the pitching-blessed Rays coming up behind them. They were the team of Jeffrey Maier and Raffy Palmiero's butt injections, of desperate flailing in the GM's office and an owner odd enough to rouse Et Tu, Mr. Destructo away from politics for a brilliant, devastating profile.
Or maybe it was the Oakland A's, who'd shed established starting pitching over the offseason like it was RIMM stock, whose outfield looked suspiciously like last year's Pawtucket Red Sox, who ran a rotation full of rookies out there because they had no other option, who were buried under so many bad Moneyball jokes and stadium issues and are-they-moving-to-San-Jose distractions that it was a rare miracle anyone ever talked about what was going on on the field.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, I figured, were safe. They had a budding superstar in Andrew McCutcheon. They had a solid supporting cast. Pedro Alvarez had figured out that hitting baseballs was better than eating cheeseburgers. Closer Joel Hanrahan was a beast, A.J. Burnett had reinvented himself on returning to the National League, and James McDonald had taken steps toward being considered a top-flight starter. They were 16 games over .500. They had a lead in the Wild Card, and they were in striking distance of the NL Central.
And then the wheels fell off. Epically. Historically. Legendarily. They're 5 games under .500 now, with  3 to play. Their run differential is -24, while the Orioles, who clinched a playoff spot tonight, have climbed into positive territory. For the 20th straight year, it's losing baseball in Pittsburgh, and this year may be the biggest heartbreaker of all.
But the thing is, that's baseball. Short attention span types may grumble about the length of the season, but it's the only major sport season long enough to develop extended narratives. The rise and fall, the upstart conqueror, the nail-shredding tension of the pennant race - this is what you get from 162 games that you don't get from 82, or 81, or 16. And if the season was just too long for the Pirates this year, that's a narrative, too, a tragic one for the fans who bought into the magic of early summer, but a real and important and interesting one.
There's not room for all the underdogs, even in a year when payroll-heavy beasts like Philadelphia and Boston come crashing down. There's only a few playoff spots, and if the elegiac tale of Chipper Jones' final go-round takes a slot and the resilient Cardinals post-Pujols take another, then there's no place for the Pirates to go. Not this time, anyway.
But not every story ends in triumph. Tragedy's got its place on the stage, too. And in the words of my people, who dwelt for many years in the shadows of Ebbets Field, "Wait 'til next year."


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