For the last ten years, my friend Sam has called the state of Maryland home, but soon he’ll be moving back to his native Western Pennsylvania with his family. Since 2004, Sam has been The Maryland Bureau Chief for this blog, but with his move that bureau will be shutting down. He’ll probably become The Pittsburgh Correspondent and I may be able to find a new Maryland correspondent too.
TMBC is like most Pittsburgh Pirates fans, a long-suffering one whose fandom is hanging on by a thread. He is also one of at least 3 Pirates fans I know who adopted the Yankees as a second team. In this week’s guest prognosticator he has provided lengthy answers about being a Pirates fan.
WFY: Around the 2009 All-Star break, the Washington Nationals traded OF Lastings Milledge and reliever Joel Hanrahan to the Pittsburgh Pirates for OF Nyjer Morgan and reliever Sean Burnett. Both outfielders have moved on, but the two pitchers are still here and there. Which team got the better deal? I’ll argue Washington, because Morgan was productive for 50 games in ‘09 and Burnett has been a bullpen stalwart.
TMBC: I think at this point in time, you could make an argument for either side. Morgan vs. Milledge is a wash so we can focus on the relievers. I might even be willing to concede the Nats have a slight edge right now, but 12 months from now, the Pirates will probably come out on top. Hanrahan has steadily improved in his tenure with the Buccos, and he has seized the closer’s role with authority this year. He has a bit higher ceiling than Burnett because he is a hard-thrower, and is the only decent reliever they have right now, which makes the pressure on him even higher. His biggest problem in Washington as I recall was his control, and he has been much sharper with the Bucs, particularly since the middle of last season. I think the Pirates have the closer role solved for the next couple of years with Hanrahan, and he has shown the ability this year to be able to get 4-5 outs and really close out a game. I liked Burnett when he was in Pittsburgh and wish him well, though. He’s a great middle relief or set-up guy, but I’m not sure he could be a consistent closer. Also, I think your analysis of this trade is slightly colored by your hatred of Lastings Milledge. He was not a bad egg in Pittsburgh—just wasn’t very good!
WFY: The Steelers have as strong a fanbase as any NFL team and the Penguins are very popular when they are good. Where do the Pirates fit into the Pittsburgh sports scene now? When they were good, back in the early 1990s, how big a deal were they? Would a winning Pirates team be as beloved as the Penguins?
TMBC: I can’t answer this question without discussing the Pens, so lets address them first. The Penguins have always been popular, even during the dark days. You have to understand how many close calls we’ve had to losing our beloved flightless birds for such hockey hot-beds as Kansas City. Since 2004, interest and popularity with the Pens has been at an all-time high, perhaps even eclipsing that of the Steelers. Yes, the high draft picks had something to do with it, but that’s part of the game.
At any rate, remember that an entire generation of kids have grown up without the Pirates even breaking .500. How ridiculous is that? The generational gap is one area the Penguins have a huge edge over the Steelers. Most folks in their 50s or older are Pirates and Steelers fans first, and only casual hockey fans at best. There is a large age gap after that generation until you find any die-hard Pirates fans. Accessibility to the Penguins is a major factor—people my age and younger can get tickets and relate to the Pens. Tickets and access to the Steelers is tougher. The Pens have done so many things “right” in the public relations department, while the Pirates have gone through seasons without even trying to win… The Penguins have figured out customer service. The Pirates? They’ve raised ticket prices repeatedly during the 18-season losing streak. They allow players who don’t hustle to start games the following day. In 2002, the Pirates had the first overall draft pick and selected Brian Bullington. He was a college pitcher and was deemed “safe” and whom they projected as a potential #3 starter n the big leagues “if everything fell right.” He never got that far. They’ve passed on numerous high potential 1st round draft picks because the potential draftee would cost too much money, in their eyes. Get the drift? That makes catching the Penguins a near impossible task, even if they the Pirates get a playoff appearance or two. The question you asked, essentially, is can the Pirates catch the Pens as the #2 sports team in the city. That’s not happening anytime in the next 20 years. The real question is have the Pens passed the Steelers as the #1 sports team in the city? No, I’m not kidding. The Pirates are probably closer to #4 in the city (Pitt basketball). In fact, if Pitt could ever make a final four, they would probably pass the Pirates in terms of relevancy.
WFY: Now that you are moving back to the Pittsburgh area, will you be going to many Pirates games? Does PNC Park live up to the hype? How was Three Rivers Stadium for baseball? What did you think about RFK Stdaium and Nationals Park?
TMBC: If I didn’t have a 5-year old son who is turning into a sports nut, I wouldn’t even consider it. But Sammy likes baseball, (both the Yankees and the Pirates and probably in that order) and I think a trip to the ballyard is probably in order. I don’t feel good about supporting the ownership and their lack of commitment to even attempt and field a winning team, but I want my son to learn about baseball. I may go to a game or two a year, although I’m hoping that the current crop of youngsters will break the 18 season losing streak. Plus, PNC Park is the best ballyard I’ve ever been to by far. (I’ve also been to the old Yankee Stadium, Fenway, Cincy, Jacobs Field, Camden Yards, RFK and the Nationals Park). There is not a bad seat in PNC Park. The view of the city is tremendous, and the ballyard is modern yet small (seating capacity only 38,000 or so), which gives it a more personal feel. The upper deck is not nearly as high as the upper deck at Three Rivers (due to less seating of course, but the upper deck felt like it was a mile away from the field at Three Rivers). Also, you have the possibility of a foul ball or home run ball just about anywhere in the stadium. One other note: I know its dumb and ridiculous, but I love the pierogi races! They are high comedy, and I’m glad they run them during the game. It really always makes me laugh. The food is also tremendous—you can buy Primanti’s sandwhiches or Quaker Steak and Lube wings at the ballyard!
I will say this about the Nats ballyard—I enjoyed it. The food was pricey (all stadium food is), but I liked the view, location and the fans seemed into the game. Plus, the Nats ownership seems to “Get it” in terms of adding extra activities around the game to make it enjoyable for everyone. It seemed like a good atmosphere, and I would go back there. My only request would be to bring back the curly “W” pretzels. (But not at $5.50 a piece). The half-smokes are worth the price of admission as well.
I didn’t hate Three Rivers for baseball, but it was far from ideal. Outfield seats were cheap and plentiful growing up, and I think I had my birthday party there when I was turning 9 or 10 years old. It wasn’t a great place to watch a game, unless you sat down on the field level. Plus, Three Rivers always had artificial turf, which never seemed natural to me. It was always difficult to tell if a fly ball was a homerun or not if you sat almost anywhere in the outfield or upper deck. That was my impression of RFK as well, although I think it had a grass surface, so it rates slighter higher than Three Rivers. RFK had those big alleys in the outfield which made homeruns a bit harder to get, which is a good thing in my view.
WFY: Which fanbase has it tougher the D.C. baseball fan (no team from 1971 to 2004 and losing seasons since 2006) or the Pittsburgh baseball fan (last winning season 1992)?
TMBC: It is clearly the Pirates fan. The current crop of Pirates youngsters has some “potential” at least in terms of the every-day lineup guys. However, they have no real starting pitching depth, and none in the minors that you can point to. The Nats have Strasburg, Harper and seemed willing and able to spend some money in free agency. The Pirates ownership has indicated that even if attendance were to increase significantly, we likely wouldn’t see a major league payroll over $70 million. That’s assuming all of the young guys currently on the roster develop and a few moderately priced free agents can be found with some talent in a timely manner A best case scenario is getting to .500, perhaps a few games over in the next 3-5 years. The only way they can conceivably contend is if they hit that best case scenario AND the NL Central has a down year, which we’ve seen a few times. I just don’t see a scenario where the Pirates could keep those young players. By the time this current crop really develops, they will be free agency eligible and probably leave for a higher pay-day. I think the Nats have a better chance to keep the young kids around, and from a practical stand-point, only have to beat 4 other teams in their division. The Nats appear to have more resources at their disposal as well.
WFY: Given the number of Western Pennsylvania transplants in the D.C. area, is there potential in your eyes for a rivalry, at least among fans of the Nats and Buccos?
TMBC: I think there should be, and I am hopeful it can happen. Look at the Caps and Pens. Good rivalry, even with both teams in different divisions. One of the keys to that is both teams are in the playoffs and battling as two of the 6 or 7 “elite” franchises in the NHL. The Pirates and Nats will have to pick up the pace to get a similar fever pitch in baseball. Its possible, especially as the Nats are on track to be a decent team in the next year or two. It would be great if they could have some meaningful series over the next few years.
There was a proposal some years back which would allow the Pirates to re-join the NL East. I heartily endorse that proposal, even if it means the Pirates never win anything. I’d rather play more of the “traditional” and geographic rivals in the NL East (Mets, Phillies, and Nats.) Some of my fellow Pirates fan friends disagree, because they think we could never compete in the NL East. But we aren’t competing in the Central now, so at least we could some more interesting games!
WFY: What is your favorite source for Pirates news?
TMBC: I tend to get most of my Pirates news from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette online. The beat writer for the team up until this year did a pretty good job, but he stepped up to the columnist role
WFY: Do the Pirates have a “face of the franchise?”
TMBC: There is no one specific player. They have a crop of 4 young, above average players who came up to the big leagues between the summer of 2009 and early 2010: Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez has the highest upside of the group and most potential as a power hitter, but is a defensive nightmare. Neil Walker is who I would push as the “face” if I were management. He plays 2nd base (which is the position I played growing up), hits for over .300 and is a Pittsburgh kid. He is a great #2 hitter and seems solid defensively. For some reason, management never thought much of him, but the Buccos are not exactly loaded with .300 hitters, so he got a shot and has produced. McCutchen and Tabata are good, young, speedy outfielders who hit for good average. The problem, of course, is they have no real starting pitching talent either on the big league roster or in the minors.
WFY: How do you like the Pirates current uniforms? I’ll grant you black cap is one of the finest.
The home and road uniforms are nice but nothing special. I prefer the alternate jersey which they wear from time to time. It’s a black jersey with gold trim and solid block lettering (gold color, of course). I think those look really sharp, and I would make those mandatory all the time. But I’m guessing the players don’t want to wear black all summer long given all black absorbs heat. A few years ago, the Bucs went through a phase where they used uniforms and hats that were a mix of both black and red, and I didn’t like those at all. So the current crop of uniforms is an improvement.
WFY: Who do you see winning the season series, the Nats or Buccos? I still need to go to Pittsburgh and get a Primanti Bros. sammich from last year.
TMBC: I think you have to give the edge to the Nats. Two reasons: they appear to have more talent offensively, and for some reasons, the Pirates makes two trips to DC while the Nats come up I-70 just once. I forsee a 5-3 edge for the Nats.