Let me tell you a story, a story that on its surface is much like the 18 written before it but in its details it is one of an unprecedented nature. The 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates finished the season at 72-90, 24 games back on the division winning Milwaukee Brewers. That in itself is pretty much commonplace, the exact numbers and the winning team vary every year but the story itself never seems t change. The 2011 season has the same look as the 18 that came before it; the Pirates failed to win the World Series, failed to make the playoffs and even for the 19th consecutive time failed to win more games than they lost. Yes this season looked just like all the others. One must not trust his sight alone though because the 2011 season felt, smelt, tasted and sounded much different than the 18 before it.
It started innocently enough; the Pittsburgh Pirates were declared dead by many of their fans at least 3 times before April ended. But this version of the Pirates did something under their new manager that few did before it, they showed heart and fought for every game. The team was still bad but it showed a passion for the game very much unlike most of the previous 18 years. Their heart managed to keep the Pirates around 500 for the first two months of the season. It was a good time but Pittsburgh had seen nothing yet.
The magic had always been there. From Kevin’s Correia amazing turn around to Jeff Karsten’s unbelievable strand rates to Michael McKenry’s home run to Tony Watson’s debut and numerous other occasions but in early June the magic took over. This Pirate team, almost everyone would have told you, was a bad team getting by on heart and not much else. But somehow the incredible started happening the Pirates took 2 of 3 from the mighty Phillies, 2 of 3 from the powerful Red Sox and managed to shake off the curse of interleague play. On Tuesday July 19th the Pirates reached their pinnacle they were 51-44 a season high 7 games over 500, they had won 9 of their last 12 games and had a half game lead in the division.
But then for some reason the magic stopped. The Pirates failed to sweep the Cincinnati Reds a problem that had plagued them all season. Next up was the biggest series of the season a 3 game home series against the St Louis Cardinals. With the possible exception of its very first series this was the biggest series in PNC Park history. The team, the fans, the city and the media (both local and national) were ready to embrace this team as a legit contender, however the Cardinals had different plans and took the first two games rather convincingly. The magic had most definitely died but that was ok because the team still had heart and it battled back in the last game to salvage the series and earn a share of the division lead.
The next night the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates made their national television debut and treated the nation to the perfect display of what 2011 Pirate baseball looked like. The heart was still there and beating strong, yes the team was a long shot but it was hanging in there.
Tuesday July 26, 2011, game 101. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves engaged in what in my opinion was this season’s best game. Both teams battled and there were numerous players that put up tremendous individual performances. Both bullpens were doing amazing job, there had not been a run scored over the last 15 innings. The game felt like it might just go on forever but then in the 19th inning with the winning run only 90 feet and Scott Proctor, the Braves last relief pitcher, chopped the ball which was fielded cleanly and thrown home where Michael McKenry applies the tag and was about to throw to first to complete the double play and end the inning … but before he could throw the ball, Jerry Meals, the home plate umpire inexplicably ruled the runner, Julio Lugo safe. That was it, the 2011 Pirates’ heart was broken. It is worth restating that this game did not end the Pirate season nor did it make it impossible for them to be competitive for the rest of the season, a good team would have found a way to put it behind them, but it is undeniable that the Pirates were never the same after this game. The loss knocked them out of 1st place, a spot they would never reclaim.
The Pirates managed to win one more game during the series in Atlanta but upon leaving immediately started a 10 game losing streak which included 7 consecutive home losses to two of the worst teams in the National League, the Cubs and Padres. During the 10 game losing streak the Pirates fell below .500 (54-55) and they would not reach that much sought after mark again. The season continued on but not with the same meaning, the Pirates managed to show an occasional glimpse of the heart and magic that got them to where they were after 100 games but it was not nearly enough. On September 14th the Pirates lost their 82nd game of the season, strangely enough it was at home against the Cardinals (the same place the magic died), this loss clinched the Pirates 19th straight losing record further extended their own North American sport’s record.
The season limped on and the Pirates had one more opportunity to show something. They had a chance to break the Miller Park curse, avoid 90 losses and really hurt the Brewers. But after winning game 1 of the series they predictably lost the last two games to finish the season with a 72-90 record. This season was not what us Pirate fans hoped it would be in July but it also wasn’t what we feared it would be in March. The Pirates came a long way this season but they still have miles ahead of them. All in all 2011 was a fun year we saw the team show heart, we saw many magical moments and we experienced heart break, something many fans probably did not think was possible. With the season now over the only thing left for us to do is hope that the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates give us another heart-filled magical season but this time without the heartbreak.