In 2008, I watched the Tampa Bay Rays celebrate as they moved on to the World Series to face off against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Rays had just knocked off the Boston Red Sox, a team with high-profile players and a huge payroll. It was a Cinderella story for baseball at its finest.
I couldn't help but be upset with the Rays. I found reasons to despise the team. I rooted for Philadelphia like I was a life long fan.
The reason? Pure jealousy.
I wondered why my hometown team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, couldn't be in Tampa Bay's shoes. Anyone who has pulled for the Pirates for the past two decades can understand how I felt. In a town where the Steelers are among football's elite and the Penguins are loved, the Bucs have been pretty much forgotten. Years of losing will do that to a team.
After the Rays went from having the league's worst record to an American League Championship, I wondered when the Pirates' time would finally come. Tampa Bay may have been a perennially bad team, but their fans didn't know what it was like to be a laughingstock like the Pirates.
Why can't that be us? When will the pieces fall together? When can we be the Cinderella story?
Three years later, it seems as if the Pirates are ready to break through. As of July 7, the Pirates are three games above .500. They are only 1.5 games back from the first place St. Louis Cardinals. Last year, it took the Pirates until September 3 to win 45 games, the same amount they have now. There is finally hope for Pittsburgh baseball.
There are a few parallels to the '08 Rays and the '11 Pirates. Each team had a veteran relief pitcher who helped stabilize the bullpen (Troy Percival in Tampa and Joel Hanrahan in Pittsburgh). Both acquired a pitcher who exceeded expectations in Matt Garza and Kevin Correia. Joe Maddon and Clint Hurdle each proved their worth as managers. Both teams were young, full of hope, and tired of being door mats for the rest of Major League Baseball.
Most importantly, both had young super stars in the making in Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen.
At the end of the day, it is unrealistic to hope for a World Series berth out of this Pirates team. The '08 Rays' story was unique and probably won't be recreated for quite some time. However, is it really that unrealistic to say the Pirates can make the playoffs this year?
The Pirates have had their doubters. Before the season started, most were positive they would finish below .500. With each month that has passed on the schedule, many have expected the Pirates to return back to their losing ways. Each month, the Pirates keep proving those people wrong.
With the All-Star break approaching, Pittsburgh still has plenty of baseball yet to play. There is no reason to get ahead of ourselves yet. Nobody in their right mind should head to Vegas and put money on a World Series berth. But the division is within reach and these Pirates are not going to stop fighting, just as the Rays before them.
One day at a time. One win at a time.
The rest of the season is going to be a blast to watch.