If you simply compared the win-loss records between the 2010 and 2011 versions of the Pittsburgh Pirates, you would see a noticeable improvement in wins.
For the first half of the 2011 season, the Pirates came out of nowhere and plundered and pillaged the attention of many die hard sports fans in the Steel City. People who hadn't cared about baseball for over 20 years began finding their way to PNC Park.
I've always been a baseball fan. In fact it was my first love as a kid. My grandfather would put the games on the radio and we'd listen to them together. I never imagined in a million years that watching Sid Bream slide across home plate would be the last time I would see my Pittsburgh Pirates compete in a playoff game.
All the memories and feelings of my childhood/early teenage years came flooding back this year when the Pirates were still in contention at the All-Star Break. While I was still unsure of how competitive they were going to stay down the stretch, I at least began to truly believe the streak of losing seasons could end.
Then came the night of infamy known on Twitter as #JerryMealsSaysItsSafe.
I stayed up late watching an epic baseball game take place once again between the Pirates and the Atlanta Braves. Nineteen innings of riveting baseball wiped clean by one of, if not THE worst, baseball calls in MLB history.
It was a sucker punch to the gut just like Sid Bream's slide decades ago. At the time it was just a loss, but you couldn't help but feel a sense of dread that this would turn out to be much more than one loss. The Pirates plummeted to a 19-43 record after that call.
I'm not naive enough to think a correction in wins and losses wasn't coming, because just about everyone knew the pitching staff was way above their heads early on this year. The offense never did come around, and what we are left to deal with was an epic free fall from a first place team.
Fourth place would have been just fine for most Pirates fans before the season, but the tease of competitive baseball and the second half regression left me frustrated yet again. This time it seems worse to me because they stuck around long enough to actually make you believe this was the year the streak ended.
It was stunning to see so many sellouts at the ball field, so many people chatting on Twitter and Facebook about the Pirates. It may have been unfortunate timing for the Pittsburgh Power, who often had key games up against a key Pirates series.
Pirates fans have now proven they will support a winner, so it is up to Bob Nutting and Frank Coonelly to make that happen. There's no more excuses this time. Anything less than a strong effort to improve the major league product simply will not do.
I will look ahead to 2012 with some optimism, and as always, I will believe with eternal optimism that the Pirates will once again find their way above mediocrity in a season. I will dare to dream that someday the black and gold buccaneers will sail into the playoffs and chase after a World Series crown.
But for now, I'll simply retain the usual empty feeling this team leaves in my heart for another winter. It's a good thing the Steelers and Penguins provide plenty of firewood to keep us warm.
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