The dim hope of another Buctober was ingloriously extinguished at the beginning of September. Now the corpse of a once-semi-promising season is being dragged to the finish line. In fact, by the time you read this, it will practically be over.
Just a couple of months ago, at the All-Star break, the Pittsburgh Pirates trailed the then-second-place Cubs by a game-and-a-half. Two long months later, the two franchises are separated by more than 15 games. The Cubs look to close out their fifth National League Central title since the division was invented in 1995. That’s not as many as the Cardinals, who have strung up the NL Central banner 10 times in those 23 seasons. Even the Reds have three banners, for crying out loud. The Milwaukee Brewers have one division title to go along with their Fonzie statue. That leaves four titles unaccounted for, and they belong to the Houston Astros, who left the division for the American League five years ago.
Out of 32 major-league teams, 30 have won at least one division title since the divisions were reconfigured following the 1994 strike. The only other team without a division banner is the Colorado Rockies. But even they’re better than us, because they won the 2007 National League pennant under the guidance of Clint Hurdle.
It would be so much fun, so exciting for Pirates fans to lose a World Series. Even Rockies fans got to experience that. All Pirates fans would trade a stinging World Series loss for an exciting Buctober of hope.
Yes, every team in baseball since 1995 can pull a “Division Champs” or “League Champs” shirt out of its dresser but us. The last time Bucco fans woke up early to buy a division-champions T-shirt was 25 years ago today (Sept. 27, 1992). Back then, a 16-year-old Pirates enthusiast would run Downtown to the Honus Wagner Sporting Goods Store to buy the shirt and then head off to school with a Starter jacket and a Jansport backpack in tow. That fan would drown out his parents’ political discussions about Ross Perot by blaring Boyz II Men on his Sony Walkman. That kid might even wear his Division Champs T-shirt on a date to go see Wayne’s World, and maybe grab a bite at Chi Chi’s afterward; there he could talk about the latest episode of Ren and Stimpy or Married ... With Children.
Guess what: That kid is now 41, Honus Wagner’s is closed, Chi Chi’s shut down after a bunch of people got hepatitis, Al Bundy is now playing a grandpa on TV, and no one has bought a Pirates championship shirt since. The ones sold from 2013-2015, with the words “Playoffs” or “Post Season,” just aren’t the same.
The aggravation of 2017 is compounded by the lack of bright spots and promising futures. Jung Ho Kang drank and drove himself out of a promising future while Starling Marte cost himself a half-season of his prime by using banned substances. Cutch is Cutch, and it has to be tough watching his surroundings fall apart. One of the only bright spots is the emergence of Josh Bell, who may have solved the decades-long blackhole at first base. Closer Felipe Rivero had an outstanding season, and Trevor Williams was a pleasant surprise and maybe the only starter who got better as the season went on. The final indignation was the curious case of Juan Nicasio. Releasing one of a handful of players having a good season was Pirates management symbolically throwing in the towel. Dumping him to save a few dollars only reinforced the owners’ stereotype as penny-pinching misers. Nicasio is now with the Cardinals, and the Nuttings might be able to watch him in the playoffs after all.
There’s always next year, but Pirates fans have been saying that at the end of every baseball calendar since 1980. It’s great not to be Cleveland, and that is the only team in baseball with a longer championship drought than the Pirates. But Cleveland has won 10 division titles in that time, with the 10th coming this season.
Still, if a couple of starters rebound next year, and everyone is healthy, things can turn around quickly. The Pirates need to spend some of that Juan Nicasio money on a starter. But Pirates’ fans’ spirits will rebound again in six months when the Pirates begin the 2018 campaign. All the ills of 2017 will be forgotten, and hope will once again spring into PNC Park — the hope of going to a sporting-goods store and buying a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Champions.”