Reckoning With The First Place Pirates

PITTSBURGH - JUNE 03: The Pirate Parrot celebrates the Pirates win over the Phillies after the game on June 3, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pirates defeated the Phillies 2-1 in extra innings. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

An NL Central fan grapples with looking up at Pittsburgh in the standings

To be upfront about it, though I was born and raised in Chicago, I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan. It’s an allegiance born of not caring much about baseball until I went to college at the University of Illinois.

Going to a game at old Busch Stadium on a crazy-hot July day with my then-editor, and now New York celebrity Will Leitch, opened my eyes to an appreciation of America's pastime that never existed before. And being from the South Suburbs, I had no love for the Chicago Cubs even when baseball had little meaning to my life.

So, I always take supreme delight when the Cubs lose to any opponent, because it means they are one less victory away from my beloved Redbirds in the Central Division, assuming the Cards do their part. I have been rewarded as a member of Cardinals Nation since the mid-’90s with eight Central Division titles (including the 2001 tie with the Houston Astros). In that same span, the Astros won the Central four times, the Cubs have picked up three crowns and the Cincinnati Reds ended a 15-year drought by winning the NL Central last year.

Even if you throw in the five times the NL Wild Card winner has come the heartland, the only people who really mattered at the party were the Cubs, the Astros and us. You could always count on Pittsburgh and until very recently, Cincinnati and Milwaukee, for what I call “Homecoming” games. If you couldn't beat the Bucs, frankly, who could you beat?

It was with great consternation I noticed things beginning to change in the old neighborhood. As the Cardinals faded from first and some other team not the Cubs or Astros took over, I kept scratching my head and muttering, "The Cincinnati who? The Milwaukee what?" The Brewers I could put up with. They had basically taken the place of the now-dead Houston Astros as my Second Most-Hated Team behind the Loveable Losers.

No amount of rationalization, however, can explain away the state of affairs we find ourselves in today: Every other team is looking up at the Pittsburgh Pirates on top of the NL Central. Rarely in the last decade have the words “division-leading” and “Pirates” appeared in close proximity in the same sentence. In fact, there have been three things you could reasonably count on in life: death, taxes and the Pirates being bad. I mean, really bad. Just awful.

My friends on the North Side seem to masochistically enjoy bemoaning their ongoing lack of playoff success. No one, though, comes close to the futility exhibited in Pittsburgh. The Pirates have finished fifth or sixth in the six-team NL Central during eight of the last 10 seasons. That includes four straight sixth-place finishes from 2007 to 2010. Last year, in fact, the Pirates were last not just in the Central, last not only in the National League, but dead last in all of professional baseball with a 57-105 season, 34 games out of first place.

The run-up to this year’s turnaround featured 18 consecutive losing seasons, a record for any team in Major League Baseball, the NFL or the NBA. If you thought the L.A. Clippers were bad or the Kansas City Royals woeful, imagine being a card-carrying member of Pirates Nation. For almost a generation, that has been a very raw deal.

Amazingly, the Pirates have not had the lowest attendance in the league during any season of the last decade. I guess people have to do something in the months the Steelers aren’t playing.

While parity - the idea that any given team in April can still be in the hunt by October - is good in theory, the reality is that baseball, like life, favors the wealthy and powerful. You expect the New Yorks and Bostons and LA’s of the sports world to be chasing division titles and World Series berths year after year. The crumbs are left for the middle- and small-market clubs to fight over while the big boys hog the glory. Competitive balance would be great in the AL East: I'd love for baseball to be played in Baltimore again. Or if Kauffman Stadium came to life when the Cardinals weren't in town, I would be down for that.

But not in my back yard. The NL Central has been a kind of private club over the years, and parity is something I could do without around here. Even Cards and Cubs fans can agree: the Reds and the Pirates need to keep this feel-good thing to a minimum. Come September, the story coming out of Pittsburgh should be all about Big Ben’s latest caper.

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