Kovacevic: In Bradenton, it's the perpetual bottom of the ninth
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, 11:27 p.m.
BRADENTON, Fla. — If hope can spring eternal here, then truly hope is never fully extinguished.
Then truly we live in a perpetual bottom of the ninth, where one man, one swing can always make a difference no matter the score.
And yes, that applies to your Pittsburgh Baseball Club, even at this spawning ground of two decades of failure, even at this jaded juncture where a strong start would only portend Epic Collapse III, even at this tenuous time for the front office after Bob Nutting's no-I-really-mean-it ultimatum to contend or else.
"I feel good about where this team is. I really do," shortstop Clint Barmes said Thursday in the McKechnie Field clubhouse before the Pirates' pitchers walked 15 — oh, for real, 15! — batters in a 16-6 loss to the Red Sox. "I've only been here through one of those two years, but I can tell you this: This team has learned lessons, and we will be the better for it."
Clint Hurdle went a good step further, telling 93.7 The Fan a bit earlier in the day he'd be happy to win 95 — oh, for real, 95! - games. It wasn't a prediction or a goal. Just a number he'd like.
Hey, who wouldn't?
For that matter, who'd ever want to argue with optimists?
That's what all this sunshine and freshness bring each year, like Florida's trademark orange blossoms. Or, for the seasonally cynical, like Charlie Brown revving up for another run at Lucy's football.
Because this time, this year will be different.
A starting rotation fraught with uncertainty beyond A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez?
Maybe James McDonald and Jeff Karstens make it to the finish line. Maybe Gerrit Cole arrives with a flourish.
A new closer in Jason Grilli?
Maybe he'll still bring it at age 36. Maybe he'll get help from Jared Hughes or Mark Melancon.
A lineup with Russell Martin fresh off a .211 season, Barmes and his .229, Travis Snider and his one home run in 128 at-bats?
Maybe Andrew McCutchen exceeds being an MVP finalist. Maybe Pedro Alvarez puts it all together. Maybe Neil Walker forces that mega-payday. Maybe Starling Marte is all that. Maybe Garrett Jones pounds lefties.
Or maybe not.
Either way, hope persists. And it always feels curiously real here, no matter how many times that football gets yanked away.
My own thought after a few years of this and in coming back for more Thursday: It's got nothing to do with the festering acridity of the streak. It isn't about Aramis Ramirez or Jose Bautista, Dave Littlefield or Cam Bonifay, Sid Bream or Jerry Meals, Matt Wieters or Miguel Sano, Derek Bell or Kyle Stark.
Rather, it's about those old enough to have known respect.
Yes, with the Pirates.
Want to know what hope, real hope, looks like?
Just glance at the drills, and you'll spot the last man to touch a baseball in a relevant game (Mike LaValliere, 1992), the last pitcher to nail the final out of a championship (Kent Tekulve, 1979), the last battery of the previous one (Manny Sanguillen and Steve Blass, 1971), and the author of the sport's greatest moment with the one before that (Bill Mazeroski, 1960). All are richly involved, from shagging flies to shouting encouragement.
They're paid, of course, but they don't need this. There are far less demanding ways for famous men in their 50s, 60s and 70s to earn some cash. They do this because they're still family - check that, Family - and want to make a difference.
"We know why we're here, which is why we've been doing it for years and why Spanky's joined us now," Tekulve said. "It's to help the staff, to do whatever Clint needs. But it's also to show these players, hey, this team was a winner once. Let them see that."
And his view of 2013?
"I like this team. I do."
It's about Teke.
It's about Sangy, hobbling off the field Tuesday because his long-achy knee was "killing me," but only after he stuck out nearly four hours of a meaningless mess.
It's about Blass, vocal patriarch of all the Pirates' alumni.
It's about Spanky, still swearing Sid Bream was out.
It's about Maz.
Yeah, it's about the perpetual bottom of the ninth, only with No. 9 in the box eyeing the ivy.
No surprise, he's got hope, too.
"I think this is a different team than we've had in a while, a little older," Maz offered as he followed Sangy off. "We can pitch. We've got guys who can hit. We'll see. Maybe we'll win. But aw heck, what do I know?"
Catch all the "we" references?
Treasure it. That's the last link.
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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