Starkey: Pirates finale just plain sad
A stink bug to my right, Cam Bonifay to my left.
That seemed appropriate as I sat down Wednesday in the PNC Park press box, ready to soak in the final game of the Pirates' 20th consecutive losing season.
The day would end in precisely the same fashion as the 20-year streak began — with Atlanta Braves fans cheering — and none of this could have happened without Bonifay, the general manager who brought you Pat Meares and Derek Bell.
Bell was infamous for his “Operation Shutdown” quote, when he threatened to quit in the middle of spring training in 2002. But it was the 2012 Pirates who gave new meaning to the term.
Back on Aug. 6, the world was theirs. They'd beaten the Arizona Diamondbacks to improve to 16 games over .500 with 54 games left. They needed only to play at a .370 clip to reach 82 wins.
They played at a .315 clip, instead, and finished 79-83.
Can you believe it?
Of course you can. Sad was the word that kept coming to me in the hour before the game. Braves fans filled nearly as many seats as Pirates fans. Dozens and dozens of rows stayed barren.
If a cannonball had been comin' toward the upper deck, there's a good chance nobody would have been hit.
You know what stood out, though? The smattering of applause. Seasons always end that way here — with a smattering, and the games never mattering.
Can you imagine what this place would have felt like if the Pirates had a playoff spot on the line?
Will it ever feel that way in October?
We could talk about progress, about the fact that the Pirates have improved from 57 to 79 wins in two years. Manager Clint Hurdle said before the game that the team's “street cred is picking up.”
Maybe, but they're still better at collapsing than winning. The “Star Wars” theme played as the Pirates' lineup was announced, and it was Yoda who unwittingly encapsulated this season better than anyone could, in “The Empire Strikes Back:”
“No! Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.”
The little fella was right. There is no trying in baseball. Just winners and losers, and even the most positive spinster has to acknowledge that the main storyline of this season was the Pirates disintegrating when it mattered most.
Before the players took the field (to a smattering of applause, of course), season highlights were flashed on the scoreboard. Those included prodigious home runs from Pedro Alvarez and a slew of plays from Andrew McCutchen.
One clip even showed Jose Tabata running at full speed.
But then the saddest thing happened: In the midst of the montage, a loud cheer erupted — and it immediately became clear it was from Braves fans behind the Atlanta dugout acknowledging Chipper Jones as he walked out with the lineup card.
The Pirates were beaten again.
The game started off pretty sadly, too, and quickly devolved into the Pirates meekly bowing to the Braves' junior varsity. Atlanta used several pitchers who likely won't be part of its postseason roster. The Pirates managed four quiet singles off eight Atlanta pitchers.
About the only Braves reliever we didn't see was Miguel Batista, the last active player who played on a winning Pirates team (he appeared in one game in 1992).
The Pirates' best moments came when their best players were removed from the game. A.J. Burnett left to a rousing ovation, but, as with the pregame video montage, it was interrupted. This time with terrible news from the PA announcer: “Chad Qualls now pitching for the Pirates.”
Hurdle made a classy move by removing McCutchen in the eighth so that he could enjoy a lengthy ovation.
Afterward, I asked Hurdle if the talent level on this team merited about 79 wins.
“We needed to win more games,” he said. “I felt we were better than 79 wins.”
The game ended with Braves fans cheering rhythmically as Craig Kimbrel stuck out Tabata looking.
And how about we give the last word to Batista? He believes the Pirates will soon field a winner. But he also felt the vibe of the day. “Pittsburgh,” Batista said, “is crying for a winning team.”
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.