Jim O’Brien: Pirates have provided us with a wonderful summer

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Jim O’Brien: Pirates have provided us with a wonderful summer

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

It was well past midnight on Monday and I was still up.  I had planned to go to bed around ten o’clock because I had to get up early on Tuesday.  I am putting a new book to bed this week, and I have had my foot to the printing pedal all week to meet my own deadlines.

         The Pirates were deadlocked with the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, and the game was well into extra innings.

         I had checked out bits and pieces of the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament during the day and the men’s championship final had lasted a record five hours, so I could handle a marathon baseball game as well.

         The U.S. Open ended the way I wanted it to, with Andrew Murray, a Scot who won the gold medal at the Olympic Games, outlasting No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic of Serbia.

         I have come to like Djokovic, but I was rooting for Murray, who looks like a kid at his first summer sleep-away camp, say CampFalcon or something like that, and he came through.  I also was glad to see Serena Williams beat Victoria Azarenka in a close match for her 15th Grand Slam title.

         But back to the Bucs.  I’m pulling for the Pirates to pull this one out.  I remain interested because of the kind of thrills and spills they have provided us this summer.  People in Pittsburgh actually care about the Pirates again.  I had dozed off earlier and been told to go to bed, but I rallied and stayed with the Bucs.

         The Pirates posted the longest string of losing seasons – 19 – than any other team in any professional sport in America – and there was evidence that they could have a winning team.  There were even overzealous fans talking about a wild-card spot in the playoffs and complaining about the price of playoff and World Series tickets.

         I’m sitting there and I’m wondering just who it is that I am rooting for.  Wandy Rodriguez was the starting pitcher for the Pirates, and he actually pitched well for a change.   He was obtained in a trade that was supposed to help us in the stretch run.

         A pitcher named Chris Leroux looked terrific in one of the relief efforts, and now a Dutchman, yes, he grew up in The Netherlands, is pitching for the Pirates.  His name is Rick van den Kirk.  The name VANDENKIRK is across the back of his uniform and I am thinking it is the longest name in Pittsburgh sports these days this side of ROETHLISBERGER.

         The shortstop is a guy named Chase d’Arnaud, the second baseman is named Brock Holt – or is that Tim Holt, the old cowboy? – the left-fielder is named Starling Marte, and the Pirates have had pinch-hitters in the game named Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez.

         Who are these guys?  Where have you gone, Neil Walk?

         This was a season when my wife Kathie could tell you the Pirates’ starting lineup for the first time in 20 years.  I could tell you the starting lineup for the first time since 1979, and something about each of the players.  And then they bring in the Indianapolis team from Triple A to turn things around and, so far, it ain’t happening.

         The Pirates loaded the bases in the top of the 14th inning with no outs.  And they couldn’t score a run.  Pedro Alvarez grounds out to the first baseman, hitting a bad pitch to do so, and fails to advance any runners.  Jose Tabata grounds out to end the threat.  He also swung at a bad pitch.

         Before you know it, the Reds have runners on base in the bottom of the 14th inning.  It’s 12:30 a.m.  Am I crazy or what for staying up, thinking the Pirates could pull it out?  The Reds win it when d’Arnaud fails to come up with the ball in deep short and the Reds are celebrating.  It was a good effort, but d’Arnaud, like so many of the Pirates, just isn’t good enough, especially with the game on the line.

         There were over 500 dogs in the ballpark as part of a special promotion – and I’m not counting any of these new Pirates – and there is howling in the stands.  Did you hear that howling?  It was scary stuff right out of one of those horror flicks.

At first, I was blaming it on teenagers who got bored in the late going, but then the camera focused on some dogs in the ballpark, the four-footed ones.  There were just over 16,500 people in the stands.  It was the smallest crowd of the season at Great American Ballpark.   The Pirates also drew the second-smallest crowd earlier this season.  Didn’t the Cincinnati baseball fans know a pennant race was going on and their team held the lead?

I believe we have better fans.  And Pittsburgh baseball fans are the best sports fans in town because they haven’t exactly been spoiled over the last two decades.      

         The Pirates couldn’t get a run in the top of the 14th inning with the bases loaded and no outs, and now the Reds have won the game and are celebrating on the field.  The Pirates were now 12 games behind the first-place Reds in the National League Central Division.

         I think we can forget about the wild-card playoff spot and the World Series.  The Pirates had just lost for the 21st time in their last 30 games, and you can add whatever has happened since to that total.  What a bummer!

         The Pirates were swept in three games at home over the weekend by the Chicago Cubs of all people.  They had lost to the Houston Astros in their last go-round in the National League before they jump to the American League next season.

         Bucs’ fans who don’t know any better had figured the Pirates would beat the Astros and Cubs, looking at them as soft spots in the schedule.  Listen in closely…there are no soft spots in the Pirates’ schedule.

         Like the Pitt and Penn State football teams this season, the Pirates are simply not good enough right now – maybe by next year – to be serious contenders.  Too many holes in the lineup, too many automatic outs, two reserve catchers do not make one full-time catcher, too many unreliable pitchers and catchers and hitters.

         No wonder the fans continue to hold on to Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente when it comes to buying a Bucs’ blouse.

         It’s 12:36 a.m. and I am getting into bed.

         I slept well. 

         I can’t forget the kind of summer the Pirates have delivered for the most part.  They had Pittsburgh interested in major league baseball again.  People were talking about the Pirates.  People were coming to PNCPark, people were watching the games on TV at record ratings numbers, and listening on the radio.  People cared about the Pirates.

         Alvarez had his great days, and so did Joel Hanrahan and A.J. Burnett, and Andrew McCutcheon and Garrett Jones.

         I would urge you to go to your nearest card shop and get a “thank you” card and send it to the Pirates’ players.  It was a good summer until it was time for the kids to go back to school.

         The Pirates frustrated us so much this summer because they proved they could win games most of the season, and that’s why it has hurt so much when they hit the same kind of season-ending slump that ruined last season.

         I had a fan come up to me a few weeks back and tell me he didn’t like the Pirates’ new pitcher, Wandy Rodriguez.  I asked him how well he knew Wandy Rodriguez to arrive at that position.

He said he didn’t like his body language.

         That made me realize that the Bucs’ do have bad body language in their lineup.  So many of them, starting with Rodriguez, Alvarez and Tabata and Correira, never show any emotion.  It’s like they all had face lifts at the same medical center as Joan Rivers.

         I love it when the new pitcher from Japan – Takahashi – puts a glove over his mouth so no one knows what he’s saying during mound sessions with his catcher.  No one knows what he’s saying anyhow.  He speaks little English.  Who’s going to pick up on anything he mutters to his catcher?

         Clint Hurdle has to be disappointed.  He looked like a candidate for Manager of the Year for such a long time, and now this.  “I’ve heard that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Hurdle said after this one, taking a break from blowing bubble gum in the dugout.  His jaw has to be tired for this stretch run.  His jaw has to be stretched to the limit.

         Hey, Hurdle has great body language otherwise, and he looks alive, something John Russell did not, so he’s a real improvement on his predecessor.

         I went to a high school game on Friday night to see my local team, the Upper St. Clair Panthers, play at Canon-McMillan in one of my favorite settings in Canonsburg.  I sat on the visitors’ side for a change, which was a mistake, because the temporary stands (the last five or six years) are so low you can’t see over the USC players standing on the sideline.

         Upper St. Clair, followed up a season-open victory over Woodland Hills (31-12) with a 50-0 victory over the not-so-mighty Macs.  They were up 43-0 at the half.

         Then I watched bits and pieces of Pitt and PennState losing their second games in as many outings.  Robert Morris lost.  Duquesne won and so did CMU.  I was so happy to see CMU win at AlleghenyCollege.

         The CMU coach, Rick Lackner, lost his wife Cindy to cancer a few weeks back, and I kept thinking about what he was saying about her mettle over the previous eight years.  “She could play for us,” I heard Lackner tell a man who was previously on his coaching staff at CMU.

         I love the Lackner family – Rich’s parents, Dan and Lois – are great people.  I didn’t know his wife, but I’ve heard great things about her spirit. 

         Some times it helps to think about what’s going on in the real world, and even in our own neighborhoods, to keep in mind that our sports teams are mere diversions in our daily lives.  We can’t always depend on them to make our day.    

      Pittsburgh author Jim O’Brien is working on a book called Immaculate Reflections, which will be out in late October.  His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com

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