PITTSBURGH – The Streak, the one that loomed over the Pittsburgh Pirates for two ignominious decades, is dead. Over. Done. Discarded. Smashed by an improbable summer and a thrilling fall.
Unburdened from the yoke of failure that loomed for 20 years as an ominous cloud over the franchise, the Pirates can point to the future with eyes wide open.
What exactly the future holds, however, remains unclear.
In a way, the man who shrewdly guided the franchise from 105-loss laughingstock three years ago to a 94-game winner that pushed the St. Louis Cardinals to the brink in the NL division series knows the easy part is over.
“The sustainability is what separates great organizations,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We were able to take a huge step forward this year in restoring the pride and the passion of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization, and rebonding our city with a ball team.”
The evidence lay in the signature Jolly Roger flags that came out of hiding across the city after spending a generation tucked away like an abandoned family heirloom. It could be seen at packed PNC Park, where record crowds – most of them wearing black – poured through the turnstiles in the playoffs and made baseball matter again in a city where it has long played distant third fiddle behind football and hockey.
It could be felt in a clubhouse comprised of young talent and established veterans unbowed by the club’s miserable recent past. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen cemented his status as a star with an MVP-worthy season.
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez tied for the NL lead in home runs with 36. Rookie pitcher Gerrit Cole illustrated his electric 100 mph fastball. Catcher Russell Martin helped turn a pitching staff that looked like a question mark in March into a dominant force in September. Jason Grilli, aging reliever thrust into the closing role for the first time, became an All Star and the emotional center of one of baseball’s best bullpens.
When asked to describe the success of left-handed pitcher Francisco Liriano — who revived his flagging career by going 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA and becoming the de facto ace down the stretch — Hurdle said Liriano “has a lot of Pirate in him.” Pressed on what exactly that means, Hurdle stumbled upon an ethos that resonated from the front office down to the bat boys.
“In the movies that I’ve watched and the books that I’ve read, there seems to be a spirit of I really don’t care what anybody thinks anymore, I’m crossing the line, I’m going to become a Pirate,” Hurdle said. “It’s not about mom or dad or brother or sister, not about where I used to work. I’m going to be my own man. I’m going to hope to latch on to a bunch of other men who feel the same way, that are like-minded, and try to get something special done.”
The goal of a sixth World Series title, the one controlling owner Bob Nutting talked about at length during spring training, never materialized. The fact a world championship evolved from something preposterous to something very tangible will only fuel an offseason designed to prove the last six months were no fluke.
“I think it’s one thing to be happy and one thing to realize how far along we come and how much we can improve,” Alvarez said. “It’s been a realization of all the hard work we’ve put in but at the end of the day we still have a lot of work to do.”
Figuring out how to go about it, however, will be tricky. Though Pittsburgh’s $73 million payroll was the highest in club history, it also ranked just 26th in baseball. And despite the windfall of two dozen sellouts and the second-largest attendance figure since the team was founded in 1887, general manager Neal Huntington knows the Pirates can’t just start throwing money around. So does his boss.
“I think that the playing field is not level, never will be. But we as the Pittsburgh Pirates have committed ourselves to never using that as an excuse,” Nutting said. “Is it easier to build a great club with $200 million than with $75-$80 million? Absolutely. But I believe – have always believed and will continue to believe – that we can be competitive at that level.
“We need to make smart decisions.”
The decisions this winter will include whether to bring back A.J. Burnett, who put together a solid 10-11 season at age 36 and proved to be a capable mentor to youngsters like Cole and Jeff Locke. Burnett has hinted at retirement, but the truth is he may have pitched so well he priced himself out of the market.
The same goes for outfielder Marlon Byrd, part of a rare summer splurge. Byrd hit .318 in a month with Pittsburgh and was its most consistent hitter in six postseason games. While Byrd enjoyed his time in Pittsburgh, he also turned 36 in August and will likely look for a multi-year deal.
If Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez – who has an option for 2014 but spent the last four months of the season dealing with arm problems – don’t return, the Pirates will have to fill at least one spot in the rotation. Right field and first base are also a question mark if Byrd and Garrett Jones move on.
The last time Pittsburgh made the playoffs, it took 21 years to get back. There are no plans to have the gap repeat itself.
“This franchise is a great franchise, a franchise that won,” McCutchen said. “We’re going to continue to keep that sail up on that boat and keep going.”