Today is the day I came full circle as a Pirates fan.
For a long time I was in the "traditional fan" camp. Get 'em next year, let's go Bucs, and all that. With the arrival of each spring training, I'd look hard at our roster, try to project how well (or poorly) our players would perform, formulate a couple of trades or modest free agent signings that would presumably get us over the top, and root the team on.
Unfortunately, it soon became clear that for a variety of reasons, the entire Pirates organization was broken and in sore need of fixing. Along the way, it also became clear that whatever priorities the organization had, fielding a winning team at the major league level wasn’t one of them.
Thus, it seemed that the entire “traditional fan” paradigm was no longer valid; it simply wasn’t possible to root-root-root for the Pirates in the traditional sense because the whole appeal of sports is based on the ideal of (more or less) pure competition, and the uncertainty of the outcome of that competition, and the emotional investment you make as a spectator in that uncertain outcome, and the joy that comes with your vicarious participation when the team wins.
But the Pirates were too badly broken for all of that.
So, I reinvented myself as an interested observer in how the whole train wreck might be repaired. Along the way, I abandoned my “traditional fan” perspective because, after all, it’s unrealistic to expect---much less demand---even a mildly competitive big league product on the field at PNC when there’s little or no talent coming up from the minors and when there’s no hope of outspending the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels, and Cubs. Or even St. Louis, really.
Being a “fan”, then, became less about wins and losses and more about hanging in there, learning about the entire operation from rookie league to Pittsburgh and all points in between, and vicariously participating that way.
To be sure, going through that process has been highly educational and, honestly, pretty interesting. In a strange sort of way, it might even be more fun to be involved with the Pirates from that point of view than it would be to be a BoSox or Yankees fan---after all, those folks pretty much know they’re going to be in the postseason every year unless something truly remarkable occurs. And if they’re not, they just import the latest and greatest gazillion dollar free agents and spend everyone else into oblivion. Not much fear of failure or anticipation of an uncertain outcome in all that.
But then came the bloodletting of 2008 and especially 2009.
The "team" the Pirates front office put on the field over the second half of 2009 was criminally incompetent. The result was arguably if not probably the worst stretch of baseball this city has ever seen. Yes, most of the veterans that the Nutting-Huntington-Coonelly regime inherited had to be dealt in order to speed the transfusion of talent into the system because that system was, in fact, broken.
But ALL of them? Nate McLouth in the first year of his quite reasonable contract extension? John Grabow when there wasn't a lefthander anywhere in the entire organization who could even begin to replace him? Really?
And even if we swallow hard and look the other way in that regard, well then: where are the handful of intelligently-chosen veterans this offseason? Guys who will both make us better in the short term and who can police the clubhouse and show the kids the ropes? Hello? Bueller? Anybody? BUELLER?
The truth is that there are any number of mid-range, "professional ballplayer" veterans who could and who definitely would help this team be more competitive. Right now. No questions asked. Want proof?
The fondly-remembered 1997 team was all about that sort of player. Kenny Lofton, Matt Stairs, et al, and all of a sudden we're sort-of interesting even into September. What, I ask, is wrong with that? Oh, I see, we're "rebuilding", as all the sabremetric wonks tell us, so therefore it's somehow totally wrong to even try for moderate (but real) improvement on the field while we wait for the kids to arrive.
As I said, I’ve come full circle. To be sure, every Pirates fan has to accept significant pain and disappointment, at least in the short term, because a significant teardown-rebuild was, in truth, the only kind of strong medicine that had any hope of laying the foundation for a return to winning baseball. But a “significant teardown-rebuild” is emphatically not the same thing as a “total demolition and wins and losses be damned because the kids will save us”.
I refuse to believe our product on the field doesn't matter because, well, you see, it’ll all be better someday and then no one will care. I do not accept that entire premise, not anymore.
If only from the standpoint of professional and competitive integrity---what they used to call "being a big leaguer"---you owe it to your sport and to your fans to put a team on the field that will, at bare minimum, make the other guys sweat to beat you. If you can't, or won't, do even that much, you are not a major league organization and you should sell or be contracted. Period.
(Sounds like you can add Will to the list of disgruntled fans!)