There was Pat Meares, and there was Operation Shutdown. There were those 100 losses in 2001, the year PNC Park opened. There was whatever they did to mess up Oliver Perez. There was that lost Saturday night in Anaheim in '07, when Ian Snell just couldn't take it anymore. And there was last year's 19-43 swoon that was triggered by Jerry Meals's blown call in the 19th inning.
But until last night, I was convinced I had already seen the worst the Pittsburgh Pirates could do. They had indisputably reached their nadir two years ago. That was a 105-loss season, of which the lowest lowlight was not their 20-0 and 17-3 losses to the Brewers, but a 12-run loss to the Cubs on Aug. 30. I was sitting in a bar in Philly after that one, and I came across Dejan Kovacevic's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette game story on my phone. Some details just always stay with you, and I'll never forget Kovacevic's description of the "audible laughter" that had been directed at the Pirates and their antics that night at Wrigley. Because what's worse than being laughed at by Cubs fans?
This is, that's what. On Aug. 8 of this season, the Pirates were 63-47. They were 2.5 games out of first. They were comfortably in the wild-card hunt. Andrew McCutchen was a surefire MVP candidate. If nothing else, that terrible streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons—all together now, the longest in the history of North American professional sports—was mercifully going to end. Not even the Pirates could screw this up.
But it's happening, and it's been a slow, torturous, predictable process. I'm going to share the awful details with you.
The Cubs came to town last Friday. The Pirates greeted them by committing seven errors and losing 12-2. They jumped to a 2-0 lead the next night, only to have Jason Grilli, so reliable in his setup role all year, give up the game-winning run in the eighth. I was back in Pittsburgh and at a party. When the topic of the Pirates came up, the dread was palpable. "I'm just hoping they get to 82 wins," one guy said, echoing a line I've been saying myself for several weeks. Yes, that's right: Getting to say you're one game better than mediocre is what officially constitutes high hopes these days. Only in Pittsburgh.
Sunday afternoon, I was going to PNC Park for the first time all year, a trip that had been planned more than a month ago. My father, whom I had hoped would accompany my girlfriend and me, refused. "They don't deserve my eyes," he said, though of course he watched on TV, and of course he complained about what he saw until the Steelers kicked off later that night. Down by a run in the fifth, Clint Hurdle had Starling Marte try to bunt with two on and no one out. Marte couldn't do it, and he struck out. The Pirates tied it on a balk in the seventh, but Grilli blew it again in the eighth. Yep. Swept at home by the Cubs. 'Round and 'round we go.
They were off to Cincinnati on Monday. Hurdle yanked Wandy Rodriguez with a two-run lead in the seventh. The Reds tied it. In the 10th, McCutchen and Garrett Jones led off with walks. Hurdle had Chase d'Arnaud pinch-run for Jones, never mind that Jones didn't represent the go-ahead run. They didn't score. They loaded the bases with no outs in the 14th. Only instead of Jones (23 homers, .855 OPS), d'Arnaud (.217/.242/.287) was at the plate. They didn't score. I was back in New York by then, and it was after midnight, but I texted my cousin back in Pittsburgh, a partial season-ticket holder who dutifully watches every pitch. "I'm back to looking at games only with the morbid curiosity of one who glances at a bad car wreck," part of his response read. "I'm desensitized to the specifics of each night's failure." The Pirates lost in the bottom of the inning. They would lose again on Tuesday.
Then there was last night. Hurdle loves having the Pirates bunt. But when Alex Presley came up with two on, no one out, and one run already across to tie the game in the fourth, Hurdle had him swing away. Presley struck out. The threat eventually ended. And in the sixth, game tied, Presley hit a one-out triple, with Clint Barmes up next. Hurdle called for a squeeze. As you can see in the
photo above, third-base coach Nick Leyva telegraphed it by leaning in to say something to Presley. The Reds called for a pitchout. Barmes couldn't get his bat on the ball. Presley was dead.
The fury that followed was unlike anything I've seen before from Pirates fans on Twitter. This was it. The last of the hopefuls were bailing, and the die-hards were going first, women and children be damned. Pat Lackey of Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke? wrote a blog post right then and there, and he let us all know he was heading to a bar to get away from it all. Lackey's in-game headline: "F*ck You, Pirates." They would lose by a run. And because there are never enough insults to accompany the injury that defines being a Pirates fan, we would later learn that Nate McLouth (.140/.210/.175 in his dreadful return as a Pirate earlier this season) won last night's game for the Orioles with a walkoff single. Because why not?
The Pirates are now 72-70. The Cardinals and Dodgers suck, too, so the Bucs are somehow still 2.5 games out of the wild card. But let's not kid ourselves. Those of us who've followed this team through thin and thinner know where this is going. The playoffs aren't happening, and the winning season likely won't, either. We've seen this song and dance before. And we'll still sit through whatever shit they put us through next year.