SOLO IN ENEMY TERRITORY PROJECT PART 1: PIRATES VS. METS

I remember the first thing I looked for when the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2012 season schedule was released.

I was sitting on my bed in my small but adequate Brooklyn apartment. On the walls around me hung a No. 14 Wally Richardson Penn State jersey, a No. 39 Willie Parker Steelers jersey and a No. 58 Jack Lambert Steelers jersey. And hanging on the wall at the foot of my bed was my Pirates jersey, the last thing I saw every night before I fell asleep.

As I scanned the schedule, I looked for any games the Pirates would have against either the Yankees or the Mets. I’d be able to watch all of those games, home or away, on my local television channels. It’s far more enjoyable to watch baseball on my 36-inch TV than using MLB.TV on my tiny laptop screen. But more importantly than the television schedule, I wanted to know if the Pirates were coming to New York City.

I’ve lived in New York for more than two years now and that means I’ve had to battle the distance between here and Pittsburgh. I grew up about two hours away from the Steel City so it was relatively easy to go to a Pirates, Steelers or Penguins game (and they were all on local TV to boot). But in New York, I have to work around that. I subscribe to MLB.TV. I purchase NHL Game Center. I have DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket. None of these subscriptions is cheap, but that’s the price I pay for fanhood.

I saw that the Pirates had three-game series in against the Mets in late May, but it was in Pittsburgh. That meant that the Buccos would be heading the Queens later in the season. So I continued to scroll through the schedule until I hit September. There I found the series I was looking for: four games against the Mets at Citi Field from the 24th to the 27th.

The late-season series meant two things. If one or both of the teams were somehow in playoff contention at that point, then it would be a more expensive ticket. But that would also mean seeing a contending team or two close to the playoffs and it could have serious implications. Fun.

But the more likely scenario would mean that both teams were way out of playoff contention by then (not fun), but tickets would be dirt cheap. The previous season, a friend and I went to a Pirates/Mets game at Citi Field in September. The combined cost of the tickets was $4.

Regardless of the scenario, I was going.

The entire 2012 season was in preparation of this series for me, and by the time July rolled around, I believed I would be going to see the first Pirates team in 19 years to finish as winners. I worried that the tickets might gut my wallet, but money was no issue when it came to my teams.

On Sunday, Sept. 23, I went online to find tickets for my long-awaited series. Surprise, surprise, the cheap seats were single digits. This was the product of an epic collapse, the second of the kind in two years for the Pirates. They were 75-77, 6 1/2 games back of the National League wild card, 16 1/2 games back of the division leading Reds and the Buccos needed to win seven of their final 10 games to finish with a winning season.

The Mets were in even worse shape than the Pirates. They were 69-83, 12 1/2 games back of the wild card and 23 games back of the division lead.

These were two pathetic teams butting heads in September. This series couldn’t be about dignity for the Mets, they had lost that long ago. This series was about finishing strong for their fans at home. This was also a chance for David Wright to become the Mets all-time hits leader (he was only a handful away and would face a crumbling Pirates rotation).

For the Pirates (if they were optimists), this was about creeping above .500 against a team who had no such chance. But from the looks of them, the Pirates are not a team of optimists and even with a sweep of the Mets, they hardly stood a chance in winning three more games against the division leading Reds and the No. 1 wild card Braves.

I decided to go to three of the four games. Four would have been nice, but I was still suffering the effects of a heavy football weekend and Monday didn’t seem like an ideal time to schlep myself through three subway lines and two transfers. I convinced a friend to accompany me to the Thursday day game (which wasn’t that difficult considering she was a Mets fan and that was the day R.A. Dickey would go for his 20th win), but I would go the Tuesday and Wednesday night contests alone. Here’s what the first two tickets cost me:

Pittsburgh Pirates at New York Mets at Citi Field, Flushing, NY

Tue, 09/25/2012, 7:10 p.m. EDT

Promenade Infield 513 | 1 ticket

Row 2 | Seat 9

Billing review

Price per ticket: $10.00

Quantity: x 1

Subtotal: $10.00

Service fee: + $5.00

Delivery services: + $5.45

Order total: $20.45

 

Pittsburgh Pirates at New York Mets at Citi Field, Flushing, NY

Wed, 09/26/2012, 7:10 p.m. EDT

Promenade Outfield 535 | 1 ticket

Row 1 | Seat 5

Comments: Actual 1st row of section

Billing review

Price per ticket: $2.59

Quantity: x 1

Subtotal: $2.59

Service fee: + $5.00

Delivery services: + $5.45

Order total: $13.04

 

The grand total cost me $33.49. That’s an average of $16.74 per game. The games would probably leave much to be desired but I believe it’s a fair price to pay for a nice night at a pro ball park.

 Disclaimer: For the purposes of this blog, I am documenting only the first two games of the three I went to. These were the only times in my life I’ve attended any away Pirates games alone and those are the experiences I wish to explore and share.

Before I went to the games, I decided to pick a different style of how I would experience each game. For the Tuesday game, I’d simply take in the fan experience as most do. I’d show up early, find my seat and buy a Nathan’s hotdog and a Budweiser. I wanted to feel the game rather than watch it. I wasn’t going to pay strict attention to the details of the game like a stat geek. I wouldn’t keep score and I’d just have fun with it. I wanted to converse with some other fans and take note of how it all felt. How was the atmosphere? Were there very many people there? Did anyone care that I was decked out in Pirates gear? I wanted the big picture of how I felt to be at the ball park without the soul focus being on balls, strikes and keeping track of the relievers’ strike totals.

For the Wednesday game, I’d keep a strict scorecard. I didn’t want to talk to others and I didn’t want to get Twitter analysis about the game. I just wanted to focus on the less common fan experience. It would be the baseball nerd experience. I figured this one would be easier and ultimately more satisfying considering I was by myself.

Game 1 (Game 2 of the Pirates vs. Mets series at Citi Field) Tue, 09/25/2012, 7:10 p.m.

I donned my lucky generic Pirates jersey (which clearly is only lucky in the sense that I’ve never been killed while wearing it) and stepped out of my apartment to head for Citi Field. I live in Brooklyn, about 6 1/2 miles from the stadium. I walked two blocks from my apartment to the subway in absolutely terrific weather. It was a mild combination of the crisp, incoming fall mixed with the remaining sunny remnants of summer. It was about 69 degrees with clear skies. I remember thinking, “The only thing that could ruin this perfect baseball weather is the Pittsburgh Pirates.”

The previous night, the Buccos lost the series opener 2-6. They managed eight hits, but didn’t score until the eighth inning. By then, I had already turned the game off. Following the loss, they held a record of 75-78 and needed to win seven of their final nine games to finish over .500 for the first time in 19 years. Their remaining games after the Mets series were against Cincinnati and Atlanta, two teams that had already punched their tickets to the postseason. For the Pirates to have any chance at a winning season, it was essential that they win at least three games against the pathetic Mets. That would put them at .500 for the final two series and they would need to win four of their final six. If they wanted to make up ground, they had to do it against the Mets.

I had my doubts.

Once the 7 train stopped at Mets/Willets Point, hoards of enthusiastic Mets and Pirates fans poured out of the train doors and eagerly dashed towards the gates of the stadium.

Just kidding.

Once the train lurched to a stop, a handful of fans emerged and trudged towards Citi Field. Nothing about this crowd made it apparent there were any sports fans on board. Not only was there a distinct absence of Pirates jerseys and hats (which is understandable), I couldn’t tell if these folks were Mets fans, either. There was an orange “NY” logo here and there, but for the most part, it was an after-work crowd that found no value in bringing a Mets shirt or hat to the office for later.

It was about 40 minutes until first pitch when I reached the gates of the stadium. A vendor standing outside caught sight of me and said, “Sign up for the New York Times, get a free jacket. Guaranteed to cover up all Pirates jerseys.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. In fact, I was hoping I’d get a lot more witty banter from the opposition. But it never happened after that. This was how irrelevant the Pirates had become. New York fans – some of the most loud and potentially obnoxious fans I’ve ever come across – were silent. Maybe it was because the Mets were 70-83 at this point and their fans weren’t enthusiastic about anything, but I’ve never heard New York fans have such utter disregard for disregarding other teams. Without anyone actually telling me so, it felt as though these people felt sorry for me.

You want to know what rock bottom feels like? Have a Mets fan feel sorry for you.

Things weren’t much livelier inside the stadium. With about 30 minutes until game time, the stands were 3/4 empty. It was the meaningless wasteland that is irrelevant September baseball for Mets and Pirates fans alike.

After purchasing my $7.50 Budweiser and my $6 Nathan’s dog, I headed up to section 513, Promenade Infield.

The masses gather in Queens for September baseball.

It was one of the better seats I’ve had for a ball game, especially at Citi. It featured an unblocked view from behind home plate and a great perspective for wherever the ball could be sprayed. I glanced around my section once I sat down. It looked like the auditorium in last five minutes of a middle school talent show. A few people here, a family over there, but mostly emptiness.

That’s when I spotted the first Pirates gear other than mine. A few rows to my right sat a middle-aged man wearing a Salomon Torres jersey, No. 16, circa 2007. If you don’t remember who Torres is, that’s OK, neither does Sammy Sosa.

You can instantly tell a lot about a fan just by the jersey they’re wearing. Torres was a decent player for the Pirates, but still rather forgettable. In six years in the Steel City, he went 26-28 with a 3.63 ERA and 29 saves. So when you see a guy wearing his jersey five years later, you know he’s probably a devoted fan (not to mention the fact he was at that game in particular).

I felt the need to connect with the Torres adorer so I walked over to his seat started up a conversation. As it turns out, he was just the type of fan I suspected.

I believe three types of Pirates fans exist:

  1. Those who were Pirates fans, but not anymore.
  2. Those who are technically Pirates fans, but seem constantly annoyed by the Pirates and tend to be pessimistic, regardless if the Buccos are winning or not. You’ll find a lot of overlap with this group and those affectionately known as Yinzers.
  3. Those who are Pirates fans, always were and always will be. They are the rarest of the three categories. They don’t seem to mind losing, but certainly would love to see the team win. They’ll stick with the team regardless what happens. These are the true Pirates fans.

I was lucky because my new friend was a Class 3 Pirates fan.

“I’m not optimistic the Pirates will be good any time soon, but I’m optimistic I’ll always be a Pirates fan. I absolutely love this team,” he told me. “They could be terrible for 50 more years and I’d still love ‘em.

He was from West Virginia, but lived on the South Side of Pittsburgh for 10 years. When he lived in the Burgh, he attended 30-40 games a year, usually sporting one of the jerseys of his three favorite Pirates: Franquelis Osaria, Torres and Brian Giles. He told me he moved to New York two years ago and has missed only one Pirates game in Queens since.

When I asked him why he was such a devoted fan and why he came out to such a bad series with the Mets, he referenced the Pirates as lovable losers.

“They’re just so bad, you can probably meet them,” he joked. “And going to these games is cheaper than a movie and twice as fun.”

Ahhh, a baseball purist that found himself caught in the Pirates’ tangled web. Always brings a tear to my eye.

After our brief conversation, we gave each other one last “Go Bucs” and I headed back to my seat.

The game was entertaining in spurts, but also mind-numbingly long. I didn’t leave the stadium until well after 10:30. Total game time: 3 hours 26 minutes. Both teams used a combined 12 pitchers. Managers from both teams argued several calls throughout the game. There were nine coach’s visits to the mound. There were two injury delays. There were 7,342 foul balls. It just went on and on and by the time the fourth inning rolled around, the temperature had dropped about 20 degrees and it was football weather. After the final pitch of the game, the scoreboard reflected a football score – Pirates 10, Mets 6.

All and all, it was still a fun experience but mostly because the Pirates ended up on top. The win put them in a better position to finish the season with a winning record, but it reflected the most possible season outcome: a 20th year of futility. Starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez threw well for five of his six innings, but he gave up a first inning two-run homer. And once he ran out of steam and was taken out after the sixth, reliever Chris Resop gave up three runs on two hits and walked one AND WAS IN FOR ONLY 1/3 OF AN INNING.

The Pirates committed one error while the Mets committed two. The pitching on both sides was weak and the game was sloppy. Total attendance was 25,286 but I’ll never believe there were that many people there. Everything about the game was exactly what I expected.

I arrived home around midnight, tired, cold and numb. I’ve had worse baseball experiences, but I’ve had a lot better. If the Pirates had lost, I’d still be cursing.

Game 2 (Game 3 of the Pirates vs. Mets series at Citi Field) Wed, 09/26/2012, 7:10 p.m.

 My excursion for Game 2 began the same way as Game 1: jersey on, subway to Citi. Once I got there, I noticed an immediate difference. There were a lot more Pirates fans. Even though I was 40 minutes early, I saw exponentially more Buccos hats and jerseys than the night before. This game was the same time and on a week night, just like the previous night. But it was the night following a victory. There was still a little bit of optimism left in Pirates Nation and the atmosphere was palpable. There were even a few “let’s go Bucs” chants that faintly echoed through the stadium.

Because of this optimism, the Pirates had one of their worst games of the season and lost in unspectacular fashion, because that’s what happens when the universe realizes Pirates fans have hope. Final score: Mets 6, Pirates 0. The Pirates managed only three hits, two of which of which came off the bat of Pedro Alvarez. Pittsburgh committed an error and never stood a chance. Mets pitcher Jeremy Hefner (2-7 before that game) looked like a super-star, striking out seven and walking only one.

What could make a game like this even worse? Keeping a detailed scorebook, of course. I predicted that I would enjoy keeping score during the game more than just sitting back and watching. After all, I consider myself a stat guy and always found it fun to look back on the numbers and know exactly what happened. I’m a baseball nerd at heart. But unfortunately, I’m also a Pirates fan. And let me tell you, the only thing more wrenching than witnessing your team get kicked around the diamond is meticulously charting it as it happens.

On the Pirates side of my score sheet, I got to connect first and second base ONCE (almost twice, but I had to stop the line halfway because Starling Marte got caught stealing). I drew eight Ks (three of them backwards). I ran out of boxes to put Pirates pitchers in (they finished the game with five).

There were two redeeming factors to this game. The first was the temperature. It was a mild 72 degrees – perfect baseball weather. And just as I had feared during the first night, the Pirates ruined it. The second bright spot had nothing to do with the Pirates. It was in fact, on the Mets side of my scorecard. In the “notes” section, I wrote “1,419 all-time hits for David Wright, most in Mets history.” It wasn’t a huge deal for me, personally. I’m not against David Wright, but I couldn’t care less about how many hits he has or will ever get. I wasn’t happy that he got the record-tying and record-breaking hits against the Pirates. But I couldn’t help but smile when No. 1,219 dribbled through the infield.

Since I moved to New York, I’ve always had an affinity for the Mets. I decided that since I was living in a new city, I would pick a baseball team to follow (but not necessarily root for). I’d always been a hater of the Evil Empire so that left me with the Mets. I found that they were a lot like the Pirates. Sure, the payroll was a lot higher, but they would win a little and ultimately collapse. They were the Pirates in pinstripes. They were the North Shore in Queens. They were lovable losers. So when I saw everyone in the stadium rise to their feet to give Wright a standing ovation, both during and after the game, I was happy that the Mets had accomplished something this season. Just like the previous game when the Mets fans felt bad for me and the Pirates won, I felt sorry for the Mets fans and their team won.

Want to dig lower than rock bottom? Have a Pirates fan feel sorry for you.

Final Conclusions

After my two-day solo set with the Mets and the Pirates, I learned a few things.

  • If a game is between two natural-born losers, it’s probably better to watch it with a buddy. There are far too many times during games like that when you want to turn to the person next to you to say, “Wow, that was just awful, these guys actually get paid to play baseball?” Saying that to a stranger who is rooting for the opposing team won’t get you far in the making friends department. There are certainly positives to sitting by yourself, alone with your thoughts and observations, but I feel those times are best reserved for the middle of the wilderness on a rainy day.
  •  Above all else, I want my team to win. Sure, I’ve been rooting for a losing team for 19 years, but I’ve never gotten used to losing. The weather was nicer on the second night and the game was much quicker, but there was no comparison to how much fun I had the first night. Even though I felt very little pride after the win on the first night (a Mets fan told me, “Raise the Jolly Roger” after the game and I replied, “for what it’s worth.”), it was at least something that felt like pride. The second game left me ashamed the way a parent is ashamed when a child gets caught shoplifting. I just want them to do better so people think better of them and myself and so we can all have a more positive existence. If I just became numb to their losing ways, I wouldn’t feel anything when they won. And when it comes down to it, winning feels so much better because I know how much losing hurts.
  •  A night out at the ball park always has inherent value, even if you’re alone, your team is losing and hardly anyone else is in the stadium. Going to a baseball game is simple and refreshing. Ever since I moved to the city, I’ve been surrounded by grey concrete and dirty sidewalks. There’s no grass and few trees. There is no open space. But when you exit the concourse into the seating area at the ball park, the green of the grass and the red of the dirt and the immaculate white bases offer a refreshing view that few other places in the city can. There’s a feeling of good, clean innocence. It’s nine men wearing gloves and ball caps trying to catch a ball. It’s simple and it’s like a spa for the sports fan’s senses. It’s about buying an overpriced hotdog and beer because it feels right at a ball game, and possibly nowhere else. It’s a throwback to my childhood, which were fun and simpler times.
  •  Even though my team sucks and so do the Mets, watching them suck in person is far more enjoyable than watching them suck on television. To hear the organ, smell the food and sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” lessons the blow of such bad baseball. The fan experience is underrated in this regard, because there is such tradition associated with baseball. Football might be more popular in America, but there’s no game more deeply rooted in the tradition of our country than baseball. Ask Ken Burns.
  •  Being a Pirates fan still isn’t easy and it probably won’t be for a long time. The Pirates need sustainable pitching. They need better minor league development so they can bring more players like Andrew McCutchen up through the system and make an impact at the big league level. Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes are terrible and are just the latest in a long line of poor free-agent off-season acquisitions.
  •  The Pirates need to get better and so do the Mets. Fans have been waiting awhile for these teams to be good again. All fans, except for Browns fans and Flyers fans have that right. And if they don’t get better? Damn it, I’ll still be there. If I’m still living in New York City when next May rolls around, I’ll be clearing my schedule on the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th.

Because my name is Pete and the most important thing I learned was that I’m a Class 3 Pirates fan.

Pirates’ Woes At Plate Continue, Raise Questions

As a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, it’s pretty frustrating watching a team that day-in and day-out, has tremendous pitching with little to no run support. The Buccos have the second best team ERA in the majors (3.15) and have allowed only 103 earned runs so far. They have allowed only 119 runs this season, which is third in all of baseball. The Pirates pitching staff is also ranked ninth in all of baseball when it opponents’ batting average; the opposition has hit.240 against the Pirates. The pitching staff didn’t allow more than five runs until the 19th game of the season and has allowed more than five runs only five times this season (and three of those games were against the St. Louis Cardinals, who have scored more runs than any team in baseball this season). Even though pitching numbers have gone up and batting numbers have gone down in the post-steroid era, these are still the kind of pitching stats that should warrant a postseason appearance.

Unfortunately, the game of baseball is more than just what happens on the mound.

The Pirates are incredibility inept at scoring runs. They rank dead last in the majors in runs scored (97) and they aren’t even close to the 29th ranked Padres who have scored 12 more. Statistically, the Pirates would need four more games to make up those 12 runs since they average about three runs per game. That said, it generally takes hits to score runs and that’s the primary reason why the Buccos can’t get men from the batter’s box to home plate. Once again, the Pirates are ranked 30th in hits, accumulating only 243 this season. Collectively, Pittsburgh is batting .222 which is 28 points less than the league average of .250. The Pirates also have the worst on-base percentage in the majors and have hit only 24 home runs.

There are only three Pirates batting .250 or better and there are six Buccos that are hitting below the Mendoza line. The two most notable underachievers are Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas. Both are hitting a measly .162 and have combined for eight RBIs and three home runs. Barmes and Barajas were the two biggest off-season acquisitions and are getting paid $5 million and $4 million, respectively. Barmes is the HIGHEST paid position player and Barmes is the SECOND HIGHEST paid position player on the Pirates roster. Although Barajas has been hitting better lately, neither his nor Barmes’ numbers are acceptable. Their numbers wouldn’t be worth any amount you paid them right now.

So if the Pirates are serious about achieving a winning season for the first time in 19 years, they’ll need to upgrade offensively. A postseason berth is probably out of the question right now, so the Buccos need to concentrate on one step at a time.

Here are the options they have to establish some better numbers at the plate. They can stay the course and make no changes, hoping that their team will improve at the plate. This is probably the worst option the Pirates could choose. I sincerely doubt there will be any substantial improvements from the guys they have. Although they are only about one-fifth of the way through the season, the chances aren’t good that the team will make a huge turn around at the plate any time soon.

The next option for the Pirates could be calling up talent from the minor leagues. This can be a crap shoot, especially within the Pirates organization. Starling Marte is the best option within the organization, but he has been nursing a hand injury and if the Buccos were to call him up, they would have to be sure that the injury is completely healed so Marte would be in the position to play at 100 percent. Right now, Marte is only seven days removed from suffering the injury and rushing him back would probably do more to hurt his future than help the current Major League team. And even before the injury, Marte hasn’t been unstoppable at the plate this year. His athleticism lends the most to the support of bringing him up from AAA Indianpolis but he is hitting .268 this season compared to .332 last year. It’s still a solid average and he still has great potential, but it seems like he’ll need some more time in the minors to prove he can be a starter for the Pirates any time soon. So right now, a call up is still probably out of the question.

One more option would be acquiring someone from another team. This is the biggest risk/reward the Pirates could go with. In order to get someone with a solid value at the plate, Pittsburgh would have to give up someone with significant value as well. And for the Pirates, that would mean someone from the pitching staff. I’m particularly conflicted about this option because the Pirates hurlers have been the one area that doesn’t need to improve whatsoever. But would losing one guy from the pitching staff have a huge effect on the rotation as a whole? Maybe, maybe not. The Pirates might actually be strong enough on the hill to lose a piece and still maintain their dominance, but that is a risk with some big implications. What if the hitting didn’t improve and their rotation starts to suffer as well? That could set Pittsburgh back substantially.

Recently, Mark Madden (a popular Pittsburgh radio talk show host) suggested the Pirates should trade closer Joel Hanrahan to acquire a big stick to improve the Pirates’ numbers at the plate. This might not be a bad idea by the numbers. As solid as Hanrahan his, he doesn’t get to play enough to be tremendously useful. The Pirates have had only 12 save opportunities this season, which ranks 23rd in the Majors. If the Pirates can’t score enough runs to get a lead heading into the ninth, what’s the point of needing such a solid closer? That question could end up being a catch-22. What if the Pirates trade Hanrahan, end up producing enough runs to hold a lead into the ninth, but can’t hold the opposition enough to get the win? Since Hanrahan has been on the bereavement list due to the death of his grandmother, his fill-in Juan Cruz has gone 3-for-3 in his save opportunities. But he only has six saves in his 12-year career. He’s done well recently as a closer, but we’ll need to see a bigger sample size before assuming he can take on any kind of permanent closer role.

I’m not saying that moving Hanrahan would be the answer. He hasn’t been overly impressive this year, so the return you could get for him might not be as big as the Pirates would want or need to drastically alter their run production. But one thing is clear: The Pirates can’t waste any more time. They need to pull the trigger on some kind of change, any kind of change really. Because even though the Pirates do have a handful of loyal fans, everyone has their breaking point. Nineteen years is too long to go without a winning season and if the Pirates ever want to start garnering respect again, something must be done.

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