Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Pittsburgh Pirates Are Doomed

Blunt title? Sure it is. But I figured I might as well get straight to the point.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been a great story all season. Indeed, they're almost certainly the team I've most enjoyed following this year. I attended my first ballgame in 1993 and became a true baseball fan in 1995, and only now am I finally seeing a Pirate team that has a winning record and is participating in the playoffs. Pittsburgh has had one of those special seasons that fans cherish for a lifetime. As cool as it would be to see this team go all the way to the World Series and even (dare I suggest?) win it, it has absolutely no chance of happening.

The reason is because the roadblock standing in their way is that notorious crusher of dreams, the St. Louis Cardinals. So what? While the Cardinals are certainly favored on paper, we all know that in a short series, anything can happen, right? Theoretically, yes. When the Cardinals are involved though, the normal rules don't apply.

At the risk of sounding solipsistic, I ought to explain the grand unifying theory that underpins my thinking.

I'm from the Chicago area, and I like both Chicago teams. Before 2005, both Chicago teams held their leagues' respective longest World Series title droughts, as you probably know if you're reading this. When the White Sox had their great season in 2005, it was natural for Chicago fans to expect the worst. After all, our teams had a history of blowing it. As I watched the Sox' playoff run, I said to myself, "Boy, if only I could see the Sox win this one, I'd accept 15 years of baseball disappointment." I'm not sure how sincere I was. It's not like the baseball spirits and I signed any sort of contract. Still, it's hard to argue with subsequent developments.

The 2005 White Sox indeed won the World Series, and since then, not a single team I've rooted for in the World Series has won it. No joke. Not one. Admittedly, I was happy for the 2008 Phillies and the 2010 Giants, but I was rooting for their opponents both years.

Not only that, but every team that's won it since then has been a media favorite. We've seen the Cardinals, standard-bearer of all that's good and classy about the game, whose fans are just so doggone loyal and nice (according to the media, who, as usual, have it completely wrong); the Red Sox, the longsuffering characters whose fans are more passionate and knowledgeable than any other (again, sez the media); the Phillies, who snapped a (OMG!) 25-year major sports championship drought for their city in 2008 (Cleveland fans must have been weeping for them); the Yankees, baseball's most hallowed franchise, and one that needs to win the World Series periodically to save the sport from going down the toilet (according to the media and ignorant fans); and the Giants, from the beautiful left-wing utopia of San Francisco, whose history dates back to New York, and who form half of a historic rivalry with the Dodgers, another grand old franchise.

During this time, the Cardinals in particular have demonstrated a knack for stomping on any non-media favorite that looks like a potential champion.

In 2006, an injury-riddled 83-win Cardinal team squeaked into the playoffs by virtue of a weak division, and the first team they beat was the title-less Padres. No one was really expecting anything from that Padre team, but it would've been cool if they'd won it, of course. After beating the Mets (who were a media favorite and not that great of a story), they met the Tigers in the World Series. Now the Tigers, they were a great story. They had just come through the worst period of perennial losing in their history, which reached its lowest point with 119 losses in 2003. Three years later, here they were in the World Series! What a great addition to the pantheon of champs they would've been! Unfortunately, the Cardinals beat them in five error-filled games, a pathetic end to a great season.

In 2009 the Cards faced the Dodgers, but the Dodgers swept them. My theory is intact though, because not only were the Dodgers a media favorite, they had also had no compelling story. They had the loathsome Manny Ramirez too, which made it impossible for me to root for them. So the Cardinals can lose if they face an unlikable media favorite.

2011 was the worst of them all. The Cards upset the powerhouse Phillies in the first round, then faced the title-less Brewers. The Brewers were a small-market club that had gone all in that year, since Prince Fielder was an impending free agent, and they knew they wouldn't have the resources to bring him back. They also had a fun collection of personalities, and an engaging esprit de corps, which would've made a beautiful chapter in MLB championship history. But of course, they were facing the Cardinals, so you know what happened.

Their World Series opponent was a title-starved Ranger team that had a terrific blend of vets and franchise icons. They would've been the perfect team to hoist Texas' first World Series trophy, and they almost did, except for the fact that the Cardinals made two incredible late-game comebacks against them in Game 6, and then won Game 7. At that point, I knew there was something very real about this evil force backing the Cardinals.

In 2012 this new second Wild Card playoff format that nobody wanted was added. Under the old system, the Cardinals would've missed the playoffs, but instead, a slot was theirs, and they took full advantage of their illegitimate participation by beating the Braves in the one-game "play-in."

Next up were the Washington Nationals, making the city's first postseason appearance in 79 years, and the franchise's first since 1981, when they were the Expos. Once a doormat, they were now the top seed. What a potentially great story! In the deciding Game 5 of the Division Series, the Nats jumped out to an early 6-0 lead. However, never for a minute did I think they could coast the rest of the way, because these were the Cardinals they were facing. I stopped following the game in the late innings when the score was 6-4 Nationals, because at that point I knew the result was inevitable. I checked MLB's website later and when I saw it previewing the Cardinals-Giants NLCS my reaction was a frustrated "how is it possible that I knew that was going to happen?" As I found out later, a four-run ninth killed Washington's season. With the Cardinals, that's how it always goes.

Those Cardinals did eventually lose to the Giants, but since the Giants were just a rerun from two years earlier, there was nothing interesting about them. Therefore, it was possible for them to beat the Cardinals.

So you can see what the Pirates are up against. Their scrappy underdog status assures that they'll become another notch on the belt of the St. Louis Dream Squashers, and there's nothing they can do about it. For what it's worth, Pirate fans, I truly feel bad that your incredible season is going to have to end like this.

In my previous post I guaranteed that the Cardinals would win it all, but I suppose there are other possibilities. As previously mentioned, as long as a media favorite is facing them, the Cardinals are beatable. Among playoff participants, I would consider the Red Sox, Braves and Dodgers to be media favorites as well, so there are four potential champions. Since the Dodgers are the only one of those teams I haven't seen win the World Series, I guess they're my only hope of seeing a new team win it. The Rays, Athletics, Tigers and Pirates don't have the media blessing.

Some of you probably think my theory is a bunch of baseless hokum. I know it looks that way, but to me, it sure feels real. I would love, love, to see it proven wrong, believe me. Until it is though, I'm going to stand by my belief that the media's ring of favorites has a monopoly on World Series titles.

Ah...the sadness of lost hope.

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