Raising the Jolly Roger

I’ll make this one quick. I don’t have much time to mourn, because it’s midterm week in the Bronx, and I have to get prepared.

It’s been 21 years since the Pittsburgh Pirates have had a winning season, let alone a playoff appearance. I won’t spend much time listing all the things that have happened since then and now, but suffice it to say that it’s been a long time coming.

I wrote for IHeartPGH this summer, hoping to give a die-hard fan’s perspective on the Pirates. I’ll boil down my perspective to this: I want 82. Man, I’ve wanted 82 more than I’ve ever wanted the Steelers to win the Super Bowl, the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup, or just about anything else that I could ever want. In 2013, the Pittsburgh Pirates won their 82nd game on September 9th. I didn’t yell all that loud about it, (except on Twitter) and then, for the first time in my entire life, I started to seriously think about the Pittsburgh Pirates as playoff contenders. And they kept winning games. Between September 9th and September 23rd, the Pirates had won 12 more games. They had guaranteed that Pittsburgh—and, more importantly, that PNC Park—would at last see a playoff game. On October 1st, 2013, they clinched at least two more playoff games in the Steel City, and I only wished that I could have been there. I’ve put everything on hold to watch the Bucs as closely as I could in the past week, and I’ve never been more proud of my team or of my city.

As I’m writing this, Pedro Alvarez has been retired as the last out of the 2013 season, and I’m sad that it couldn’t go on longer, but I can’t deny that I’m at least somewhat pleased with the result. The Pirates have staged an amazing baseball renaissance in the city of Pittsburgh. Frankly, it sucks that the city can’t get more reacquainted with fall baseball, but we don’t have much time to mourn. Baseball’s back in Pittsburgh, and we have to get prepared for 2014.

 

The Dog Days: Predicting the Pirates in July and August

On July 19th, 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates stood at a formidable 51-44, with a one-half game lead in the National League Central division. It was the latest into the season that the Pirates had been in first place since July 17th, 1997, so naturally there was some excitement to be had. In spite of the buzz, Pirates’ manager, Clint Hurdle remained grounded. “They don’t break a trophy in half and give it to you on July 19th,” he told some enthusiastic reporters in an interview. What happened next was disheartening. The Pirates would go on to win 21 of their remaining 67 games, leaving them with a 72-90 record. On July 19th, 2012, there was a similar song and dance. This time, the Pirates sat one-half game back of the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals, with a record of 51-40. Yet again, talking heads began to talk, and yet again, Hurdle encouraged them to settle down. Then came a collapse of legendary proportions. In 2012, the Pirates saw their high water mark rise to 16 games over .500 (63-47 on August 8th, 2012), only to win 16 of their remaining 52 games.

As I write this, it is, once again, July 19th. The Pirates have found a new high water mark (21 games over .500 on July 3rd, and 19 at the time of this writing), and are looking to improve tonight on the road against the Cincinnati Reds. Coming off of an exciting All Star Break, where we saw five Pirates represent the National League—the most since 1972—Clint Hurdle is still preaching patience. He continues to emphasize his team’s commitment to finishing the season, while dissuading reporters from getting overly excited about the team’s success.

Frankly, I admire Hurdle’s hesitance to get too cocky (add it to the list of similarities between the Pirates’ skipper and Han Solo). Recently, it seems that baseball writers tend to get somewhat reckless with their predictions of certain outcomes, especially with regard to the Pirates’ recent history. While I acknowledge that a lot of writers practically make their living on prognostication, it can be kind of a bother at times. Writers will sometimes tab the Pirates for a winning season at the beginning of the year, and then backtrack as the year progresses. It’s not fun.

I see myself as more of a fan and less of a professional journalist, (yesterday, Lindsay bought me ice cream, but I don’t think that counts as a paycheck) so I’m not really in the business of making predictions. I’m rooting (as fans are known to do) for a winning season, but I’m not interested in talking playoffs yet, as others seem to be. There’s a lot of baseball left to play, and I’ve been burned before.

Having said that, the Bucs are playing some pretty good baseball. Their record sits at a balmy 56-37, just one win shy of their entire 2012 total (and it’s not even August yet!). They have the best team earned run average in the league, (3.07) and share the lead for lowest WHIP (Walks + Hits per Innings Pitched) at 1.18. Anyone who’s willing to talk about it will admit that pitching is crucial if a team expects to win consistently. However, their hitting could use some help. They’re 25th in the league in batting average, 22nd in on base percentage, and 21st in slugging percentage. A closer look at their numbers reveals that they’re not scoring runs at a substantial enough clip in order to sustain a 56-37 record, and in fact, based solely on run differential alone (Runs Scored vs. Runs Allowed), the Pirates are projected to have only won 52 games (not a hugely significant drop-off, but still worth noting), suggesting that some luck was involved in their successful first half.*

None of this is to say anything with any certainty about the Pirates’ production in the second half of the season. They had a decently impressive first half, putting up some exciting numbers, and playing some exciting baseball in the Steel City. I speak for a lot of people when I say that it’s nice to have something fun to do during the summer months, and chasing .500 with the Pirates definitely counts as fun. I’m practically hopping out of my seat waiting for the first pitch tonight; I can’t wait to see what the Pirates will do with the second half, and I’m really hoping, as always, that it ends with (at least) an 82-win season.

* — Anyone struggling with the numbers aspect of baseball is going to have to trust me here. There’ll be another post dedicated completely to discussing some of baseball’s more baffling statistics. Hooray for numbers!

A Football Town With a Soccer Problem

Despite three Stanley Cups championships and five World Series titles to its name, Pittsburgh is undeniably a football town. Every time Monday Night Football comes to town, Pittsburghers are treated to hearing ESPN’s crew praising our city’s blue-collar work ethic, as well as noting how that work ethic is reflected in our football team. They’re not wrong. The Steelers have a unique bond with their city that few other teams in the NFL, let alone in the whole of professional sports, can claim. For example, the Terrible Towel, originally a tool for supporting the Steelers, has become just as strongly associated with the city as a whole.

Surprisingly enough, this won’t wind up being a post about football, so much as it’ll be about fútbol. Considering Pittsburgh’s passion for the sports world (maybe “passion” is the wrong word to describe our relationship with the Pirates in the last twenty years, but bear with me), it surprises me that our own Pittsburgh Riverhounds don’t get more in the way of love from the ‘Burgh’s historically spirited fanbase.

Okay, fine. Maybe it’s not all that surprising. Most Americans—not just Pittsburghers—have had a tense relationship with the game of soccer since we gave up the game in grade school. (Admit it, you only played for the orange slices at halftime. I know I did). I get it. You want touchdowns and home runs. Even hockey goals are more exciting than soccer goals, partially because you know the names of the guys who are scoring them, and partially because the powers that be have made it impossible for hockey games to end in a tie. Ties are boring, and any game that offers the outcome of neither a win nor a loss must also be boring. Period. End of discussion.

Hold on a second. The Steel Army would like a word with you. On Sunday, I headed down to Station Square to see the Riverhounds square off against Antigua Barracuda FC. The Hounds trounced Antigua, by a score of 4-1, but the highlight for me was the passionate supporters group who gathered on the bleachers behind the goal line, and spent nearly the entire game shouting, chanting, singing, beating drums, waving flags, and generally stirring up a ruckus, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a sustained level at a professional sporting event. Sure, every once in a while someone will get a good chant going, (“Let’s Go Bucs, “Let’s Go Pens,” “Here We Go Steelers,” etc.) and I won’t deny that 65,000 people waving Terrible Towels in unison is a pretty exciting sight to see, but it always seems that, eventually, stadiums are awash in a “Too Cool to Care” attitude, and the fan participation dies down after about a minute and a half. What I witnessed on Sunday in Highmark Stadium (the capacity of which is around 4,000 bodies) was almost a full 90 minutes of unabashed engagement, from truly passionate fans. The Steel Army takes its cues from traditional English supporters, (no hooligans though, as far as I could tell, so feel free to bring the kids) and even though their numbers are significantly smaller, they make up for it by being very loud and very invested in the outcome of the game. I get the feeling that if you spent some time with the Army, you’d become just as invested. Even if you don’t see the appeal of soccer as a game, or if you don’t understand it completely, I’ve said it before: there’s something exciting about a group of people bonding over city pride, and the Army has city pride in droves.

One of the banners found in the Steel Army supporters section

One of the banners found in the Steel Army supporters section

If I still haven’t convinced you by way of my “passionate soccer hooligans” argument, (even though they really do seem like lovely people) at least do yourself a favor and go check out the stadium. Situated in Station Square, Highmark Stadium opens out onto the Monongahela River and offers a really awesome view of the Point that faces opposite Heinz Field and PNC Park on the Allegheny. The Hounds carry their ten game unbeaten streak (unfortunately, that does include ties) into a match against the Charlotte Eagles on the Fourth of July at 7:00 PM. Tickets start at $9.50. What better way to celebrate your country’s independence than with cheap semi-professional soccer? Then, toward the end of July, (July 19th, to be exact) Wigan Athletic comes to town. For those who are unfamiliar, Wigan Athletic is a club from across the pond in Merrie Olde England. They’re also the reigning FA Cup champions, which is kind of a big deal. Think March Madness multiplied by eleven or so. Every football club in England (all 758 of them) automatically qualifies, then they duke it out for the oldest association football championship in the world. So now the victorious Latics are bringing the FA Cup to Pittsburgh, and would probably be missing out if they weren’t given the whole Pittsburgh sports experience that one might receive at a Steelers, Pirates or Penguins game.

But if you really must avoid the association football, you can head down on July 3rd  at 6:30 PM for a free concert and a great view of the Three Rivers Regatta Fireworks show. At least you can be sure that the fireworks won’t end in a tie.

Frank Lenz: Local Adventurer, Avid Photographer, Big-Wheeled Bike Enthusiast

Last Friday evening, I went searching for Frank Lenz, one of Pittsburgh’s most notable cyclists. To be fair, Lenz went missing almost 120 years ago, in Erzurum, Turkey, so I really didn’t have much hope of finding anything, but I figured I’d give it a shot.

I headed over to the Brew House Art Gallery on the South Side, where David Herlihy, the author of The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance, was slated to give a talk about Lenz’s journey by bicycle around the world, his disappearance, and the adventures of William Sachtleben, another cyclist who had ridden around the world, and who was sent to find Lenz. Prior to Herlihy’s talk, I had not heard of Lenz or Sachtleben, but a worldwide cycling tour intrigued me, and plus, who doesn’t liked those old-timey, big-wheeled bikes?

Lenz and his companions, rocking the big-wheelers

Lenz and his companions, rocking the big-wheelers

Lenz was apparently a big fan. Born in Philadelphia, he moved to Pittsburgh and became an accountant by day, and a weekend warrior who captained the Allegheny Cycle Club. He organized and competed in his fair share of big-wheeled bike races, and pioneered the burgeoning field of cycle photography—an impressive feat, considering that cameras were just as cumbersome as bicycles at the time. Lenz developed a way to transport camera equipment on his back while riding, as well as a method of taking pictures of himself on his bicycle, by placing a trigger on the road, which would activate a camera on a leading car when his front tire (the big one) rolled over it.

Lenz used his growing portfolio to convince a magazine called Outing to fund his trip around the world. Outing agreed, on the condition that he give up the big-wheeler for the newer version, called a “safety bicycle,” which is similar to our modern one. Lenz reluctantly agreed, and, in May of 1892, he set off. Beginning at the Smithfield Street Bridge, Lenz rode for Washington, D.C. to pick up a passport, and then to New York City. He then crossed the U.S. in about five months, then sailed to Japan, and braved tough conditions in China and India before heading to Turkey. In May of 1894, almost two years after his departure, Lenz disappeared. Hoping to find him, Outing sent William Sachtleben, who had completed a similar journey, to Turkey. Sachtleben discovered that Lenz had apparently insulted a chief in nearby Kurdistan, who had ordered him murdered and his body buried by a riverbed. After some wrangling, the Turkish government paid Lenz’s mother $7,500 as a reparation for her lost son

Today, Lenz is commemorated with a sign on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, the final leg of the Great Allegheny Passage, which connects Pittsburgh with Cumberland, Maryland, and which mirrors the path that Lenz took on the first leg of his now legendary trip around the world.

This sign can be found on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail

This sign can be found on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail

Bucs Blog Round-Up

Last week, I made my introduction to the blogging world by posting a bite-sized rant about Pittsburgh Pirates fandom. I regret nothing.

Now, though, it’s time to get down to business. In the grand tradition of Myron Cope, Pittsburgh sportswriters remain some of the most intelligent and opinionated in their field and, with the exponential growth of Internet, so too have Pittsburgh sports bloggers grown, both in number and in opinion. Since Pirates bloggers are perhaps the most opinionated of the bunch, and since good journalism is essential to any good fan’s understanding of their team, I feel obligated to deliver to you at least a sampling of the finest the Internet has to offer, in terms of Pittsburgh baseball.

 

General Knowledge

Baseball without statistics is like peanut butter without jelly, or a shopping cart without a broken wheel. If you head down to PNC Park and don’t hear about Pedro Alvarez’s slugging percentage in the last 20 day games at home, ask for your money back. What’s that? You don’t know what a slugging percentage is, you say? Perfect. Check out these websites and be enlightened.

 

Baseball Reference

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Baseball Reference covers all the bases (no pun intended), providing information from a player’s batting average to his place of burial (if applicable). What’s more, the site provides formulas for the more complicated statistics, which can be found by simply hovering at the top of a column. Regardless of what you’re looking for, though, Baseball Reference is the place to start.

 

FanGraphs

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Click image for link

FanGraphs reads more like a blog than Baseball Reference does, and tends to cover a lot of straightforward baseball stuff (Here’s an article about The Pleasures of Team Allegiance, which probably does more convincing than I could ever hope to). Still, there’s a twist. FanGraphs is representative of the growing camp in baseball journalism that supports a larger integration of advanced statistics, called sabermetrics in analyzing how the game works, (see Moneyball for more information, or the book for even more information) which has ruffled the feathers of baseball “traditionalists” the world over. Stay tuned for news of a new world order, but in the meantime, let’s transition to the main attraction…

 

Pirates Blogs

This is where we get specific. Any knowledge that you might acquire in the above websites can be used to better understand the blogs that follow, and likewise, you can use stats and facts to keep certain bloggers honest. Not that you’ll need to use your new superpowers on Pirates bloggers—those guys are on your side. Instead, cross-examine scheming Reds and Cubs bloggers, who might be trying to show you up.

 

Bucs Dugout

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Click image for link

A member of the SBNation network of blogs, Bucs Dugout is managed by Charlie Wilmoth, and covers late breaking news from the Pirates’ front office, (trades, free agent signings, etc.) as well as provides gamethreads for fans to comment on games in progress, and recaps past games. Additionally, the writers at Bucs Dugout often open the floor to fan submitted posts, photos and links.

 

Pirates Prospects

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Click image for link

Formerly B.U.C.C.O. Fans.com, (where B.U.C.C.O. stands for Bring Us a Championship Caliber Organization), Pirates Prospects is managed by Tim Williams, and is mostly concerned with the MLB draft and Pirates’ minor league system. Williams and company emphasize that the children, and not the current big leaguers, are the future of the organization.

 

Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?

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Click image for link

W.H.Y.G.A.V.S.? derives its title from Pat Lackey’s understandable frustration with the team following its collapse in 1992, and the veritable disappearance of superstar players like Van Slyke. Recently, Lackey has had slightly less to be upset about, as the light at the end of the tunnel draws ever nearer, but he, like many other Pirates bloggers remain cautious about getting too excited for the team.

 

Raise the Jolly Roger

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Click image for link

Brian McElhinny has a phenomenal Twitter presence, and, in addition to writing daily posts about the Buccos, can be seen to tweet the popular hashtag, “#RaiseIt,” whenever the Pirates get a win. Though the call to raise the Jolly Roger has become strongly associated with Pirates’ broadcaster Greg Brown,  McElhinny deserves some praise for personifying the enthusiasm that Pirates fans can have for their team.

All of the bloggers discussed above, plus many other writers, can be found on Twitter, and have been compiled in a Twitter list for your convenience.