Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sportswriter Dejan Kovacevic has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates long enough to witness too many years of fan suffering. But prior to Monday night's tilt against the Dodgers, he knew the milestone on deck and issued the following missive on Twitter:
Victory tonight will bring winning record this late in season for first time since May 29, 2004, when #Pirates were 23-22 #historywillbemade
This was partly tongue-in-cheek but it retained its truthiness: The Pirates have stunk for so long that they can't even maintain a winning record into the actual summer season. But thanks to a late-game, three-run rally and some tidy defense (including a pair of outfield assists to double up distracted Dodgers base runners), the Pirates beat the Dodgers 4-1, reached that winning mark, and a small amount of history was indeed made.
A whopping seven years between winning records past May 10 is statistically significant. But hey, the calendar still reads "May" and three-quarters of the season is still left to be played. Despite 18 consecutive losing seasons, does being one game over absolute mediocrity matter this early?
After Sunday's win over the Astros that put Pittsburgh at the .500 mark, ardent Pirates blogger Pat Lackey mused about the importance of that plateau:
If I had to choose, of course I'd rather see the team go 82-80 instead of 80-82, if only to avoid having to endure another offseason full of jokes and lazily written pieces about how bad the Pirates have been for so long. Ultimately, though, it just doesn't make that much of a difference. If this Pirate team, one year removed from the one of the worst Pirate performances in recent history can win 80 or even 75 games in 2011, I'm going to be psyched about 2012.
Lackey is a passionate fan but also a pragmatist. To his credit, he's supported the team for so long that it'd be impossible to call him a fairweather fan. Unlike other folks, he's not ready to abandon the team with a possible 19th consecutive losing season on deck.
Kovacevic disagrees, saying that even a modicum of success from the Pirates can inspire both fans to show up to PNC Park and better play from the young players:
It matters that the Pirates reached .500 yesterday, and anyone denying it is either concerned about P.R. backlash or simply unaware of the past 18-plus years.
It absolutely matters.
That's what Kent Tekulve has been saying on the postgame shows for weeks, and no one is telling him what to say: The Pirates have some specific demons that they need to shake before they can take the next step. The road thing was one of them, and the .500 thing is ... well, that's the entire zoo-full of elephants in the living room. It has to go.
Manager Clint Hurdle chose not to take a side and instead appeased both parties with his postgame statement from Sunday:
"I want people to feel what they need to feel," he said. "Because I can't control what everybody else feels. And if there are good feelings out there, so be it."
Hurdle is absolutely right. The idea of having a winning team, even as tepid as a record just one game over .500 feels, should absolutely inspire positive reactions from even the most casual Pirates fan. Hurdle, general manager Neal Huntington, and the Pittsburgh front office has a ton of work to do to improve the team past the 2011 season, but they're in far better position than any year this century.
Any excessive exuberance that would cause those happy fans to do something silly and start ordering playoffs tickets might be wildly irrational at this point but the fact remains: History was made on Monday night in PNC Park.
Even if it was just a tiny footnote on the pages of the almanac.