Pirates In The Promised Land

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Eight years into what would turn into the longest franchise losing streak in American professional sports, the Pirates built a cathedral to failure on the Allegheny River. Last night, with one precise throw correcting the path of an imprecise one, a demon was driven out of the cathedral and the parishioners rejoiced.

It doesn’t seem possible that a regular season game against a semi-competent Cubs team could banish the Ghost of Sid Bream, and yet here we are. The signs are staring us in the face and it would be a shame to ignore them.

In 1992, with two outs in the ninth, Sid Bream – a man Pittsburgh loved, and who loved Pittsburgh right back – stood on second base in a Braves uniform, ready and willing to hurt the ones he loved, if seemingly not able. It would, given Bream's gimpy legs, take a double to drive him in. But on a single to left, a third base coach challenged Barry Bonds’ arm, and his arm was not up to the challenge. After Bream crossed the plate, punishing the franchise that had thought he was done and let him leave, the Pirates effectively ceased to be a competitive team for two decades.

Last night, with two outs in the ninth inning, the Pirates had a one-run lead and a Nate Schierholtz on first base. Who would require a double to score him. But Marlon Byrd overran a single and then couldn’t properly pick the ball up, instead nudging it toward the best player in the National League. And a third base coach challenged Andrew McCutchen’s arm. And his arm wasn’t exactly up to the challenge either. Weak and off-line, it seemed sure the runner would score. But Justin Morneau – and this metaphor would really have been too much if he’d come from the Angels instead of the Twins – was behind the mound prepared to cut the throw off. Russell Martin was waiting to receive the relay. Schierholtz tried to truck Martin in his awkward way, but Martin absorbed the impact and rose from a barrel roll to flash the ball to the ump and I’ll bet Sid Bream smiled.

And just like that, it’s over. 20 years, a dybbuk in the rear view and fading fast.

Of course, it may not quite end that fast. I’ve seen just what losing can do to the psyche of a fan base. I’ve never seen anyone less joyful about making back-to-back conference title games than Jets fans. Red Sox Nation believes itself to be a traveling revival show fighting a righteous battle against immoral moneychangers when it is actually a megachurch fighting against a War on Christmas that exists only in its mind.

Even this year, as the team struggled at the plate, as unhittable closers seemed to lose their edge, as an improbable All-Star reverted to the fifth starter he was expected to be, over every hiccup on the road to the playoffs, fans of a clearly good team wailed “collapse!” as a way to gird against the pain that we endured the last two years.

The collapse never came. The August trades that helped push the team through September didn’t cost the future. The future looks bright. Pirate fans that have strayed may come into the cathedral.

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