Weekly Hit Ground Ball: First to Fifty

We’re in a golden period of the sporting calendar.

This past weekend has brought us the second instalment in a gripping Lions series against Australia, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and Valentino Rossi standing on the top step of a MotoGP podium for the first time in nearly three years (with Britain’s Cal Crutchlow in third place).

Wimbledon is in full swing, the Ashes is just around the corner and football teams are returning to pre-season training.

There’s no such thing as too much sport for us fans, but amidst the competition for eyeballs each individual sport has to find something to capture attention. MLB has a raft of storylines that can draw people in and none better than the lead headline on Sunday morning.

The Pittsburgh Pirates were the first team in the Majors to reach fifty wins.

Their performances over the past twenty years would make you believe that there had been some mistake. Had the headlines said fifty losses the only question would have been why the editor had bothered to turn it into a lead story. The Pirates of recent years are simply not a team associated with winning; an entire generation of Buccos fans has grown up without seeing their team even reach the minimum mark of respectability: winning as many games as they lost in a given season.

It’s no mistake though, the Pittsburgh Pirates woke up on Sunday morning having secured their eighth win in a row the previous night. They had a win-loss record of 50-30, not just good enough to lead the NL Central by a game over the St. Louis Cardinals, but good enough to lead every other team in the Majors too.

The underlying message was one that every sport wants to be able to put across but few can: every fan has a reason to hope that this year may be their year.

Like every other statement, this has to be put into context. MLB’s structure – 30 franchises, no relegation, the best amateur player draft picks going to the worst teams – clearly allows a team’s fanbase to suffer through 20 years of hopelessness to finally arrive at a moment of hope. There’s no penalty against awful owners and feckless Front Offices, no threat of relegation, potential financial ruin and being ran out of town by thousands of protesters to focus the mind.

Then again, the desperation to stay in the Premier League, and the desperation to get there, produces many a negative consequence too (ask fans of Portsmouth FC). There are pros and cons to every sporting set-up, yet the central point of the MLB model is the acceptance that there will always be the mega-rich and the rest. Without allowing the rest to put a longer-term plan in place, leaving current Major League results second in the list of priorities for a while to build for the future, they may never stand a chance of competing.

The Pirates have taken much longer than usual to rebuild, but that’s down to a litany of poor decisions by the club itself rather than a knock against MLB. They are firmly in the running this year and right now the years of hurt only make it all the sweeter.

The Buccos allow MLB to show that money isn’t everything in their competition. The Pirates’ Opening Day payroll was $67m, 25th highest out of the 30 teams.

The biggest spenders at $214m are the Los Angeles Dodgers and prior to Sunday’s action they were bottom of the NL Central with a 37-43 record. Dreadful luck with injuries is partly to blame, yet the Dodgers are showing that it’s not simply how much you spend, but how you spend it. The Boston Red Sox got themselves into an expensive muddle in 2011 and 2012 and their resurgence this year is in part due to the Dodgers taking the multi-year contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett off their books, giving them the flexibility to reconstruct their roster.

And then there are the perennial big-spending New York Yankees. They are still in the playoff race despite a luckless run of injuries; however this is not the sort of roster that fans in the Bronx have come to expect. Their position is epitomized by the walking car-crash that is Alex Rodriguez; their decision to re-sign the third baseman to a 10-year, $275m contract in December 2007 arguably the ultimate sporting example of a player and team being brought down by hubris.

The Yankees’ multi-year investment in star free agents has meant that even they have had to let good players go of late, to the benefit of other teams such as the Cleveland Indians who were able to sign Nick Swisher over the recent offseason.

The Pirates have also been beneficiaries. The Yankees declined to match the Pirates’ contract offer to Russell Martin over the offseason and he’s been a good addition to the Buccos so far this season, whilst the Yankees have been weighed down by the likes of Chris Stewart and Austin Romine taking at-bats in the catching role. Meanwhile A.J. Burnett, current injury notwithstanding, has been a major contributor to Pittsburgh since being acquired in a trade with the Yankees prior to last season. Burnett will earn $33m over the years 2012 and 2013, but the Pirates are only having to pay $13m of it. The Yankees are chipping in the other $20m.

The Evil Empire clearly has a benevolent side.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and start planning for World Series games in Pittsburgh just yet. There is a long, long way to go before they get near to that stage and their late season collapse last year will hang over them at every turn. However, the Baltimore Orioles confounded all expectations that their promising first half in 2012 wouldn’t hold up, just as they have proved the pre-season doubters wrong that they would turn back into a pumpkin in 2013.

Maybe this is the year that Pittsburgh becomes a playoff team again for the first time since 1992. If it happens, it will rank alongside any great storyline other sports will produce this year.

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