I’m Pittsburgh born and raised. Lived here my whole life. It is, in my opinion, the greatest city in the world. There’s not much I’d really change about the Steel City. One thing, however, would be the weird dynamic of local media and a large segment of the Pittsburgh sports fan that simply does not allow others fans to celebrate or root for their team as they see fit. I’m sure this is a common occurrence in other cities as well, but from interacting with other fanbases, this phenomenon seems especially prevalent here in Pittsburgh. And we see it most often with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Much of the attitude, understandably, has to do with owner Bob Nutting and his outright refusal to put money back into the on-field product, perceived lack of transparency, and hesitancy to speak to the media. All valid critiques. The problem arises, however, when fans and media are unable to separate Bob Nutting’s ownership with the rebuild Ben Cherington is in the process of overseeing. There’s always a “yeah, but,” or, the most annoying and unoriginal comment to me, “well, the players may turn out to be good, but they’ll just be traded to the Yankees.”
The 2021 MLB Draft that concluded a few days ago is a perfect example. After drafting Louisville catcher Henry Davis first overall, the Pirates selected high school lefty Anthony Solometo, outfielder and Penn State commit Lonnie White Jr., and Bubba Chandler, a four-star quarterback recruit committed to Clemson and a dual shortstop and pitching prospect. Solometo, White Jr., and Chandler each had a first-round grade, according to Baseball America, and each should receive over-slot value thanks to the Pirates’ strategy of going under slot with their first pick. The Pittsburgh Pirates draft class won high marks from across the industry, including Keith Law of The Athletic, Jim Callis of mlb.com, and the aforementioned Baseball America. Even some of the local media who have been down on the Pirates rebuild, like the legendary Bob Pompeani of KDKA and noted contrarians Andrew Fillipponi and Chris Mueller of 93.7 The Fan, gave the Pirates praise for executing their draft strategy.
And yet there’s still a segment of local media and the fanbase that refuses to see the positive. “Prospects are no guarantee,” they say. “You’re a fool for believing in another rebuild,” they shout. “Stop being a sheep,” they arrogantly proclaim. In my last piece, I refuted the notion that what Ben Cherington is doing is yet another rebuild. Rather, I argued, Ben Cherington is actually overseeing the first complete and total rebuild the Pirates have seen in a decade. Of course, prospects aren’t a guarantee. History tells us that many of these highly-regarded prospects that are now scattered across the Pirates farm system will not turn out to be the stars they’re currently projected to be. But for the first time in a long while, there is hope. There’s a feeling of optimism surrounding the franchise. And that’s okay. It’s not something to be derided. Stockpiling talent is how small-market teams are forced to compete so that if a prospect doesn’t work out, there’s another one right behind. “Ah, yes. But what happens,” the naysayers ask, “if the team does become competitive? They’re not going to make a move to put the team over the top.” Wrong. Neal Huntington, despite leaving Pittsburgh with a sour taste in its mouth when he departed, made several shrewd moves during his tenure to try to topple the Cardinals in the NL Central, particularly during the ’13-’15 run. He signed A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin, and Edinson Volquez. He traded for Derek Lee, Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau, Joakim Soria, J.A. Happ, and Aramis Ramirez. There’s no reason to suspect that Ben Cherington, a more experienced general manager than Huntington in both player development and building teams, will be unable to swing similar moves.
There’s a part of Pittsburgh, I suspect, that hopes the Pirates will never compete again. It gives fans something to shout at and local media a chance to pile on and generate clicks. But most of the city craves a winning baseball team. Look at the energy surrounding the franchise in the mid-2010s. The desire is there. And, as I said earlier, Ben Cherington is providing hope for the franchise and its fans for the first time since a dreadlocked Andrew McCutchen was manning the PNC Park outfield and A.J. Burnett was stomping around the mound. The optimism and excitement are beginning to get there. Winning will be coming.
Feauted Photo: @Pirates