Started From the Bottom
Published: Friday, October 4, 2013
Updated: Friday, October 4, 2013 01:10
With a 6-2 win over the Cincinnati Reds in the National League wild-card game earlier this week, the Pittsburgh Pirates finally punched their ticket to the MLB postseason. After one of the longest droughts in league history, Tuesday marked the Pirates’ first playoff win since 1992.
It has been 21 years since then. I was barely 10 months old when the Pirates lost to the Braves in Game 7 of the 1992 NL Championship Series. At the time, Barry Bonds was playing outfield for Pittsburgh, the Buffalo Bills were on their way to losing their third consecutive Super Bowl and Wayne Gretzky was at the peak of his hockey career. Bill Clinton was about to win the election and the Bosnian War was in its darkest days.
Overcoming problems with mismanagement and embarrassing play for the past two decades, the Pirates were finally able to put together not just a winning season but a stellar one, with ninety-four wins in total. The Pirates’ center fielder Andrew McCutchen is an MVP candidate, and the front office has brought in savvy veterans like Russell Martin and Marlon Byrd to help manage the team. The surprise season of pitcher Francisco Liriano — who lasted for seven innings in Tuesday’s game and anchors the starting rotation — is perhaps most indicative of the team’s twist of fate. An inexpensive acquisition after a sub-par 2012 season, Liriano has defied expectations this year with a 16-8 record and 3.02 ERA. Without a doubt, he is one of the most surprising comeback players of the year.
Just like its players, Pittsburgh is a fine example of overachievement in professional sports. Having a relatively unknown roster with just a few big-time players, the Pirates seem to fit the cliche of doing “a lot with a little.” And it is not just the Pirates — in this year’s postseason, several teams share these attributes. They hail from small markets, field inexpensive rosters and overachieve with their given talent. Consider Wednesday night’s wild-card game between Tampa Bay and Cleveland. Tampa’s $60 million team salary ranks 28th in the league, and Cleveland’s $75 million ranks 23rd. Pittsburgh sits at 19th and Oakland at 27th. Even if you combine the salaries of some of these teams, the total still falls short of the top nine or 10 teams whose salaries reach well over $120 million.
Of course, these teams still have “stars.” Like McCutchen in Pittsburgh, Tampa boasts the likes of Evan Longoria and David Price. Oakland has Chris Young and Yoenis Cespedes, the Home Run Derby champion. Cleveland cut fat checks this year to Nick Swisher and Ubaldo Jimenez. Perhaps these names are not as widely recognized as Robinson Cano, Buster Posey or Justin Verlander – but the talent is definitely there, and in many cases the smaller teams get more for their money. High salaries are not always necessary for a high percentage of wins.
Unfortunately, the good guys on small teams quickly get swallowed up by the jaws of New York or Los Angeles. Stars from small-market clubs can stay under the radar for a little while, but better on-field performance warrants more attention, which usually results in blockbuster deals from the wealthiest teams. A few years back, Cleveland lost both C.C. Sabathia to free agency and were forced to trade Cliff Lee. Roy Halladay jumped from Toronto to Philadelphia, and Los Angeles recently acquired Hanley Ramirez from Miami.
This is the sad reality about those small-market teams. They do a great job finding and developing talent, but they sometimes do not have the resources to keep their best players on the roster. Sure, star players feel a nostalgic affinity for their original team, and it is tough to leave a small-market. But money talks loudly, right? Plus, there are more opportunities, more exposure and more talented teammates in the larger markets.
So can these teams ever sustain long-term success? How long will it be before Andrew McCutchen gets shipped off to the Big Apple? For now, I think a playoff run can help. Playoff games mean more fans attending games and higher team revenues. They are an important first step in restoring a baseball culture in smaller markets, which is often woefully absent during the regular season. Tampa Bay consistently struggles to fill its disappointing venue of Tropicana Field. Pittsburgh is dominated by hockey and football. Oakland is overshadowed by its neighbor San Francisco. And since the exodus of superhero LeBron James, Cleveland has desperately searched for something to cheer about.
With its recent success, Pittsburgh is just one of many cities seeking to expand its market share. Along with Oakland, Cleveland and Tampa, maybe it can become a city where star players come to play, and not just be a feeder for the bigger clubs. It took two decades for Pittsburgh to get here; let us hope that the team can reap the benefits of their newfound success.
Nick Fedyk is a senior in the College. MORE THAN A GAME appears every Friday.