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The tank is open, just don't jump in

Sunday, August 20, 2000

The schedule reads there are 41 games to play. But for the Pirates, the season is over. Has been for quite some time. They can't repair this massive hemorrhage of a season. And while there's not much to play for, there is something they absolutely must guard against: Going in the tank as they did two years ago when they lost 25 of their final 30.

 
 

Stan Savran is the co-host of SportsBeat on Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

   
 

Piling up victories in the final month of a season when you've stunk for the first five is cosmetic. But there is an exception for this team, this season, because of unusual circumstances. No less than the very future of the franchise is at stake.

Because of the promises of a new stadium and a better team, this was a feel-good spring for the Pirates. The fans wanted to re-connect with Pirates baseball.

"Yeah, we're still mad about the strike. Yeah, we're still upset that free agency dismantled our team, and we still think the economics of baseball stink. But we're getting a new park, for the first time in a long time the roots of the franchise appear to be safely planted in Pittsburgh. And while all may not be forgiven, we still like baseball, we still like the Pirates, and we want to be a part of them, and them a part of us once again."

That's what makes this festering infection of a season so devastating. This was a chance to recapture a lost generation of baseball fans ... a disenfranchised fan base anxious to recommit. It should have been like shooting fish in a barrel. The largest season-ticket sale in history, albeit somewhat of an artificial number driven by a desire for priority seating in PNC Park. And don't discount the fact that the Steelers' disastrous two seasons sent people seeking a team to unite behind.

So there they were. Willing to come, wanting to reclaim their baseball team. And what did they get for their dollar and their enthusiasm? A team keeping company with the Milwaukees and Minnesotas, the lepers of the game, wallowing with the street urchins in baseball's underbelly, elbowing one another aside for scraps of food.

As if that wasn't bad enough, their fundamentals often teetered between the absurd and the embarrassing. This is what was served for dinner. People weren't expecting a gourmet meal, but they did expect something edible. This serving smelled so badly, you would send it back to the kitchen without even tasting.

We hear subtle digs at the fans about this not being a baseball town, that the season ends when the perspiration from Steelers' brows begin to hydrate the fields of St. Vincent College. I've got an idea how to change things: Win a game or two! This franchise's resume boasts eight consecutive losing seasons. And this one looks to be the worst of the eight. Give the people something to get excited about. You've got to earn support. It's not a rite of passage.

And that's exactly why they must not go in the tank. Losing 12 of 15 heading into the weekend, a dropped fly ball away from the worst record in baseball, indicates they have one leg over the edge of that tank, and on the way in. If this is to be September of '98 all over again, it will result in irreparable damage to this franchise.

That fan base, so eager in spring to return to the bosom of its team, is today thoroughly disgusted. But still, on the horizon is the new dawn. An exciting new stadium, and with it, a new era. Perhaps. But if this team goes headfirst down the sewer, you can build new stadiums, give away free tickets, peanuts, popcorn and crackerjacks. It won't matter. What has happened to this point is bad enough. Compound the felony by tanking the final six weeks of the season and people may come to see PNC Park next year, but they won't be coming to watch the Pirates play baseball. There's a distinct difference between the two.

Gentlemen, there are 41 games remaining. You can't reverse your record. You can't redeem yourselves. What you can do is play with pride. Play with dignity. A free-fall to season's end will break this camel's back. You've pushed the fans to the ledge. Their backs are turned to you. I wouldn't advise pushing them much further.

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