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Blink and You Missed It

One of the pleasures of this up-and-down season has been the work of Jon Niese. Like everybody else, his 2009 was wrecked by injuries — in his case a horrifying tear of a hamstring clean off the bone. Niese went down like he’d been shot, and it was probably June of this year before I stopped wincing every time he had to run hard or jump for a ball. But he’s been just fine, knock wood, and over the course of the year he’s ascended from young pitcher who might be lights-out and might get his brains beat in to pitcher you generally trust, and occasionally have to remember is still learning.

The standout sequence of the night came against opposing starter James McDonald, who could be pretty good himself one day, except he’s a Pirate and so you assume something awful will happen to him. Niese started McDonald off with a fastball for strike one, followed that with a sharp curve for strike two, then erased him with a change-up for strike three, using each piece of his repertoire perfectly and in calm succession.

In saying something awful will undoubtedly happen to McDonald, I speak without condescension or malice. I grew up admiring the We Are Family Pirates, and respected and feared the formidable Pirate squads that ran neck and neck with the Mets in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The first great game I ever attended at Shea was this late 1990 showdown with the Pirates [1], with Dwight Gooden beating Doug Drabek and Darryl Strawberry throwing out Barry Bonds at the plate and hitting a three-run homer — if not Darryl’s last hurrah as a Met, pretty close to it. I was a bandwagon Braves fan in 1991 and 1992 (recall then they weren’t yet Road Runner to our Wile E. Coyote — they weren’t even in our division), and was jubilant when Sid Bream beat Bonds’ throw by a micron to end the Bucs’ 1992 season. But minutes later I watched Andy Van Slyke sitting on the outfield grass and felt my happiness leak away. Van Slyke seemed paralyzed, physically unable to get up and cross the field and go into the clubhouse and take off his uniform. I felt like something awful had happened, and it had. Bonds — who’d told Van Slyke to fuck himself when the centerfielder suggested he move in a bit against Francisco Cabrera — would leave over the winter, as would Drabek, and the Pirates would collapse. They haven’t had a winning season since Bream was safe — the Mets’ victory on Friday night guaranteed their 18th straight losing campaign. Think about that: The last time Pirates fans rooted for a winning team was three Bush administrations ago.

The Pirates are approaching 150 years of tradition, have good fans and a great park. They deserve better than this. Frankly, every franchise except the Yankees deserves better than this, the longest string of futility in the history of North American pro sports. We’ve had our agonies, sure, but they don’t compare to any of that. Or just consider tonight: The Pirates faithful showed up for the first game after being assured of another sub-.500 season, sat in the rain surrounded by yowling Mets fans, watched their team get pulled off the field in the top of the sixth and then were told that they’d lost [2]. Pirates fans are tough hombres.

One more vignette from tonight: At one point Emily and I were giggling over Keith’s opinion of the replica Pittsburgh Crawfords uniforms, which if memory serves was delivered via an inimitable Keith construction: “I don’t believe I care for that collar.” I remarked that if Keith had his own reality-TV show, I would watch it every night. And then I realized that he does, and I do.

Oh, and I still hate Roger Clemens [3].