Sunday, May 24, 2009

Pirates, Penguins and Steelers - Oh My

My son turns eighteen this week. This is a big day all around. As he reminds me, he will be an adult and set his own rules. As I reminded him emancipation is a two way street. If I don't like his new rules I don't have to pay to support them. As a true Pittsburgh Guy I love sports. I love sports more than politics, yet I don't blog that much about our local teams.

My son's eighteenth birthday got me thinking about our local sports teams. As we were in the hospital awaiting his delivery the Penguins were just celebrating their first Stanley Cup victory. Shortly after my son celebrated his first New Year's, the Steelers hired Bill Cowher. That Fall the Pirates had their one and only winning season of my son's lifetime.

During the next 17 years the Steelers had some ups and downs, but mostly ups. When they had their downs, they made the most of it and selected well in the draft and took advantage of easier
schedules due to their weak record the previous season. As a result they have played in three Super Bowls and won two.

The Penguins also had their ups and downs. They won another Stanley Cup, lived through the retirements and comebacks of Mario Lemieux, bankruptcy, terrible seasons, Sid the Kid, Malkin and the Flower and now hopefully back to back Stanley Cup Final appearances and a third Championship.

The Pirates on the other hand have had their downs, starting with a candy ass throw from a pre-steroid Barry Bonds that slowly made its way to home plate behind the sloth-like Sid Bream. Then we had more downs: free agent defections, bad general managers, blood sucking owners, a series of lame armed first round draft choices and 17 years of losing. This weekend we watched the Pirates struggle to score any runs. They have had surprisingly good starting pitching, but not enough talent on offense to win. This has been the story for my son's life time: when the pitching is good there is no offense, when the offense is good the pitching is terrible, when the pitching and offense seem decent the fielding is bad. Then, for the majority of the time, the pitching, hitting and fielding are all bad.

So how over the last 18 years have the Steelers and Penguins flourished, but the Pirates floundered? Bad lack and lousy management on the part of the Pirates are part of it, but probably the bigger answer is in the management of the sports over all. Baseball has refused to have a salary cap. Football and hockey have salary caps. The Pirates financially have not been able to compete. As a result they have a lack of talent and depth. Every injury is devastating. The Pirates lost Jack Wilson, an average starting major league shortstop, for a few weeks. In his place they brought up Brian Bixler, who struck out 3 of every 4 at bats and botched routine plays. They lost their starting catcher, Ryan Doumit, a good hitter who has never had a full season of at bats but is the team's clean up hitter, and their offense goes dormant. Other teams can weather these set backs because they either have the depth in the organization or the ability to spend money and trade surplus for replacements.

Other teams, such as the Tampa Bay Rays, the Twins and the Marlins have been able to have some success without great financial resources. The Pirates have not, because they have had a lack of stability in management and long living plan other than losing. In the same years that the Pirates went through a series of long forgotten managers and general managers, the Penguins have had two general managers and the Steelers have had two coaches. It should also be noted that the Pens have had Mario for stability this entire time and the Steelers have had the Rooneys. The Pirates have had dabbling out of town owners. Perhaps some good luck from the Penguins will rub off on the Pirates. After all one of the Pirates most entertaining players, Nyjer Morgan is a former hockey player, and Evgeni Malkin was recently spotted taking in a Pirate home game. He wasn't even sleeping, although I doubt he knew what was going on at the city's nicest outdoor bar.

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