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On Pittsburgh And The Pirates' Resurgence

Pittsburgh was a city down on its luck but has transformed itself for the 21st Century. Now it's time to let the Pirates have their day in the sun.

Pittsburgh Pirates fans celebrate after the game against the Miami Marlins at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pirates won 3-0. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Pittsburgh Pirates fans celebrate after the game against the Miami Marlins at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pirates won 3-0. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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The Clint Eastwood Chrysler commercial is running on an infinite loop in my mind. You know the one. It premiered during halftime of the Super Bowl. Eastwood is walking in a dank tunnel, talking about the challenges facing our country, about how Detroit -- as a city and as the home of the American auto industry -- was almost destroyed. But then the country rallied together to save the industry and the city. And how we need to do that for the rest of the country. It's a two-minute tour de force on the decay of urban America and the politics of hope. One of the best campaign ads you'll ever see.

The Clint Eastwood Chrysler commercial is running on an infinite loop in my mind. I'm imagining a variation of it, a Fox Sports or ESPN-created video as a lead-in to Pittsburgh Pirates games down the stretch. There's grainy footage of steel mills, humming with workers and activity, followed by grainy footage of dormant steel mills surrounded by chain link fences with big KEEP OUT signs. An ominous-sounding voice talks about a city down on its luck, rallying around a plucky Pirates team on an unexpected run toward its first winning season in 21 years.

Detroit. Pittsburgh. Cities at the heart of America's Industrial Era, where manufacturing jobs flourished, and middle-class families made comfortable lives. Cities with their hearts ripped out when the Industrial Era died, and manufacturing jobs moved overseas, and middle-class families saw their pensions disappear along with corporate profits. Cities that need a new rallying cry.

I've never been to Detroit or Pittsburgh. Or Cleveland or Buffalo for that matter. But I've studied American history and I read the newspaper and stuff. And I follow politics and popular culture. All of which makes me as qualified as any of you to say:

Let the Pirates enjoy their resurgence without turning it into a metaphor for the re-birth of Pittsburgh.

The city of Pittsburgh, in fact, has had a rebirth. The steel industry is no longer king. Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh anchor a new economy based on clean tech, medical research, and light manufacturing. And while the Pirates and their fans have suffered through 20 losing seasons, the city has not been without its sports championships in those years. The Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2006 and 2009. The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, just a few years after the team declared bankruptcy and nearly moved to Kansas City.

But even if none of those had happened, even if the Pirates were the only good story in Pittsburgh right now, let it be a baseball story. Because as a baseball story, it's a darn good one.

The Pirates' last winning season was 1992. The Bucs won their third consecutive National League East division title that year, and lost their third consecutive National League Championship Series. That three-year winning streak followed a decade of on-again-off-again play in the 1980s which, in turn, followed a decade of winning in the 1970s, including a World Series Championship in 1971.

Four teams weren't in existence the last time the Pirates had a winning season. The Marlins and Rockies joined the National League in 1993. The Diamondbacks were added to the NL in 1998, as were the Rays to the American League. The Diamondbacks and Marlins have won the World Series -- the Marlins twice -- and the Rockies and Rays have played in the Fall Classic, all since the last time the Pirates had a winning season.

The Cubs, of course, have the longest World Series Championship drought, dating to 1908, and the longest drought of World Series appearances, dating to 1945. But the Cubs have played in the postseason four times since the last time the Pirates had a winning season. The Indians have the second-longest World Series Championship drought, dating to 1948. But the Indians have played in the postseason seven times since the last Pirates' winning season.

Not only is the Pirates' streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons the longest current streak in the majors, it's the longest in the history of major-league baseball, going all the way back to 1876. The Phillies owned the previous record, with a 16-year streak of losing seasons from 1933-1948. That followed a 14-year losing streak from 1918-1931. Only a 78-76 season in 1932 kept the Phillies from 31 consecutive losing seasons. But 1932 happened, saving the Phillies from that fate.

The Athletics, from their birth in Philadelphia through their second incarnation in Kansas City, had ten consecutive losing seasons from 1915-1924, 12 consecutive losing seasons from 1935-1946, and 15 consecutive losing seasons from 1953-1967. Similarly, the Orioles, from their birth as the St. Louis Browns throught their current perch in Baltimore, had 12 consecutive losing seasons, from 1930-1941, followed by 14 consecutive losing seasons, from 1946-1959. The Orioles haven't had a winning season since 1997, trailing only the Pirates for the longest active streak of losing seasons.

The only other franchises to have streaks of more than ten consecutive losing seasons are the Braves (then the Boston Beaneaters/Doves/Braves, from 1903-1913); Red Sox (1919-1933); Tigers (1994-2005); Dodgers (as the Brooklyn Superbas/Robins, from 1904-1914); Brewers (1993-2004); Twins (as the Washington Senators, from 1901-1911); Mariners (1977-1990); and the Texas Rangers (as the Washington Senators, 1961-1973).

The Pirates have reached the 100-game mark at 58-42. Their record is a bit better than you'd expect with 409 runs scored and 368 runs allowed (that would translate to about 55-45). The starters have combined for only the 10th best FIP in the National League. But Wandy Rodriguez, obtained in a trade this week with the Astros, will replace Kevin Correia and bolster the rotation. The bullpen is solid, with the 7th-best FIP in the National League.

The offense revolves around MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, but since the beginning of July, the whole team has kicked it into high gear. In July, the Pirates have a .334 wOBA (weighted on-base average) and a 110 wRC+ (weighted runs created-plus), good for 4th and 3rd-best in the National League, respectively.

The Pirates need go 24-38 to cement the team's first winning season since 1992. But that's not the holy grail it once was. The Pirates are contending. They sit in second place in the National League Central, two games behind the Reds, but lead the race for the first wild card spot.

It's a great baseball story. Of loss and waiting and desperation and hope and promise. Of drawing strength from adversity. Of re-birth.

It's a great baseball story.

And let it remain so.