Sep 23, 2022, 12:42PM

Baseball Leprosy

Pirates season gets Biblical, Cruz sideshow soars.

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As September ticks away toward another 100-loss season, Pirates fans can turn to the Bible for some type of solace or at least validation. We thank the Gideons for leaving a copy of the St. James in the desk at the La Quinta Hotel near the racetrack in Lexington, Ohio, where the Amish loom selling their cheese and baked goods in the pre-dawn haze near Interstate 71. That is where I read about the 10 lepers.

The Bucs just spent a lost weekend in Queens, and I wasn’t there to witness the four-game sweep by the pricey New York Mets. Usually, my penance is served with facetime and humiliation in the form of excruciating losses at Citi Field. After a merciful off day on Monday, the Bucs transferred to the Bronx to take on the Yankees for a two-game dominatrix session without a safe word. At this point, the underfunded Pittsburgh baseball franchise is made up of the 10 lepers whom Jesus healed by sending them to see the priests. He didn’t heal them on the spot, as it’s pointed out in Luke chapter 13. Instead, they’re healed as they’re on their way to see the priests, as instructed by Christ (whom for Pirates fans appears in the form of Jim Leyland, by the way).

Of course, there was a walkoff grand slam for the Yankees win on Tuesday night off of Wil Crowe, of all pitchers. Aaron Judge also fulfilled his role as home run superstar in the late innings, but I did enjoy having the lead over the New York American League squad during most of this game. Unlike my previous years as a dutiful supporter, I didn’t budge from my upstate roost to attend the Queens contests and the odd two-game pairing in the Bronx. Second game against the Yanks was a 14-2 nail-biter loss. At both Citi Field in Queens and Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, the Pirates bottomed out and booted the ball around the middle infield, threw wildly, dropped ground-ball transfers and walked and wild-pitched themselves into this season’s version of the Bataan Death March. Oh, and they gave up plenty of grand slams in both boroughs as well.

Amongst this planned and telegraphed fan misery, there was the oasis of an odd but pleasant recollection of being at Yankee Stadium with a Cuban-American ex-girlfriend who contacted me knowing the Pirates were getting their mail in Gotham all week long. Hadn’t heard from her since the El Duque days. We’d hang out at the Grand Hyatt bar and she had a field day making fun of ballplayer fashion as Greg Maddux nervously lolled around while Fred McGriff searched for some privacy. Then, it was off to Victor’s on 52nd St. and she’d order off the menu and my Ohio taste buds began to panic. This reconnection would qualify as the token positive during a week of baseball agony. Even my closest friends and comrades from the ESPN Classic days couldn’t bear to use social media to gloat or boast about the Yankees and Mets torturing my squad. Broadcasters Ron Darling, Keith Hernandez and Michael Kay tended to pile on the Pirates’ lack of professional baseball quality at times, but who can blame them. They didn’t go as far as Boston’s Dennis Eckersley, unfortunately. Had they joined Eck in his frankness about how bad the Pirates are, we’d have had a Friar’s Club roast of an NL Central team on our hands. The only thing missing from the 2022 Pirates is Marv Throneberry playing first base.

At this point, being a Pirates fan requires extreme measures even as you note to no one in particular that the rookie pitcher who held the Yankees at bay for much of Tuesday night was wearing “Mean” Joe Greene’s Steelers jersey number (75) and the famous Coke commercial was replaying in all of our collective Pittsburgher minds. The usual GPS setting for “the road to 100 losses” has

been recentered now as the Bucs proceeded from their New York embarrassments back home to play the Cubs. Dropped that one 3-2 in front of 9166 lost souls considering suicide not just because they paid to watch the worst baseball played in years, but also because the beloved Steelers were busy losing their game in Cleveland against the Browns on Thursday Night Football.

It could be likely that O’Neill Cruz, our carnival sideshow 6-foot-7 Dominican shortstop whose initial dreads made him look like The Predator, who has the land-speed StatCast record for exit velocity on a hit and also on an infield throw during a 6-3 put-out against the Marlins, was being fitted for Yankee pinstripes during our Bronx visit. He’s fun to watch, and opposing announcers use his presence to kill at least four innings of commentary about the hapless opponents who have “hope” for such a talented, bright young prospect with mad skills. His one-handed home run against Jacob DeGrom last week had almost 6000 views on MLB.com one day after it happened.

He will certainly not be extended or paid his worth by cheapskate Pirates owner Bob Nutting, who should be blackballed out of the league, by the way. Nutting should go ahead and construct a gaudy canvas curtain in front of Cruz and don a carny barker get-up with the straw boater and cheap cane, maybe getting a few extra bucks from fans who want to see O’Neill Cruz in person. And unfortunately, our star was given his first name in honor of former Yankee and Ohio hayseed Paul O’Neill, who was inexplicably Cruz’s father Raphael’s favorite ballplayer. I can see naming your dog after him, but your son? (Full disclosure I named my female chocolate lab Mazzy in honor of Bucco Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski, and kind of the band Mazzy Star, as well.)

We got Cruz from the Dodgers in 2017 in a deadline trade for somewhat-okay reliever Tony Watson. Cruz was with the low-A Great Lakes Loons at the time. I love dumping relievers for position players. When you’re the Pirates, you don’t need closers and such because actual leads in games are fleeting. It’s all come-back baseball. You know, scrappy. “Grinders” to use Jorge Posada’s cliché in inaccurately describing a clearly distracted and aloof Ruben Sierra during his Yankee days.

Nutting finally signed off on the public relations make-buy of creating a Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame at PNC Park. The older I get, the less I favor Halls of Fame as benchmarks of success for a player. It’s all bar-room arguments at this point, and those get old when they drown out Iggy Pop on the jukebox. The inductions in Pittsburgh happened late in this Hindenburg of a season. (The Pirates were playing the Dodgers at Ebbets Field when the Hindenburg flew over just hours before its destruction). At the HOF ceremony, Dave Parker kind of wilted in the heat. He has Parkinson’s and has been denied Cooperstown for some reason, where Tim Raines now has a plaque with a cocaine vial in his rear pocket. It was Pirates pitching legend and former broadcaster Steve Blass who acted quickly and was able to “catch” The Cobra before he could collapse backward to the ground. That, and watching Mr. Cruz don a batting helmet, has been the highlight of this horrid season for Pirates fans.

There’s endless talk of a youth movement and rebuilding, but none of it’s sincere until Nutting sells this historic franchise to someone who cares about the on-field product producing consistent victories. Nutting has done a great deal for Pirates Charities in the community, but that’s not the main focus here for fans, now is it? You have one job as owner. Put winners on the field or pay dearly for your insolence. Every time I endure yet another 100-loss season, I feel like this remaining Pirates fans base is much like Argos. He was the proud hunting dog of Odysseus from Homer’s The Odyssey. After Odysseus had been gone 20 years, leaving Argos behind, he returned to his home disguised as a beggar as the residence had been taken over by “suitors” attempting to seduce his wife, Penelope. Though Odysseus was in disguise, Argos, lying on a pile of dung,

covered in fleas and in terrible condition, recognized the voice of his master. He raised his head one final time as Odysseus entered his old house, and then Argos expired. These are Pirates fans.

At the end of the season, after 42 years since we won the World Series, the master returns from a disaster in New York City, and we recognize this historic franchise by voice only. No doubt in the ensuing week or two, Albert Pujols, who has the most homers of any visiting player at PNC Park, will stroke his historic 700th as we finish with the Cardinals in town. More headlines for everyone else, except maybe the sideshow star Cruz. Sometimes the game I love is nothing but a dead dog lying on a pile of poop.
See you at Spring Training.


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