Keeping Perspective With an Expected Playoff Clinching This Week

It’s easy to lose perspective during a playoff race. The only goal is to have the best possible chance of winning the World Series, which usually means trying to win your division and trying to win home field advantage. If a team falls short of that, their season can be viewed as a bit of a disappointment, no matter how good they are.

Take the Pirates as a huge example. After last night’s win against the Rockies, they sit 90-60. That’s 30 games above .500 with just 12 games remaining. It’s a .600 winning percentage, which is good for second best in baseball. As I’ve noted throughout the season, the only serious problem the Pirates have is that they play in the same division as the Cardinals. And that’s not really a problem where they’re at fault.

They’re on pace for 97 wins right now. That would have been good enough to win every division in baseball last year except the AL West, where the Angels won 98 games. No team has won more than the 2013 Angels since 2011, when the Phillies won 102 games. The 0nly other team to win more than 97 games in 2011-14 was the 2012 Washington Nationals, who also won 98. In the NL Central, the division was won from 2011-2013 with 96, 97, and 97 wins.

I don’t need to point all of this out in order to tell you that being on pace for 97 wins this late in the season is a good thing. Heading into the season, if I told you they would win 97 games, you’d be looking forward to a division title.

Unfortunately, because the Cardinals have been ridiculously good, the Pirates aren’t looking forward to a division title. Every time they’ve gotten close this year (and usually those times result in a 99-100 win pace), they still end up two games behind or more in the standings. This would be like the 2012 Nationals being in the same division as the 2011 Phillies. Being in that hypothetical division wouldn’t make the 98-win 2012 Nationals a worse team. It would just make their situation unlucky.

It’s important to keep perspective in these types of situations. Too often, the only focus in baseball is on that one prize at the end: the World Series. Anything less can be deemed a failure. And that’s true in the sense that the ultimate goal is to win it all. But what use is that if you’re not going to enjoy the ride along the way?

Tonight the Pirates have a chance to clinch the playoffs. They would need Washington and San Francisco to lose, and would need to beat Colorado for this to happen tonight. So it’s not a guarantee, but it could happen. The idea of just clinching the playoffs at this point is pretty ho-hum. We’ve known that they’d be in the playoffs for a long time. And after two straight years of making the post-season, this has kind of become the expectation.

It wasn’t long ago that this was an unrealistic dream. The hope for a long time was that the Pirates could somehow win game number 82 on the last day of the season. This year most fans didn’t notice when they won game number 82, and most didn’t care, other than to think back for a moment about how bad it used to be.

And the idea of the Pirates one day reaching the playoffs? It was usually surrounded by “if everything goes right for the team, and if nothing goes right for any other NL Central team, then they might have a shot.” For the most part, everything is going right for the Pirates this year. Sure, they’ve had big injuries, like losing Jung-ho Kang, or mid-season injuries to guys like A.J. Burnett, Josh Harrison, or Jordy Mercer. They’ve also had periodic struggles from certain players. But these are things that happen to every team. It’s hard to point to a lot of things that went wrong with a team on pace for 97 wins. As for the other teams? You could argue that a lot is going right for the Cardinals and Cubs as well. And yet the Pirates are still sitting with the second best record in baseball.

Not that long ago, a winning season was a distant goal, and a playoff shot was unrealistic. Now, a winning season is just a step in the process of making the playoffs, which is seen as expected. This is how sports work. The goalposts keep moving. The goal is to have a winning season, and when that happens, a winning season isn’t good enough anymore. Then the playoffs aren’t good enough. Eventually the division won’t be good enough. And even if your team wins it all, that’s only going to buy a short amount of time before you start focusing on the next season.

As you know if you’ve read my work, I don’t consider myself much of a “fan” anymore. A lot of that is due to this job (it’s hard to be a “fan” when your job is to cover a sport or a team), but a lot of that is also due to the grind of being a fan and always looking toward that next big goal, while discounting any other goal that has been achieved. For me, it got to the point where I felt that a Super Bowl or a Stanley Cup or a World Series just wasn’t worth all the hassle. You pull for a team everyday for months, focusing on that goal, and when it finally comes you celebrate for a few weeks and then start thinking about next season. It almost feels like the reward period isn’t even worth the time leading up to that.

There is a way around this: Enjoy the journey. If watching sports becomes about reaching that next milestone, then you’re going to miss a lot of the enjoyable moments along the way. And when that milestone is reached, you’ll probably be in the habit of looking for the next accomplishment.

The Pirates could reach one of their milestones tonight by clinching the playoffs. It might not happen tonight, but it will happen this week. It’s not a huge accomplishment (unless you ask pre-2013 Pirates fans), but it’s one of those steps along the way that should be celebrated. Otherwise, focusing on the next big reward can cause you to miss a great season, and makes the journey to that reward much less enjoyable.

Analysis

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    September 23, 2015 11:40 pm

    Another sterling performance by Morton tonight….couldn’t handle the 7-1 lead he was given. If we get past Arrieta and the Cubs, I do not like the ideal of him and Locke pitching in the playoffs.

    The Pirates conceded the division the day they decided to not promote Glasnow. Even at 21 and not a complete pitcher, he’s better than either Morton or Locke.

  • Don Draper has that great spiel towards the end of season five, summed up by the line “What is happiness? It’s moment before you need more happiness.”

    That becomes true as sports fans when we get too caught up in outcomes and forget to enjoy the process. Every greater achievement leads to a harder to fulfill expectation. Even winning the World Series can lead to every season that comes after feeling empty without a championship.

    Want and expectations only lead to disappointment and unhappiness. Buddha must have been a baseball fan.

  • Enjoy the moment and remember their is always a next year.

  • When it comes to this season, both literally and figuratively, for the Pirates and their fans, if you can’t enjoy this ride, then you shouldn’t ever have gotten on the bus.

    We are living in a golden age of Pirates baseball. Who knows what fate awaits them this season, but I can guarantee you 50 years from now old men who are young boys now will speak of how great it was when Cutch and Cole and Marte and so many others wore the Pirates uniform in the 2000 teens.

  • Great perspective Tim. I couldn’t agree more.

  • There is an article in today’s Post Gazette that reports the Pirates are one of only 3 teams in MLB to have made the playoffs in the last 3 years (well, ok, we haven’t quite made it but the “magic number” is down to 1!) So Tim is, as always, “spot on”. I know that after 20 years of losing seasons we would all like to see the ultimate vindication, which would be winning the WS. But maybe we already have the ultimate vindication – 3 straight playoff-calibre teams, with the only others being the Cardinals (model organisation) and the Dodgers (smart management now + biggest payroll). So yes we should all be grateful for the wonderful experience of this season: Cutch, Cole, Melancon, Jung Ho, AJ, Cervelli, Watson, Happ, Marte, Polanco, Ramirez – the list goes on! Yes we’d all love to see the Pirates getting ready for a best of 5, but even if worst comes to worst, a “one and done” loss to Arrieta and the Cubs at Wrigley, it has still been phenomenal and something to treasure. It looks like they will definitely do better than the 2013 team, so all we can say is Yahooo!! And better still, they still have Cutch to at least 2016 – 2018, Polanco and Marte are getting better all the time, and they can look forward to some big time talent in the not distant future: Josh Bell, Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, and Elias Diaz. And that is not even to mention that they also have Austin Meadows & Reese McGuire as well as players any organisation would like to have in the pipeline, like Willy Garcia, Yeudys Garcia, Keon Broxton, etc. So it is great to see this article from Tim remind us that we need to have perspective and appreciate where this team and organisation are! And if we need any reminder about how far this team has come, just think about the 2 throws from the left-field corner that we saw from Starling (Clemente Jr) just this week. We had to wait 20 years for it, but it was worth it!!!!

  • It’s great to wax poetic about baseball. Since last season ended the goal of the entire organiZation was to win the division and avoid the wild card game. The Cardinals left the door open in Sept. but losses to Milw. and Cinn., terrible defense, and boneheaded base running lost the division.
    BTW I saw my first game in 1959. The Cubs beat the Bucs 5-1 on an Ernie Banks grand slam in the 8th. Hope that’s not an omen (see Brendan Crawford).

  • I thought the same when they got win 82. It was great that it was not a big deal anymore. As a life long fan I cheer and agonize as they win and lose. The best part about this team as compared to the early 90’s team is that I can see them being this good for many years. To win a World Series you need extra things to happen, sometimes things beyond a team’s control. I will be disappointed if they don’t make and win the World Series, but I will quickly look forward to next year. I hope the experiences of the last two years will serve them well and that something extra is in the Bucs favor.

  • Tim sort of hit on the reason why over all these years, I have come and gone as far as being a die hard fan of the Steelers or the Pens or Pitt football or Duquesne hoops, but my one constant (to cite Field of Dreams) has always been baseball and the Pirates. For six months baseball unfolds and moves like a serpentine river, a long, lugubrious Russian novel that can be at times infuriating, exciting, pathetic or even boring. But for six months there is a game almost every day. There is something to talk about, some new wrinkle, some hot rookie or some veteran pitcher who finds some extra gas in the tank to help the team during the stretch run! (I still fondly remember Rick Reuschel getting a chance with the pathetic 1985 Bucs and showing the young guys how its done or who can forget the “Week of Drew Sutton” from 2012).
    The NFL, on the other hand, is six days of hype, build up and BS leading to a 3 hour game, and then the hype begins a new! Baseball gives us something almost every single night of the week for half a year! That’s another thing, baseball is a marathon, a grind, the best teams have to prove it over the course of the season, while in football, a bad call or a freak play can be the difference between 6-10 and 10-6!.
    It’s the journey, something I keep trying to remind myself, as I can’t help but not like their chances in that stupid one game playoff against the Cubs and can get pretty melancholy! hey the Bucs will still be at the table when 20 teams will have folded their chips and gone home! This is the 3rd year they have done that. That is pretty special.
    Thanks for the perspective Tim

    • Was this taken from the transcript of Ken burns baseball? Haha

      I kind of disagree with the thought behind the article though. I’m a fan of all sports. (Pgh big three are the only ones I live and die by though) I’m constantly “resetting the goal posts.” But to me that’s part of the beauty because it goes both ways. A loss means you have a chance to redeem yourself and a win means you have a chance to defend your worth. Don’t get me wrong I try to stay as in the moment ad I can, especially as I get older, but I can’t ever just live and be happy off of a few successes. And I think that’s ok.

  • Enjoying baseball as an art form obviates the need to see victories then? I understand your point of view, and share it to some extent. But baseball is a martial art form of sorts, and keeping score to determine winners and losers will always matter.

  • Speaking of perspective: the picture shows every Pirate in white ‘sweats’ but 3 players, one of whom is Worley.

  • Agreed. It’s fun to analyze and predict and pick things apart, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we’re baseball fans, and being baseball fans, we can get the greatest joy from just watching the happenings of a baseball game.

    Of course, I like watching the happenings specifically of Pirates’ baseball games, and the more of those I get, the better, so let’s go to the World Series. 🙂

  • As a lifelong Pirate fan every day they win a game I’m a little bit happier and there is a jump in my step. I consider myself well rounded and financially successful I have 4 “great” children and two “great” grandchildren. All my life I have loved the Pirates and been to many a late September game when they were 20 games below .500 just to see what to expect next season. It’s great to win and it’s great to play meaningful baseball but I still get sick seeing Sid Bream crossing home plate or Bob Moose bouncing one in the dirt past Manny. I have great memories of Vernon Law, Bob Veale, Roberto, Willie, the Cobra and Doc Ellis. Right now I want to beat the hell out of the Cubs and the same to the Redbirds. On every October 13th every Yankee fan I know get’s a text.

  • You see it everywhere. During the latter part of Atlanta’s historic run of playoff appearances, the team couldn’t even sell out its NLDS home games. Out here in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers are 7 games clear of the Giants and about to win the West for the 3rd straight year, all you hear on the radio is how the team can’t win on the road, can’t beat Pittsburgh (or St. Louis), and the shortcomings of Joc Pederson, Jimmy Rollins and the bullpen. They have the same sense of doom about the playoffs – sure, they have Greinke and Kershaw, but the Mets are on fire and have a deeper rotation, and if by some miracle they advance, the Cardinals, Pirates or Cubs will be waiting in the NLCS to crush them.

    Sure, it would be great if the Pirates could sit back and watch the Cards and Cubs plunk and takeout slide each other to death in the knockout game. It could still happen. But even if it doesn’t, this Pirates team is capable of beating Lester and/or Arrieta, whether the game is in Pittsburgh or Chicago. It’s going to be a treacherous road no matter where they wind up seeded, but every year, somebody wins.

    • That Atlanta one always gave me a sense of schadenfreude, especially after their announcers mocked the Bucs for not selling out for the LCS in 91 and 92. And Atlanta had no room to talk, essentially coming out of a long period, like the recent Pirates, of being irrelevant (two Division titles in 82 and 83, but suckitude for three decades) before then. Yeah must have been pretty dull eventually to be a Braves fan. Regular season is essentially irrelevant, and then who do we lose to in the playoffs? The Braves of the 90s are proof of Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “sometimes the only thing worse than not getting what you want, is getting it?”

  • God is in the details.

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