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Larry Brown Sports Tagline. Brown Bag it, Baby.
#pounditFriday, June 21, 2024

Perennial punching bags Nationals, Orioles, and Pirates actually contending

There used to be a time when sportswriters could fill in the gaps during the long, lazy days of summer by writing about the familiarly bad baseball teams that spend the months of June through September licking stamps as a means of mailing in the rest of the season. Fodder abound, a simple treatise could be espoused about how teams like the Nationals, Orioles, and Pirates — the have-nots — had not, have not, and probably won’t any time soon. Then after about five minutes of pretending to have fulfilled a weekly duty to scratch out something resembling a sports column, we sportswriters could do what we usually do in the summertime: figure out a way to fulfill the body’s requirement for sunlight by turning up the contrast settings on the laptop lest any shirt removal be required.

Well, ladies and gentleman, I pledge to you today that the times have seemingly changed. Sure, I’m still trying to write something about the poor schnooks of the baseball diamond, but it is with a slightly less haughty tone. For the above-mentioned triumvirate is actually giving folks reason to believe that these teams aren’t going away like an unpleasant bout of food poisoning.

The Expos-Nationals franchise, one so crummy that a simple hyphen can sum up generations of futility, certainly is not your typical Horatio Alger American success story. This hard-luck organization can best be described as going from rags to slightly older, burning rags. When the club played north of the border, more often than not, it was left black and sacrebleu. When they came to the Beltway in 2005, they were belted up and down the Rotunda.

In fact, the team was so forgettable in Montreal, where baseball seemed as foreign as hard-to-get prescription medication, they masqueraded as Les Expos in, of all places, the Dominican Republic in 2003 and 2004. The team was nearly eliminated in 2001, and bought by the league on consignment in 2002. As of the writing of this sentence, the only franchise in the National League to never have reached the World Series has the best record in the NL. After the writing of that last sentence, they still do.

The only postseason appearance for this poor band of schlubs was 1981, in the days where donning powder blue and striped hats was apparently the thing to do. Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, and Gary Carter were some of the iconic names that graced their roster then, a far cry from a current manifest that includes two guys named Zimmerman and another named Lombardozzi, who probably makes the person in charge of stitching jerseys cry. Certainly, throwing in a few phenoms like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper — for whom we should be thankful based on the coinage of the term “clown question,” an expression that has nothing to do with Bozo or Pagliacci for that matter — has helped. Gio Gonzalez has additionally put himself in the running for the Cy Young award with a co-league high 12 wins. If only Montreal had some foresight instead of letting the team get away years ago for little more than a croissant and some trinkets.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been the toast of the Steel City. To put it another, more accurate way, the team has simply been toast since the day that Barry Bonds purportedly gave Andy Van Slyke the middle finger salute at the suggestion he move in closer prior to Francisco Cabrera’s at-bat that would apparently doom the franchise to twenty years of purgatory.

Remember, this is the franchise of Honus Wagner, Bill Mazeroski, Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, and five World Series titles. The last two decades have seen only one Pirate team finish better than 3rd place (1997), while the others found no luck swinging in on chandeliers with a cast of Jermaine Allensworth, Oliver Perez, Al Martin, Humberto Cota, among others, sinking to the bottom of the NL Central with whatever booty they may have claimed.

Perhaps last year was a turning point, a year AHHHRRR-guably — sorry I had to — different from the others. The team was in first in late July until following the previous Pittsburgh teams into Garrett, I mean, Davey Jones’ locker with 1-12 and 9-28 stretches during the final two months. This year, assuming the eye patch hasn’t affected depth perception, the team has been in first place or within a plank of the division lead since June.

Certainly there is still plenty of cause for concern for a return to the NL Central poop deck, seeing as how most of the team outside of Andrew McCutchen has hit about as well as Blackbeard. But it has been pitching leading the team this year, as strange as a concept for Pittsburgers as is a low-fat pierogi. James McDonald along with A.J. Burnett, whose name is still cursed by New Yorkers along with cab driver civility, have combined for 19 wins. The only thing remains to be seen this year is if the ball-club can avoid turning the September turnstiles at PNC Park into Jacob’s Ladder.

Last but not least — phraseology that could easily encapsulate another team likely marooned in the cellar out East — there has been a surprising turn of events in Baltimore. The city itself has taken on a number of nicknames throughout its history. One of them — a City of Firsts — has been no doubt retired thanks to its downtrodden baseball organization. A team whose stars aligned during the 1990s, selling out Camden Yards while adding to a long list of team all-stars and Mitchell Report fodder.

Pennants and divisional championships marked the club’s successful run in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s with Brooks and Frank Robinson, as well as Cal Ripken and his streak. Mind you, the team did this all the while playing with a smiling bird emblazoned across its chest that has evoked about as much sympathy for the team as it created an ornithological nightmare. Prior to 2012, the last time these duds were spotted in these duds was 24 years ago, when the team started the season with a record of Blutarsky-like proportions, going 0-21. For some reason, they returned this season and so, apparently, did the club. Though the O’s are about a stretch of the I-70 away from catching the Yankees, there is still hope that the team can sneak into the playoffs as a Wild card team for the first time in fifteen years. What’s that? They just gave up 19 to the Twins? Never mind.

Baseball, like fashion, appears to be cyclical. With Hollywood hell-bent on seemingly remaking every movie out of the Schwarzenegger catalog, the ‘80s and ‘90s are apparently back. The Nats, Pirates, and Orioles are, for now relevant. To paraphrase Kevin Garnett, himself incorrectly paraphrasing once upon a time, anything is possible for fans of woebegone teams… Unless you cheer for the Cubs.

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