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Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle (13) in game five of the National League divisional series playoff baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. (JEFF CURRY/USA TODAY SPORTS)
Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle (13) in game five of the National League divisional series playoff baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. (JEFF CURRY/USA TODAY SPORTS)

NLDS Pirates

Pirates’ expectations will be higher next season Add to ...

The Streak, the one that loomed over the Pittsburgh Pirates for two ignominious decades, is dead. Over. Done. Discarded. Smashed by an improbable summer and a thrilling fall.

Now what?

Unburdened from the yoke of failure that loomed for 20 years as an ominous cloud over the franchise, the Pirates can point to the future with eyes wide open.

What exactly the future holds, however, remains unclear.

In a way, the man who shrewdly guided the baseball franchise from 105-loss laughingstock three years ago to a 94-game winner that pushed the St. Louis Cardinals to the brink in the National League Division Series knows the easy part is over.

“The sustainability is what separates great organizations,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We were able to take a huge step forward this year in restoring the pride and the passion of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, and rebonding our city with a ball team.”

The evidence lay in the signature Jolly Roger flags that came out of hiding across the city after spending a generation tucked away like an abandoned family heirloom. It could be seen at packed PNC Park, where record crowds – most of them wearing black – poured through the turnstiles in the playoffs and made baseball matter again in a city where it has long played distant third fiddle behind football and hockey.

It could be felt in a clubhouse comprised of young talent and established veterans unbowed by the club’s miserable recent past.

Centre fielder Andrew McCutchen cemented his status as a star with an MVP-worthy season. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez tied for the NL lead in home runs with 36. Rookie pitcher Gerrit Cole illustrated his electric 100-miles-an-hour fastball. Catcher Russell Martin of Chelsea, Que., helped turn a pitching staff that looked like a question mark in March into a dominant force in September. Jason Grilli, aging reliever thrust into the closing role for the first time, became an all-star and the emotional centre of one of baseball’s best bullpens.

When asked to describe the success of left-handed pitcher Francisco Liriano – who revived his flagging career by going 16-8 with a 3.02 earned-run average and becoming the de facto ace down the stretch – Hurdle said Liriano “has a lot of Pirate in him.” Pressed on what exactly that means, Hurdle stumbled upon an ethos that resonated from the front office down to the bat boys.

“In the movies that I’ve watched and the books that I’ve read, there seems to be a spirit of ‘I really don’t care what anybody thinks any more, I’m crossing the line, I’m going to become a pirate,’” Hurdle said. “It’s not about mom or dad or brother or sister, not about where I used to work. I’m going to be my own man. I’m going to hope to latch on to a bunch of other men who feel the same way, that are like-minded, and try to get something special done.”

The goal of a sixth World Series title, the one controlling owner Bob Nutting talked about at length during spring training, never materialized. The fact a world championship evolved from something preposterous to something very tangible will only fuel an off-season designed to prove the last six months were no fluke.

“I think it’s one thing to be happy and one thing to realize how far along we come and how much we can improve,” Alvarez said. “It’s been a realization of all the hard work we’ve put in but at the end of the day we still have a lot of work to do.”

Figuring out how to go about it, however, will be tricky. Though Pittsburgh’s $73-million (U.S.) payroll was the highest in club history, it also ranked just 26th in baseball. And despite the windfall of two dozen sellouts and the second-largest attendance figure since the team was founded in 1887, general manager Neal Huntington knows the Pirates can’t just start throwing money around. So does his boss.

“I think that the playing field is not level, never will be. But we as the Pittsburgh Pirates have committed ourselves to never using that as an excuse,” Nutting said. “Is it easier to build a great club with $200-million than with $75-[million], $80-million? Absolutely. But I believe – have always believed and will continue to believe – that we can be competitive at that level.

“We need to make smart decisions.”

 

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