My Baseball Origin Story: The Birth of a Yinzer

2012: It’s All A Simulation

In 2012, after playing virtually every edition since CM2, I finally allowed myself to admit something: I was bored of Football Manager.

Sports sims, in a weird way, allow you to tell stories. They have no pre-defined plot, of course, or even characters in the traditional sense, but they can still tell stories. The passion, heartbreak and jubilation you feel in real sports is often still present in the simulated leagues, even if you’re the only one who can see it.

And, with the rise in popularity of online game diaries and game reports, ranging in complexity from brief recaps of events to fully fledged novels – not to mention Let’s Play videos on YouTube – you can share those stories with others now, too!

However, the stories in FM began to follow essentially the same plot in save after save, and I hadn’t actually watched an entire football match in reality, outside of international tournaments, since I was about 15. But I wasn’t ready to give up on sports just yet – watching them, I mean; I gave up playing them about 30 seconds after I started.

Hunting around for a new sports management game to get into… I feel like this says a lot about my personality, actually. Most people, when looking to find a new sport to get involved with, would probably start by… I dunno, actually watching it? Let’s not forget there was a fricking Olympic Games in my home country this very year. You’d think if I wanted to get into a new sport, I’d be spoiled for choice.

Anyway, hunting around for a new sports management game to get into, I discovered Out of the Park Baseball. At the time, I had heard of precisely two baseball teams. Yep, those two, they were in the original London Series for a reason. Other than the basics (“it’s a bit like rounders with music and steroids”), I had almost no idea what baseball even was. Joe DiMaggio was the guy from Mrs Robinson, right? Where did he go? Babe Ruth – wasn’t he a sheep-pig?

I downloaded the demo anyway, because it was a sports management sim, and well regarded. Upon loading it up and looking at the teams, I noticed a little further down the page (near the bottom, where they’re most comfortable) was a black and gold team called the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Now, as dumb as national pride is on the whole (especially when said nation hasn’t even been recognised by virtually anyone for hundreds of years), being Cornish is nonetheless part of who I am. When you see a black and gold team as a Cornishman, you naturally gravitate toward it.

And they’re called the Pirates? This is too good! So is my rugby team! And the official nickname of my football team! And a lot of my ancestors (smugglers, pirates, buccaneers, basically the same thing)!

I then checked the Team History page in-game, and discovered, to my delight, that we hadn’t had a winning season since I was six years old.

Oh, this is so my team!

Doing The Research

After the OOTP12 demo had taught me that the Pirates existed and they were a terrible team, I started looking into the real-life team and confirmed: yep, they’re pretty bad!

I also learned more about the sport in general, and even the city of Pittsburgh itself – with its reliance on heavy industry and mining, love of craft beer, bridges, and talking weirdly – reminded me of home. Pierogies are closer to pasties than anything Ginsters or Greggs have yet come up with, after all.

I started immediately cheering for cult figures that would soon be mostly irrelevant, like Pedro Álvarez and José Tábata (Álvarez had many things going for him marketing-wise, but I don’t have a single clue to this day why I liked Tábata so much – ruining Max Scherzer’s perfect game with two outs in the ninth is elite sh*thousery, but that hadn’t even happened yet!). I did also like players who were actually good, folk heroes like Andrew McCutchen and A.J. Burnett, but to me, the “fun but ultimately not great” players that baseball allows to thrive are where the real joy is.

Satisfied that the team had a good mix of fun, cult icons and actual talent, I started digging further into the team’s history – they used to be great once, y’know? – and started falling in love with stories about the old days: Dock Ellis throwing a no-hitter (fact) whilst under the influence of LSD (disputed), Roberto Clemente‘s story became hugely important, as did the likes of Bill Mazeroski, Willie Stargell and Dave Parker of the We Are Family/If You Hear Any Noise… era Pirates. I was fascinated by Tim Wakefield and the physics of the knuckleball, even though he became much more famous (a common theme) in Boston, and discovered that Barry Bonds, before he started eating a balanced diet in San Francisco, was an excellent Pirate too. They also had a guy called Don Slaught (a catcher, naturally). How cool is that?

However, what really started my unbreakable love for baseball, and the Pirates in particular, was what the Buccos did in 2013, my first full season as a baseball fan.

And So It Begins…

Let’s recap: I’ve downloaded the demo of a game in the summer of 2012, found a team in that game that fits me perfectly in a number of ways and discovered that they suck completely (that’s one of the ways).
Then, upon me starting to follow this team, they immediately:

– Win 92 games, the first winning season in 20 years. The 20-year losing record was a North American professional sports record.

– Win their first Playoff “series” (technically!) since 1979, in the instant classic “Johnny Cueto Game”.

– Are home to the National League MVP (McCutchen), Manager of the Year (Clint Hurdle) and Comeback Player of the Year (my first “favourite player”, Francisco Liriano. That slider, man…).

All, clearly, just in an effort to impress me.

Well, it worked! How can you not fall in love with a team that does that in your first year?

At that time, I was mostly following along and learning the game via online reporting – MLB.com, Yahoo and, crucially to my eventual stats-nerd persona, Fangraphs/Hardball Times. Also YouTube highlights of course, but being outside of New York, Chicago, Boston or LA, MLB weren’t often interested in posting our highlights back then, so I naturally got to learn about the bigger names on bigger teams more often than our own (I soon learned “bigger teams” meant almost all of them).

The next year the Pirates followed the watershed success of the 2013 season with another wildcard berth in 2014, finishing second in the Central (for the second of three consecutive years) before getting shut out (for the first of two consecutive years) by Madison Bumgarner on his way to his third ring in five years and a World Series MVP trophy.

Baseball had my interest, but it didn’t yet have my whole heart. It was something I checked the results of, and sometimes watched bits of, but I’d still never seen a full game, I didn’t really understand what most of the stats meant, let alone some of the more esoteric baseball terms I was reading in the reports.

That would change next season.

2015: The birth of a Yinzer

The real reason I’m here, invested enough in baseball to waste everyone’s time by writing this article, is the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

2015 is up there with Seasons 1-4 of The West Wing and the first few seasons of The Wire as one of the greatest seasons of American drama I’ve ever experienced. It was my first as an MLB.tv subscriber, too, so I could finally watch the games live, instead of just reading about them afterwards. I could see what happens between pitches (sadly now replaced with adverts and “flashbacks” to about ten minutes ago) and most importantly, I could hear the analysts chatting about the game they clearly loved.

Access to MLB.tv meant I also got to “know” the voices of baseball – the voices of my baseball, as I rarely watched non-Pirates games in this era: Greg Brown, Bob Walk and Steve Blass.

As a Brit, growing up with mostly impartial soccer announcers, Greg struck me as such a complete homer that it was initially very jarring. After getting used to it though (and finding out they’re basically all like that), it became endearing. “Clear the deck, cannonball coming!” is still one of my favourite regular calls in baseball (not regular enough, these days…), and several Greg-isms have worked their way into my baseball lexicon without me even knowing it. Walk, meanwhile, is funny, insightful, and often fails to hide his annoyance at the incompetence displayed on the field; he was an instant hit with me. Blass, at first listen, seemed like a grumpy old guy who moaned about everything. Perhaps I didn’t like him because it meant Bob wasn’t there. But later, especially during Spring Training games, I came to appreciate his insight and stories from his playing career – which in a Vin Scully-esque fashion would often take multiple innings to complete as he was routinely interrupted by the pesky game getting in the way.

This was going to be a great year for the Pirates, I could feel it.

When the season started, I wasn’t worried when we were swept in our opening series in Cincinnati. Or when we lost our home opening series to the Tigers (with Burnett and Liriano both taking losses in games where we were shut out, despite conceding three total runs between them).
“There’s a lot of baseball left to play”, Greg and Bob kept reassuring me.

I wasn’t even worried when we started off the month of May by getting swept by the Cardinals, with all three games going to extra innings yet still being unable to win any of them (in retrospect, if we’d won just two of those we would’ve won the division). We’d get our own back on the Cardinals right before the All-Star break, winning three of four at home, with both of the last two being 6-5 walk-offs in extra innings.

Allow me to write a bit about that first walk-off game, because it was incredible. Probably still the best regular-season game of baseball I’ve ever seen. I learned a lot about baseball in those five hours (no pitch clocks in 2015 of course). I got to see:
– My first extra innings game – definitely the first I’d stayed up to watch all of.
– My first pitcher hitting a home run (Burnett, an instant favourite of mine after the “Sit the F Down!” incident in 2012 and the Batman persona).
– My first ejections, when the catcher and the manager both got tossed after Burnett struck out Mark Reynolds in the first inning; the ump invented a foul ball out of thin air to keep Reynolds alive, and then the Cardinals slugger duly homered on the very next pitch that he should never have seen.

As I’d arrived to baseball too late for the infamous 19-inning game in Atlanta (which ended when umpire Jerry Meals inexplicably called the runner safe at home when he was out by a mile and the Braves walked it off), this game was my introduction to being incensed by an umpire.

Despite having the backup catcher and bench coach in charge all game, the Pirates rallied back after going behind to force extra innings. They went behind again in the 10th to a less controversial Mark Reynolds homer, but again came back to force an 11th inning. Three scoreless innings followed, though still not without drama, as another cult hero, Sean Rodriguez, robbed Reynolds of another home run to keep it scoreless.

That brings us to the 14th inning, where the Cardinals again built a one-run lead in the top of the inning. Enter Cutch: with a runner on base, McCutchen finally let me go to bed (once the adrenaline wore off) with a two-run walk-off home run. Brown was delighted. I was also delighted, but quieter about it.

The very next night, we beat them again by the same score, also in extra innings. No home run heroics (or villainy) that night, but my favourite player got the walk-off hit (a positive change from his being ejected in the first inning the night before), so that was also pretty special.

With hindsight, despite the closeness of the standings, the final days of that 2015 season weren’t really all that dramatic. The hard work had been done – mostly in August. Famously, the three best teams in all of MLB by record were in our division that season:
The Cardinals, on 100 wins, had won the division already (luckily for them, as they lost the last three games against Atlanta without scoring a single run).
The Pirates followed with 96 wins.
Then the Cubs on 94.

The next-closest wildcard contenders were (ironically) the Giants way back on 84 wins, so the wildcard round had been set for weeks – hardly the epic Giants/Dodgers chase of 2021. The only thing in play was home-field advantage. But in my first season of watching baseball games live, it felt like do or die!

As it turned out, we both did and died. We only lost one game to the Reds, so the Cubs would’ve had to come to PNC Park even if they hadn’t swept the Brewers (which they did, with the Brewers only managing two total runs, in different games). I was excited; I’d seen Pirates fans turn Johnny Cueto into a gibbering wreck unable to hold a baseball two years earlier, and I was convinced my esteemed brothers-in-arms (me hearties, if you will) would do the same to Jake Arrieta – Cy Young Award winner or not!

Spoiler: Arrieta remained completely unfazed by the home crowd (though he did nearly brain my favourite player with a fastball), and for the second straight year, the Pirates were shut out in the Wild Card game.

None of the NL Central teams got to the World Series in 2015 – the Cubs went on to beat the Cardinals in the NLDS, before being swept by the Mets in the NLCS, who in turn lost to the Royals in the World Series. The three best teams in all of baseball were in the NL Central, and an AL team won it all. Baseball.

The Pirates, and the sport, had well and truly won my heart though. How can you not be romantic about baseball? Life as a Pirates fan since 2015 has, erm, not been the same – yet to return even to the newly-expanded postseason since that Cubs game despite recent sparks of promise.

On reflection, it does feel a lot like those monthly build-a-thing magazines, where the first few issues are £1.99, but then, when you’ve got started and invested your time into it, they suddenly cost a tenner each. “But just think about how cool it’ll be when you finish building the thing“, they promise…

It’s going to be so, so sweet when we finally win it all.

I just hope my future grandchildren are still alive to see it, with handed-down tales of Pedro Álvarez hitting home runs into boats ringing in their heads.

Featured image of Pedro Alvarez by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

Jason Toms is sometimes the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Batflips & Nerds, on the rare occasion they do something worth writing about. He is also the Scoring Director for the British Baseball Federation. You can find him on Twitter at @CornishYinzer, though it’s rarely worth it.

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