Pirates' playoff pitch is equally costly and iffy

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I can say with absolute confidence that this is a first for humankind: Your team, after losing for 19 consecutive seasons, offers you the chance to buy World Series tickets.

The catch is you have to pony up many thousands of dollars for tickets. And some of the 12 games you must buy will never be played in PNC Park. Perhaps none will.

Not every Pirates season-ticket holder is looking at a number as large as my group, which splits four infield box seats in 12 uneven ways. But nearly everyone was staring at four digits and a comma on Friday, the deadline for commitment, even as the home team's chances of making the playoffs shrank like a sodden jockstrap baking in the noonday sun.

Forgive that metaphor. I'm not myself today. I'm America's Cheapest Man, and I just authorized the holder of our ticket plan to put more than seven grand on my credit card to cover myself and others. Though I readily concede that massive debt, not baseball, is the true American pastime, carrying that much cabbage on my card is as likely as Gandhi ordering a pizza with everything on it.

The debt is nonetheless going on even as the Pittsburgh faithless leap from the Pirates bandwagon in numbers not seen since the climactic scene of "Titanic.'' Or at least since last summer's implosion.

When the club announced playoff sales a month ago, the Pirates had the fourth-best record in the National League and were in the thick of the playoff race. The Pirates then won seven of their next 24 games, the second-worst run in the league -- and they're still in the wild card race.

That's the funny thing about baseball this year. In addition to the three division winners making the playoffs, the two teams with the next best records face each other for one game to advance. (The "wild card" winner then takes on the league's best team in a five-game Division Series. Then there's a League Championship Series. Then there's a World Series that will run into turkey season.)

This extra tier is the only reason the Pirates and half the league are still in the playoff hunt. Baseball always envied hockey and basketball, where more than half the skating and bouncing population makes the playoffs, so for years baseball officials chirped the buzzword "parity.'' This year, that's spelled "p-a-r-o-d-y.''

Wild card leaders going into this weekend -- St. Louis, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh -- have raced toward the playoffs like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner, and the Pirates have hit every rock as they've fallen from the heights, their Acme gloves and bats clanking all the way.

There's an old saying that when the gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers, and the baseball gods are twisted deities indeed. For decades, long-suffering Pirates fans (if you'll pardon that redundancy) have repeated this mantra each spring: "I just want to see meaningful games in September.'' Well, now they're here and I'm looking at a post-season bill that looks like a Kardashian wedding tally.

Major League Baseball determines that post-season tickets must be sold in 12-game blocks through the World Series, but get this: The second wild card team, the last slim hope the slipping Pirates have, doesn't have the home-field advantage in the first three playoff rounds. So the most games a fan can possibly see in PNC Park, even if the Pirates make it to the seventh game of the World Series, are nine, not 12.

Yet I fronted half the money to have our group buy eight seats. Yeah, eight times 12 games at playoff prices. Why? Because when you've stuck with a team through thin and thinner, you want to be there when champagne corks pop.

Not all fans have needed to ask how long it'll take for the Pirates to refund a credit card once -- I mean if! -- the Pirates are eliminated. A superstitious friend in charge of another plan said no to buying any post-season tickets. He figures the Pirates' one chance of making the playoffs is if he doesn't buy tickets. Only then will they go on the necessary tear to reach the post-season.

That should lead to the other people in his ticket plan then tearing his limbs from his torso. Pennant races are festive that way.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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