Last-place teams, slow ticket sales aside ... it is Cleveland
June 23, 2009 4:00 AM
Brian Giles gets by Cleveland Indians catcher Einar Diaz to score the winning run back in June of 2001. Giles scored from second base on a hit by Aramis Ramirez, to beat the Indians, 1-0.
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This meeting between the Pirates and Cleveland Indians, with the first of three games tonight at PNC Park, would appear to lack a whole lot of luster: Each team is in last place, tickets are selling slowly and, really, how much novelty is left in beating up on Cleveland?
Even the Steelers seem to yawn at the concept anymore.
And yet, come on, it is Cleveland.
Here, for fun, are 10 reasons, in descending order, why this series still matters...
10.The history is outstanding.
Some of the most memorable games in PNC Park's history have come with the Indians as visitors, notably these three:
• June 17, 2001: Scoreless in the bottom of the ninth on a sparkling Sunday afternoon, Aramis Ramirez doubled, and Brian Giles scored from first, barely beating the throw home to end it. The capacity crowd went wild, with celebrations spilling into the streets of Downtown into that night, with Giles calling the atmosphere "like playing a soccer game in Italy."
• June 20-21, 2003: Randall Simon's home run in the 15th inning beat Cleveland, 5-4, the first night, and Abraham Nunez scored on a wild pitch in the 15th inning to beat Cleveland, 7-6, the next.
Shortstop Jack Wilson played in most of those 30 innings.
"Just awesome," he recalled. "And that's back when the Indians were in first place, and there we were beating them and having fun in front of huge crowds."
9.The Cleveland model.
• Game: Pirates vs. Cleveland Indians, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park..
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (2-7, 5.08) vs. LHP David Huff (2-2, 7.09).
• Key matchup: Pittsburgh fans vs. Cleveland fans. In either venue, this meeting tends to draw a vocal percentage of visitors.
• Of note: The Indians' bullpen has blown an astounding 13 of 25 save opportunities, most in Major League Baseball, and the team as a whole has lost 16 games in which it led. Closer Kerry Wood is 8 of 12 in save opportunities.
It might be hard for Pittsburghers to swallow the idea of using Cleveland as a model, but the Pirates openly acknowledge that the Indians, under general manager Mark Shapiro, have built an overall system that is worthy of emulating. In that way and others, the franchises almost behave like separated twins.
There is another reason: Pirates general manager Neal Huntington served under Shapiro before taking his current post, and the two remain in frequent contact.
A big deal for either?
"I have a lot of respect for Neal," Shapiro said. "But business is business."
"Certainly, I will always be appreciative to Mark and many others with the Indians," Huntington said. "While I still have many friends and pull for them to be successful, I don't have any different sense going into this series than I've had in any other series."
8.Couple of talents.
The Indians have been an immense disappointment, 29-42, 10 games out in the American League's Central Division and losers of six in a row, miles removed from the megastar days of Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Albert Belle.
But they do have some talent: Victor Martinez, the slugging catcher, is batting .330 with 12 home runs and 53 RBIs. And Cliff Lee, the Cy Young Award winner last year, has a 2.92 ERA currently and will start the series finale Thursday.
This has nothing to do with the Indians being in town, but McCutchen has electrified every place he has played as a fledgling rookie. Trouble is, only four of his first 17 games have been at PNC Park.
Maybe this connects things: Could this center fielder end up better than Cleveland's injured but ultra-gifted Grady Sizemore?
What is rarer in the world of professional sports than relevant baseball in Pittsburgh?
One easily could argue that, if one exempts the various games against Cleveland over the years, the Pirates have not played a game perceived by the public as meaningful on city soil since Sept. 22, 1997, the home finale after which they trailed first-place Houston by 3 1/2 games with five remaining.
The Astros took that title, and the Pirates have not sniffed contention since.
5.An interleague underdog.
Maybe there is something rarer than the above: The Pirates will face an interleague opponent that has a worse record, this season and in recent interleague play.
Cleveland is 26-42 against the National League in the past five years, even as the American League as a whole has dominated play.
No one has a worse interleague record than their 67-108, including 4-5 this summer.
4.A plea to make it annual.
The men running the Pirates, from Kevin McClatchy to Frank Coonelly, have pushed for years to get Major League Baseball to permanently install Cleveland as their interleague natural rival, the same way it accommodates the twin teams in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Partly because the Indians have not pushed this at all -- they like the Cincinnati Reds in that role -- the proposal never has gone far.
This year, the Pirates and Indians are meeting solely because interleague play matches up the two Central divisions.
"I am continuing to press the issue," Coonelly said.
A competitive, entertaining and well-attended series surely will not hurt.
3.The players love the crowds.
Odd but true: The Pirates are 8-1 this season when playing in front of crowds of 20,000 or larger at PNC Park. The lone exception was a 4-1 loss to Houston in the second home game.
The three times the crowds have topped 30,000, the Pirates are 3-0 and have outscored opponents, 23-7.
"I think this will be special in the sense that the fans will be into it, like it was when we played the Yankees last year," manager John Russell said. "For us, preparing will be the same. But sure, it will feel different once you take the field."
2.A chance to crow.
Sitting next to a Clevelander any of the next few nights?
Mention the No. 11.
As in, the number of consecutive victories for the Steelers against the Browns.
As in, the number of championships Pittsburgh has won -- six Super Bowls, three Stanley Cups and two World Series -- since Cleveland's most recent in... hang on, wait until we dig through the archives... 1964. That was the Browns' last NFL title.