Gene Collier: The torch is passed; let it be full of hope

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You can search all the usual crime scenes in the seedy psychological world that is sub-mediocrity baseball for one, final, oddly emblematic detail from this misbegotten Pirates season, but you probably are going to wind up looking in the wrong place.

You can note with emphasis, perhaps, that, in their final appearance of 2012, the Pirates struck out another 11 times, lifting their season total to a mind-bending 1,354, which comes to more than eight strikeouts every time they drew the lines on the field.

You can prod Pirates manager Clint Hurdle one last time about how he plans to get professional hitters, uh, batters, from making the same correctable mistakes again and again and again and again, as though they are petrified to do things any other way.

"Great question; one way to get a guy's attention, unfortunately, is with the lineup," Hurdle was saying long before a desultory 83rd loss that neither his club nor the postseason-bound Atlanta Braves seemed to have any interest in. "The results are the results, but what we really have to take into account is the effort that goes into the result. In a situation where you're trying to move a runner, is there effort and focus on moving the runner or is there just a swing early in the count to the pull side of the field?"

Again Wednesday, the manager would question neither his club's sense of urgency nor its attitude while it went about losing 36 of the final 52 games.

That its manager thinks this is a club "headed in the right direction," well, that's a case that can be built and effectively presented only to a sympathetic jury, but the last detail of 2012 isn't going to be found in any of those relevant arguments either.

For the last detail, I'll put 20,615, which was the paid attendance Wednesday, representing the final assemblage of known sympathizers this season. Two sat in the extreme upper reaches of PNC Park as the baseball season evaporated into nothing around here for the 20th consecutive summer. One was a man in a TABATA jersey, the other a boy of no more than 4. In the final inning break of 2012, the man posed the little boy with one of those little wooden bats, a black one, and took his picture -- a little boy with a little bat in a little cap and a smile as glorious as the approaching sunset.

That'll be the last detail, OK?

Because no matter what happens around here, the game still gets passed from one generation to the next, which is how the game generates its least empirical but most indispensable by-product: Hope.

The passing of that torch isn't always formal, isn't always smooth.

The transition is rarely accompanied by the commanding voice of James Earl Jones, explaining plaintively in "Field of Dreams," "The one constant through all the years ... has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again."

As I sat with my elder son through the final innings Wednesday, I remembered the early parts of our own generational transition.

This was at Three Rivers Stadium, circa 1990; there was a meeting on the mound. Just as Jim Leyland reached the hill, my then 5-year old son asked me what they were talking about.

"Probably about whether they want to walk this batter," I said.

"You mean, walk him on purpose?" he said.


"Why would they do that?"

"Because," I said as something began to dawn on me, "you can make it easier for the fielders to make outs if there are runners on every base, and a walk would load the bases right now."

"Then why wouldn't they walk him?" he said.

"Well," I said, recognizing that this was my transitional moment, the point at which I would start to explain the game to my son, as my father (and mother and aunts and uncles) had to me, as his father to him, "the next hitter is pretty dangerous, and say he doubles. You'll end up allowing three runs instead of two, so you've got to think about it a little."

"One more question," he said.

"Yes," I said, very nearly getting emotional.

"Do you think more people die with their eyes open or closed."

So, yes, it goes in fits and starts.

But there we were Wednesday, me with my sloppily indifferent scorecard and him with his 20-to-30 Pirates games a year habit, a baseball loyalist who'll be 28 before the next spring training arrives. I've passed baseball to him and his brother, but it's Pirates baseball. The Pirates baseball of Generation Lost.

Does that count?

Depends on the hope factor.

"I could have seen an 80th win today," he said. "There have only been five 80-win seasons in my lifetime, so that's something. I've seen power hitting this year like I've never seen here. I've seen a starting pitcher with 16 or 17 wins.

"They've done almost exactly what I expected; they've just done it in a very weird way -- all of the winning, then all of the losing."

That sounded vaguely hopeful.

As ever, that will do.


Gene Collier:


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