The Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates are not the Corsican Brothers, but the two organizations can sure feel each other’s pain. And it seems fitting that both teams would start out the 2014 season against each other, with the Pirates winning the Season Opener 1-0 Monday.
A more-than-capacity crowd of 39,833 fan packed PNC Park (seating capacity: 38,496) to see the Pirates win their first home opener on a walkoff home run since Bob Bailey’s home run in 1965 off San Francisco pitcher Juan Marichal.
Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija pitched like the Ace he hopes the rest of the baseball world thinks he is come contract time by scattering five hits across seven innings, issuing two walks and recording three strikeouts. Samardzija was also part of a disputed called out at first base that was ruled in favor of the Pirates.
Winning pitcher Bryan Morris recorded one strikeout while pitching the 10th inning.
It’s apropos that the Cubs and Pirates should square off in this battle of two teams with woeful histories. However, it’s the big-market Cubs who are hoping to steal a page from the small-market Pirates in 2014.
Losing is the one thing that has united the National League East squads for decades. For the Pirates, the 2013 season was their first winning season (94-68) since 1992, when Barry Bonds carried the team to three consecutive NL Championship Series. That was the last season that the Pirates had Barry Bonds on its roster and for the next 20 years the team languished in the NL East basement.
Likewise, the Cubs know just about everything about losing. While Chicago has made the playoffs four times since 1992, the team has been mired in a Pirates-like stretch of losing the past several years. With 96 loses last season and 101 losses in 2012, the Cubs have recorded 197 loses the past two seasons, the worst two-year span in Cubs’ history. For a team that goes back more than 130 season, that’s quite the historic (under)achievement.
In 2014, the shoe is on the other foot. The Cubs’ losing is now 198 games bridging three seasons after Monday's loss. The team is in the third season of the Theo Epstein reign. Epstein was able to turn the Boston Red Sox organization around, helping them win two World Series championships after 86 years of never winning the title. He surely learned how to turn an organization around in Boston, but for now his Cubs are hoping to stay within striking distance of the traditionally horrible Pirates.
While fans hope Epstein brings his flair to Chicago, the reality is that he may want to start taking notes on the Pirates. Pittsburgh has six of the Top 100 minor league prospects as ranked by Baseball America including two in the top 25 (No. 10 OF Gregory Polanco, No.22 RHP Jameson Taillon). The team also boasts the reigning NL MVP in center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who led the team to the playoffs.
Epstein has a plan. He’s reduced payroll and stocked the minor leagues with talent. But potential players in the minors won’t help the Cubs win more games until (and only if) they reach the big leagues.
In our next column, we’ll take a closer look at Epstein and see why Cubs fans should be excited about the future. And why Philip K. Wrigley, the former owner, is laughing in his grave.
Scott Rowan is a former newspaper journalist and author of the new book “The Cubs Quotient: How the Chicago Cubs Changed the World” (Sherpa Multimedia, 2014).