An ode to the 2011 Pirates

By Joe Smeltzer

2021 would have marked the 50th anniversary of the 1971 World Series champions. Alas, it doesn’t look like there will be a celebratory reunion this summer.

“Postponed” wouldn’t be a fair word to use since there never was a tentative date scheduled for the likes of Steve Blass, Manny Sanguillien and Richie Hebner to put on knockoff versions of their double-knit uniforms and wave to a rare sellout PNC Park crowd. Still, since there were reunions in 2011 and 2001, it’d probably be fair to assume that 2021 would have followed suit if not for do-I-have-to spell-it-out-?-19. 

The last time the Pirates celebrated their fourth World Championship squad fell in the middle of one of the best summers of my young life and one of my favorite baseball seasons, too. 

The 40th-anniversary reunion took place June 22, 2011 before a Tuesday night game that fittingly pitted the Pirates against their ’71 series opponents, the Baltimore Orioles. Both teams were then, as they are now, a far cry from what they were when Nixon was president.

 13-year-old me wasn’t at the game but 23-year-old me remembers the night well. 

I remember that the game took place during my first of two Jimmy Buffett concerts. I remember that the Pirates won, and I remember that James McDonald was the starting pitcher. I confess that I had to look up the score (9-3) along with the Pirates’ overall record at night’s end (36-37).

Those who followed that Pirates team knew what a big deal 36-37 was, and that’s why the boys of ’11 were and still are unique, at least to me.

They won’t be having reuniting this summer, and we can’t blame that on a once-in-a-century health catastrophe. The ’11 Pirates finished 72-90 and lost 46 of their last 67 games for a record-extending 19th consecutive losing season. 

Yet, of the teams that I’ve been alive for, they are one of my favorites.

Maybe I’m overselling. The Pirates played over their heads for half of the season, poorly for the other half and finished with a bad record. It happens in baseball all the time, so what’s the big deal?

When the Fourth of July came, the Pirates were in contention, and for kids my age, that was a big deal. 

The Pirates had one of their worst teams ever in 2010. The team’s hope for better luck the next year lied in the “core four” of Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez. Before the season, a 72-90 prediction would have generous and only possible if all four of those players made an impact. 

But Tabata only played in 91 games and posted just OK numbers. Walker regressed from the year before. McCutchen was an All-Star but not yet a superstar. Alvarez was hurt for 88 games and unproductive for the 74 he did play in.

Yet, for a little more than 100 games, the Pirates were there in a heated NL Central race with Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee. 

And it happened because of a pitching staff that was supposed to be nauseating. 

Kevin Correia was supposed to be a run-of-the-mill free agent signing, having posted a luscious 5.40 ERA with San Diego the year before. In 2011, he led baseball in wins for a while and made the All-Star team. 

Paul Maholm and Jeff Karstens combined to go 12-25 in 2010. In 2011, they pitched like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale for a few months. Well, not entirely, but they were still pretty good, and Karstens ranked among baseball’s ERA leaders with a 2.28 mark at one point in late July. 

Elsewhere, Joel Hanrahan came into his own as one of the game’s best closers, and a little rookie named Josh Harrison endeared himself to the city with his hard-nosed style of play.

Boy, was it fun? 

Here are some memories:

  • McCutchen’s walk-off home run against the Diamondbacks June 8 which moved the team to 30-30 for the first time since 2005.
  • An electric series with the Phillies at PNC Park in which the Pirates took two of three before consecutive sellout crowds.
  • Doing the same against the Red Sox three weeks later.
  • Karstens’ 83-pitch “Maddux” complete-game shutout against the Astros July 15.
  • Michael McKenry’s game-winning eighth-inning three-run homer off Cubs’ reliever Carlos Marmol the week before.
  • Beating the Reds after prolonged Rain Delay to move into sole possession of first place just before midnight July 28.  
  • Jerry Meal… we’ll stop here. 

My favorite memory of the season, however, happened in a game the Pirates lost. Friday night, July 23 against St. Louis.

PNC Park was packed. Not because it was a weekend and not because of any promotion, but because the Pirates were 2 and 1/2 games back of first place and playing against a team that was quickly becoming a division rival.

The Cardinals scored four runs in the first inning, Albert Pujols went 4-for-5, the Pirates lost and soon everything went to pieces. I cherish this night, however, because it showed the Pirates mattered. Two years later, they’d matter in October, but in 2011, being relevant in July was pretty sweet.

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