As this is the maiden voyage for the S.S. Geek in 2013, let’s start with a game. Consider this my warmup pitch.
Can you name all the Pittsburgh Pirates Opening Day lineups since 1991?
Seriously. You have 15 minutes to punch in 198 answers. Some surnames will count six or more times but if you get even half of them right you’ll be better than most.
I’m among the few, the proud, the sadly obsessive able to name Mike Kingery. (Sorry for that spoiler, the first of many, but only 14 percent of the 20,000-plus who have taken this quiz at sporcle.com have correctly named Kingery as the Pirates’ leadoff hitter in 1996.) Why do I remember this light-hitting journeyman who closed out his career sharing center field with the likes of Jermaine Allensworth and Midre Cummings? I dare not say. Why this game has been played 20,000 times is even more of a mystery. But perhaps you have a loose synapse that contains an equally obscure Bucco.
If so, here’s the game.
What struck me in playing was just how underwhelming most of these 22 opening-day lineups have been. (More spoilers ahead, so play the game now if you’re going to play.) The lineups began well, of course. In 1991, the team was so strong it batted Barry Bonds fifth:
Gary Redus 1B, Jay Bell SS, Andy Van Slyke CF, Bobby Bonilla RF, Barry Bonds LF, Jeff King 3B, Mike LaValliere C, Jose Lind 2B, Doug Drabek P.
Rookie Orlando Merced would later take over first base and the leadoff spot, but Bonds would bat fifth all year. The Pirates led the National League in runs scored that year and the next as they won divisional titles.
Trying to pick a strong opening day lineup from the 20 years after 1992 is hard, though. Batting orders that lead off with names such as “Adrian Brown’’ or “Aki Iwamura’’ are antidotes for nostalgia. Four times, the Pirates finished last in the NL runs and three times finished next to last. Only twice did they even finish in the upper half.
The best batting order, I thought, was the 2003 list. Most of the top six could hit:
Kenny Lofton CF, Jason Kendall C, Brian Giles LF, Aramis Ramirez 3B, Randall Simon 1B, Reggie Sanders RF, Pokey Reese 2B, Jack Wilson SS, Kris Benson P.
Three of those six — Lofton, Ramirez and Simon — would be traded to the Cubs in a great summer giveaway that is remembered fondly in Chicago and nowhere else. Even with their exit, the Pirates finished seventh in the NL in runs, their second best finish since 1993.
(Anyone who can pick the late ‘90s team that finished third in runs is a better geek than I. The opening-day lineup certainly shouldn’t provide much of a clue.)
So why am I kicking around these Slumber Companies, names best left to the dustbin of baseball history? Because I’m here to praise Pirates fans, the most loyal on God’s playing field. You’re back again for another spring, awaiting an opening-day lineup that might look like this:
Starling Marte LF, Neil Walker 2B, Andrew McCutchen CF, Garrett Jones RF, Pedro Alvarez 3B, Travis Snider RF, Russell Martin C, Clint Barmes SS, A.J. Burnett P.
The Pirates have a leadoff hitter who has difficulty reaching first base (.300 on-base average in his rookie season), a power-hitting third baseman who can’t seem to hit in the cleanup spot, a right fielder who had one home run in 128 AB for the Pirates last season, and a catcher who’s an offensive upgrade because he hit .211/.311/.403 last year.
It’s not exactly 1991 or even 2003, but it’s spring training and anything is still possible. I can envision that lineup getting hot, but it’s filled with ifs. General Manager Neal Huntington had his eye on this season as much as last when he picked up Snider and Gaby Sanchez at the trade deadline. They weren’t any help in the pennant race but they’ll have a fresh start along with everyone else.
So where do you think the Pirates will finish in runs scored this year? And, for those who played the game, where would you rank this year’s lineup among those of the past 20 seasons?
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