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Buck up, Bostonians

September 26, 2011

“I never seen you looking so bad my funky one
You tell me that your superfine mind has come undone.”
– Steely Dan, “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”

You may have heard that the Boston Red Sox led the American League Wild Card by nine games at the start of September, and are now tied with the Tampa Bay Rays. That much is true – and any major Red Sox fan will tell you.

Crawford Heilman Heyward

The 2011 Red Sox and Braves are steamrolling towards a 2007 Mets-like fate.

You may have also heard that the team that used to be from Boston, the Atlanta Braves, led the National League Wild Card by 10.5 games in late August, and now only lead by one. That much is also true, but there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much panic surrounding this collapse as the one up in Beantown. Maybe it’s because I’m not friends with too many (any?) Braves fans; maybe it’s just because Bostonians have such high expectations for their team every year that they don’t know what to do with themselves.

I will grant Red Sox fans that they rightfully expected a lot from this year’s team. Signing Carl Crawford and trading for Adrian Gonzalez while the Yankees merely resigned Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter. Oh, and I guess they got Rafael Soriano, too. Early season woes prompted premature cries of “woe is me” from Boston fans; then the team started to play like it oughta and that bandwagon was up and barreling through New England once more. Then there came the late season woes, in which the Sox have gone all of 6-19 in the month of September.

Well, pony up, Sox fans, because it’s time to start rooting for your team again.

“Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you, my friend,
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again.
When the demon is at your door,
In the morning it won’t be there no more.”
(Addendum: It might still be there. But you’ve gotta hope it’s not.)

Welcome to the life of a 2007 Mets fan, my Boston friends. There are still two games left in the season for you to right your ship and allow us to keep the title of the greatest collapse in baseball history; though I can guarantee you that no matter what happens, that ’07 Metspocalypse will forever hold the title for most devastating.

To refresh your memory, after a heartbreaking 2006 NLCS, the 2007 Mets were leading the division – not the Wild Card, the division – by 7.5 games with 17 to play. The Mets fell into a tie with Philadelphia going into the season’s last three games, and after losing game one to the Marlins to fall a game out of first, there was little reason to be optimistic.

But then I realized that there was no point being down in the dumps about it: after all, Mets fans were pretty down in the dumps about things through the first five outs of the tenth inning in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Remember, Sox fans?

So I cheered. I got psyched. Blasting “Livin’ on a Prayer,” “The Final Countdown” and every other eighties pump-up tune you could think of, I listened as John Maine threw 7.2 innings of no-hit ball, striking out 14 as the Mets won 14-0 to get right back into a tie with the Marlins.

Then I did it again and Tom Glavine… Well, let’s just say I can never again listen to “Sweet Child o’ Mine.”

But I digress. That penultimate game was magical, and Bostonians, you’d better start hoping for some of that midseason magic that carried the Sox this far. Take it from us Mets fans – watching a defeated team is no fun. You’d better hope Terry Francona’s firing that team up, and you’d better get fired up too. The Red Sox are still a very good team, and if they can get through the end of the season with a playoff berth in tow, then who knows that that rejuvenation could provide for the postseason?

But if you spend the next two days like you’ve spent the last fortnight, brooding, moping, whining and crying, “the Sox don’t even deserve to make the playoffs anymore,” then what’ll you do? It’s a lot more fun to get excited, and if you’re a true fan, you will get excited. The Red Sox are 89-71. The Rays are 89-71. This ain’t the ’08 Super Bowl – there are two games left. Even if you lose one of ’em, there’s still a chance.

“I can tell you all I know, the where to go, the what to do.
You can try to run but you can’t hide from what’s inside of you.”

Don’t be bandwagon buffoons. Don’t just tell me, “well, at least it’s football season now! Go Pats!” Either support your team or don’t, no matter how much they test you. Get excited. Sure, that means getting all the more devastated if things don’t work out. But if they do, then you can be that much prouder that you stuck by your team till the end. You’re a real fan either way.

Buck up, Bostonians. Show me something.


The Cutoff Man: A sad direction for Major League Baseball

April 25, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 4/25/2011:

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Tammi Wilson Stadium for the Opening Day 2020 matchup between the Pittsburgh Pirates and your Milwaukee Brewers! Here now to throw the first pitch is Tammi Wilson herself, winner of’s Twitter sweepstakes to rename the ballpark and start as pitcher for the team of her choice! Let’s hear a big round of applause for Tammi and her winning tweet: “I luv da #Brewers nd I wud luv to kiss Ryan Braun hes such a qtie! #MLBSWEEPS2020”

Perhaps things won’t be this drastic, and perhaps it’ll be closer to 2025 than 2020. But regardless, Major League Baseball has amped up its marketing throughout the past decade, especially in the past five or so years, and the results have not always been positive. Sure, there’s been a positive overall response; but loyal baseball fans loved the game long before existed, and “giving the fans what they want” has quickly become “giving the fans what they didn’t know they wanted until it was advertised as a real option.”

It’s not just the folks in the MLB marketing department who are doing this. Recently, reporters and announcers have started to view things from the perspective of a fan, rather than a neutral party paid to portray the game in the most informative way possible.

For example, Saturday’s White Sox-Tigers game saw a tough play end Brad Penny’s no-hit bid. Chicago’s Brent Morel hit a sharp grounder down the line that Detroit third baseman Brandon Inge made a terrific effort getting to and fielding cleanly, but his long throw pulled first baseman Miguel Cabrera off the bag and Morel was safe. The Tigers’ radio announcers immediately opined that the ball was a hit — and it certainly was, given that a less-gifted third baseman wouldn’t have reached the ball to begin with.

However, rather than confirm what would end up being the right call, Thom Brennaman and Mark Grace — announcers for FOX’s broadcast of the game — spent time offering reasons for the play to be ruled an error in order to preserve the no-hitter.

“And they ruled it a hit,” Brennaman said, sounding incredulous, upon seeing the ruling.

“Much to the chagrin of Tiger fans,” Grace agreed. “They wanted to see some history!”

Well, of course they did, but that doesn’t mean it was the wrong call. That’s why the official scorer is one of my favorite people in the ballpark. He’s the most neutral guy there can be, going strictly by the book and not by favoritism of any kind, no matter how cool a no-hitter would be.

Maybe in 2020, Tammi wouldn’t get to choose the ballpark to rename and the team to start for — she’d just get to do it for the All-Star Game. That seems a bit more, um, realistic. In fact, All-Star balloting began on April 19 last year, so perhaps it hasn’t started yet this year because MLB.comhas a big surprise up its virtual sleeve that’ll blow fans’ minds. Something crazy and super-awesome that will not only wow current fans, but bring in those new fans in droves.

What new fans?

Sure, baseball garners new fans every day, but I doubt those fans notice baseball because they can vote 25 times for the All-Star teams or because there’s a chance to throw out a first pitch at a ballgame. Maybe if that one person who wins that sweepstakes wasn’t a fan already, he or she would take a closer look at the game, but would those who didn’t win care at all? Probably not.

The integration of blogging and commenting into has done some good to promote fans’ involvement and opinions. But while 5 to 10 percent of these comments and blogs are well-informed and well-thought-out, the other 90 to 95 percent just provide an outlet for bandwagoners and other such “fans” to let their uninformed thoughts fly into the public eye like YouTube comments.

Bad for baseball? Yes. Fans are a very important part of the game, but almost all fans have a team that they root for, and more than promotions or the public acknowledgment of their opinions, the thing that keeps them coming back is good, winning baseball. Hopefully, for the good of the game, Major League Baseball will not expand replay further than its current use for home run calls.

That said, if it does, one of commissioner Bud Selig’s reasons had better not be, “We want to make sure we are providing the best baseball experience for the fans.”

The Cutoff Man: Searching for positives

April 18, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 4/18/2011:

“Managers are hired to be fired.” —Whitey Herzog

While Herzog’s quote is true in eventuality, a more succinct one would read: “Managers are scapegoats.”

Opening Day 2011 saw many teams entering the season with either a brand-new skipper or one in his first full season with the team, but the most important examples right now are Buck Showalter, Clint Hurdle, and Terry Collins. Showalter took over the Baltimore Orioles last August and provided just the spark and strategy that Dave Trembley most definitely had not for the majority of the year. Showalter managed to lead the team to more wins in the season’s final two months (34) than it had had in the first four (32). The Orioles’ late-season success seemed to spill over into 2011, when the club started off 6–1, but a five-game losing streak entering the weekend has provided the team’s first true adversity under Showalter’s guidance.

Showalter’s success at the end of last season afforded the Pittsburgh Pirates the opportunity to overtake them as the worst team in baseball —and they took full advantage of it. In an eerie (read: sad) coincidence, the Bucs finished last season with 57 wins and 105 losses, or the number of games the Orioles played under Showalter and Trembley, respectively. Following the season, the Pirates did what any team would do: they fired their manager. The saying goes that you fire the manager because you can’t fire the team; in this case, the Pirates fired their manager because they couldn’t fire their owner and couldn’t undo the damage done by former general manager Dave Littlefield.

So, instead, the blame for the Pirates’ 18th straight losing season, with the team’s lowest win total since the strike-shortened 1994 season and lowest overall winning percentage since 1954, fell on manager John Russell, who in all fairness did not get the most out of the talent he had to work with. New manager Clint Hurdle certainly has his work cut out for him, and after starting off the year with a record hovering around the .500 mark, it’s easy to find positives in Hurdle’s young first season in Pittsburgh. The team has been playing better overall baseball than it did at any point last year and has shown resilience and moderate consistency that has not been seen in a long while. That said, it’s always easy to find positives in a team that would easily win Hurdle a Manager of the Year award merely with a non-losing season.

Then there is Collins, hired to take over a talented but dismal New York Mets team that, after being haunted by collapses, failed to even give their fans hope each of the past two years. Collins was brought in after the Mets fired former manager Jerry Manuel, who was brought in after they fired Willie Randolph, who certainly found far more success in his Mets tenure than his successor or his predecessor, the awful Art Howe. Manuel was frequently berated by fans and media for a lack of fire, which had been Randolph’s issue as well, and Collins brought with him a history of almost too much fire.

The Mets also tried to buck Herzog’s old adage by firing their team — or, at least, the two most expensively unproductive members, Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo. Unfortunately, after an encouraging Spring Training and a decent 3–1 start to the year, the Mets have punched their fans and Collins in the stomach night after night, consistently taking leads and then blowing games day in and day out.

For a team with the Mets’ payroll and expectations, it’s tough to find positives in their season so far. Perhaps Jose Reyes, who has been on a tear, or recovering former star pitchers Chris Young and Chris Capuano, each experiencing some success in their first two starts, can provide that silver lining, but beyond that, the only consistency that the team has shown is its ability to disappoint without fail. For Mets fans, front office members, coaches, players, and manager alike, the only way to find positives in this season, and in Collins’ ability to manage, is to actually have success — pure, unadulterated success — and starting off the year 4–9 is not the way to do it.

The season is still young, though, and fans must remember that the World Champion 1969 Mets began the year 6–11 and were five games under .500 at multiple points early in the season. The team is one 11-game winning streak away from great success.

But there are no guarantees, and if this keeps up for another year, it looks like the front office will be plum out of time to find positives in Collins, and firing the team will once again not be an option.

The Cutoff Man: Jumping off the bandwagon redux

April 11, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 4/11/2011:

Three hundred and sixty-four days ago, I wrote an article titled “Jumping off the bandwagon,” in which I urged fans to not look to their teams’ early success as a preview for a record-setting, or even successful, season.

What I failed to mention, though, was that fans need not (and should not) read into negative starts to the season either.

There has been a whirlwind of emotions throughout the first full week of baseball. Aside from Manny Ramirez’s “you can’t fire me, I quit” retirement on Friday, many baseball fans have had their focus on the early season struggles of the Red Sox, a.k.a. the “winners” of the offseason (no Sheen intended).

The Red Sox, who traded for Adrian Gonzalez and signed Carl Crawford this winter, went 0–6 to begin the season, mainly due to an offense that appears to still be in hibernation mode. Fans definitely took some solace in the team’s first win coming against the Yankees.

It doesn’t help that Sox fans are calling for Crawford’s head after he went four-for-23 during his team’s inaugural road trip — and while Adrian has done just fine, he’s only got one home run so far. With Sox fans expecting at least 60 with 150 RBI this year, it seems the only choice left is to throw in the towel and wait till next year.

These performances will not help either player’s chances in the All-Star voting that will probably begin next week, but no matter how much that counts, the remaining 153 games in the Red Sox’ schedule count far more. A 1–7 record through eight games might sting, but all it takes is one winning streak to get the team back on the right foot. The Atlanta Braves began 2010 with an 8–14 record before winning the NL wild card five months later, and to a lesser extent, the 1986 Mets began the season 2–3 before not losing another game in April and beating the Sox in the World Series.

Sure, Crawford may have an off year, but he will still contribute and be a part of the team for years to come. The same goes for Adrian, who was made to play in Fenway Park and will no doubt have a very productive season. The chances of every player on the Red Sox having a statistically down year are minuscule, and when the team is clicking on all cylinders, they will be the juggernaut that many expect them to be.

The early woes of the Red Sox have been the identical woes of the Rays and the success of the Orioles. The Rays won the division last year, and although they were depleted over the winter, they should be concerned with their slow start; on the other hand, the Orioles were downright awful until mid-August last year and have been playing like they mean it. Once the Sox and Rays get going, I expect the AL East to be even more of a force to be reckoned with than it was last year.

So don’t worry, fans; there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but there are also 153 games to play until you get there.

The Cutoff Man: Hey Nineteen

April 4, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 4/4/2011:

Way back in ’67, the Pittsburgh Pirates may not have been the dandy of Gamma Chi, but they did do something that the current Pirates haven’t done in, well, quite a while: They finished the season with 81 wins and 81 losses. Imagine that — a .500 record. Given that 1967 came right after a 92–70 season and was sandwiched between a 1960 World Series championship and a 1971 World Series championship, this average season was considered quite a disappointment.

It wouldn’t be this year.

It’s hard times befallen the sole surviving Pirates fans of the past two or so decades. Twenty years ago, Pittsburgh’s hometown team made it all the way to a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to Atlanta in the National League Championship Series. Nineteen years ago, they lost an even more heartbreaking Game 7 to Atlanta in the NLCS. Then the heartbreak just kept on coming until Pirates fans became numb and only those with the toughest hearts could stay true to their team: The subsequent 18 seasons since that devastating 1992 have seen nary a .500 record. Not one.

Hey, Nineteen: You’ve got a tall order in front of you if you want to buck the trend. The Pirates’ 18th straight losing season was their worst in 58 years. Just how bad were the 2010 Pirates? Let’s put it this way: If this year’s team wins up to 23 more games than it did last year, it wouldw still have a losing record. Do the math yourself.

The 2011 Pirates do look improved from their 2010 bunch. Following an offseason that saw the hiring of a new manager and the departure of surprisingly few “key” players (Zach Duke was non-tendered and that was about it), the new Bucs showed some promise during spring training. New first baseman Lyle Overbay tore it up in March and has potential to bring big numbers and veteran leadership to the young Pittsburgh club, and new “top” starter Kevin Correia should, if nothing else, bring stability to a Pirates rotation that has so badly needed it.

Most importantly, though, new manager Clint Hurdle has been doing his best to mold the Pirates’ monster potential into one unit working on all cylinders — and with Andrew McCutchen, James McDonald, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates’ youngsters do pack monster potential. Hurdle may not be Joe Maddon, but he has a history of success with helping young players find themselves and develop into the stars that they can and should be.

This season’s opening series with the Cubs certainly showed some positives, including a grand slam from Walker, a two-run shot from McCutchen and a strong performance from Correia on Opening Day, and a scoreless performance from Paul Maholm on day two. There were also, unfortunately, some negatives. After Maholm left the game, Evan Meek pitched the eighth to protect a Pirates lead, and instead gave up five runs (three earned), aided by an Overbay error that snowballed into a big inning for the Cubs.

But, as Maholm said on Twitter, “Tough one today for the team…. I will hand the ball to those guys every game. It happens.”

A .500 season for the Pirates might be enough to get Hurdle the NL Manager of the Year award. Even though we say this every year, the Pirates do have all the parts to have a highly successful season; even so, that’s more true this year than it has been in recent memory. There is immense talent on the Pirates’ roster, but there is also a lot of youth, and although youth brings energy, it also brings immaturity. Not to mention the fact that the Pirates have the ghost of 2010, the ghost of 2009, the ghost of 2008, the ghosts of all the other seasons since 1993, and the ghost of that heartbreaking 1992 season staring over their shoulders. One day, all will be forgiven.

Hey, Nineteen: You’ve got a lot of potential. But please don’t take us along when you slide on down the standings.

The Cutoff Man: Giving the defense its due

March 28, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 3/28/2011:

Baseball players always talk about hoping to play “meaningful baseball” in September, a term that alludes to being in a pennant race late in the season. This is the only context in which that term is really thrown around. However, in order to be playing meaningful baseball in September, teams must play meaningful baseball through the season’s first five months; and, if a team plays exceptionally well all the way through August, it might be able to put a lot less pressure on the outcomes of those September games.

Even spring training games are meaningful. Important? No, but definitely meaningful, especially for the many teams who still have question marks about their Opening Day rosters. In three days, at 1:05 p.m., the first two games of the regular season will begin, with the Braves and Nationals opening the National League schedule and the Tigers and Yankees christening the American League slate.

That said, in what little time remains before the big show begins, teams like the Mets and Phillies are just some of the teams that don’t even know what their starting lineups will look like come the first game of the season.

The Mets’ and Phillies’ issues both stem from second base. Both teams are still trying to figure out who will be starting at the position come the teams’ openers on Friday. The Phillies can take some comfort in knowing that they do have a star second baseman in Chase Utley, who hopefully can recover from nagging injuries and quell any issues with the position.

The Mets, however, have spent most of spring training waiting for one of their unestablished candidates to distinguish himself as the best option, but none of them have. In fact, the only player in the competition who’d been a regular second baseman at the Major League level was Luis Castillo, whom the Mets released after a beleaguered tenure with the club and who now is competing for the Phillies’ second base job.

For the Phillies, the choice looks to be between the ex-Met Castillo and Wilson Alvarez, another ex-Met who filled in adequately at shortstop last season for the Phillies during Jimmy Rollins’ extended stints on the disabled list. Castillo’s upside is his experience and offense, which has dwindled considerably since his heyday in Florida but could still prove to be consistent enough to be a decent table setter for the big RBI guys in the lineup. Alvarez, purely on account of being younger and having had zero times as many knee problems, no doubt has better range than Castillo, and both can sufficiently turn a double play.

The Mets have somehow been able to whittle the second-base competition down to Daniel Murphy, Brad Emaus, and Luis Hernandez, none of whom has been a regular second baseman at the big-league level. Only Murphy, the best offensive candidate of the bunch, has been a starter, having played regularly at first base for the Mets in 2009. However, Murphy began that season in left field, before his horrendous fielding forced the Mets to make a change.

That said, Murphy hit almost 40 doubles that season and if healthy could provide an offensive boost at the position — however, Murph is still getting acquainted with the position and hasn’t proven anything defensively. Emaus, who may win the job partially due to his Rule 5 status, has proven to be decent both offensively and defensively and could provide the balance and consistency that the Mets so badly need at the position.

Then there is Hernandez. Although his only career highlight came offensively last year, when he broke his foot with a foul ball and then homered on the next pitch, his game is all defense. There is, sadly, a stigma associated with purely defensive players, and they tend to fall by the wayside as teams try to piece together only the best offensive lineup they can.However, a purely defensive player like Hernandez could help shore up an otherwise-stellar defensive infield. The Mets of the late ’90s played with Rey Ordonez at short, a perennial Gold Glover who endeared himself to fans with his spectacular defense no matter how horrible he was at the plate — and boy, was he horrible.

Errors can, and will, be devastating. Castillo proved that to the world when he gave the Yankees a win by dropping a pop-up in the ninth inning. Bill Buckner, a million times more infamously, did it before him. Dewayne Wise, on the other hand, became a White Sox hero when he made a spectacular play to rob a home run and preserve Mark Buehrle’s perfect game.It is a truth universally acknowledged, and subsequently overlooked, that while good pitching and good hitting win ball games, it is good defense that saves them and bad defense that loses them.

The Cutoff Man: Baseball ’n’ Roll

March 21, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 3/21/2011:

Last night, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted its 2011 class. This year’s class included performers Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Tom Waits, Darlene Love, and Alice Cooper.

Although I am a fan of Neil Diamond and think Dr. John and Darlene Love had some good tunes, the term “Hall of Fame” — and the fact that the above five have been grouped together at the same level, regardless of actual talent or ability — seems a little suspect.

Some years it seems that the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum,” should just be called the “Rock and Roll Museum” with the random assortment of performers it inducts each year; one needs to look no further than the 2006 class of inducted performers, which included Black Sabbath, Blondie, Miles Davis, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Sex Pistols. You know what? On second thought, let’s just go with the “Music Museum,” because as much as Miles Davis was an excellent musician and a musical genius, he neither rocked nor rolled; that’s why we called it “jazz.”

According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum website’s Induction Process page, “Criteria include the influence and significance of the artists’ contributions to rock and roll.” Though I’m already doubtful that the “five to seven performers” that have been inducted every year for the past 25 years have all contributed to the development and perpetuation of the genre and its subgenres, these criteria sound strikingly similar to the criteria for an artist to get his or her work into an art museum — and you don’t see the Metropolitan amending its title to the “Metropolitan Hall of Fame and Museum of Art.”

The biggest reason that it seems like anyone who’s recorded a Top 40 single will get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is explained on the museum’s website. “Ballots are then sent to an international voting body of more than 500 rock experts,” the site reads. “Those performers who receive the highest number of votes — and more than 50 percent of the vote — are inducted.”

In order to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a player must receive at least 75 percent support on the ballots cast. This has proven a very stringent process, as unlike with the music museum, there are some baseball greats whom many believe belong in the Hall that still have not found their way to Cooperstown. On the other hand, 50 percent on more than 500 ballots leaves an awful lot of opportunity to get inducted, which is why I expect that in 25 years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of performers will include Smashmouth, Toby Keith, Green Day, Taylor Swift, Slipknot, Nas, and the cast of Glee.

That said, music has long been an integral part of baseball. Whether it’s a bugle getting the fans to cheer “CHARGE!” or a player’s trademark walk-up tune, music is constantly heard at baseball games. The most significant marriage between baseball and music, of course, happens during the seventh-inning stretch of every game, when fans of all teams unite to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Most stadiums nowadays have their own musical traditions as well that play an even greater part in showing fans’ true spirit in support of the home team. At Citi Field, as soon as “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is over, Mets fans join together in singing along to Lou Monte’s “Lazy Mary.” Yankee Stadium is known for playing the Village People’s “YMCA” as the groundskeepers sweep the infield dirt — and for the Bleacher Creatures’ blue-altered lyrics to the song. But without a doubt, the most well-known and powerful musical tradition among fans is at Fenway Park in Boston, thanks to 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Neil Diamond.

Diamond has had many hit singles of his own, and has even written a few hits for others, including “I’m A Believer” for The Monkees. But it is Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” that joins Red Sox fans together in a rousing chorus in Fenway Park’s intimate atmosphere that seems to echo all throughout New England. Even if, for some reason, a fan doesn’t know the written lyrics to the song, he can still join in on the unwritten lyrics — the intermittent belting of “oh, oh, oh!” during the chorus of the song. With fans so tightly united, both in song and in support of the Sox, it feels as if there is a greater force pushing the home team to victory, even when the cards are stacked completely against them.

While there are some members of the music museum whose tunes I’d prefer not to see incorporated into the game, musical traditions will continue to make the games that much more fun and entertaining — even the fan karaoke at PNC Park.

That said, Pirates, you really need to stop playing The Police’s “I Can’t Stand Losing” after the Pirates lose — you know that song’s about suicide, right?