Season ends, but Pirates' revival just beginning
Bucs take pride in returning to playoffs, bringing back core that ignited city
ST. LOUIS -- As is his custom, Clint Hurdle began having exit interviews with his Pirates in mid-September.
It is a source of Hurdle's greatest pride that the players delayed their actual exit for a month, until they were collectively shown the door after a 6-1 loss to the Cardinals on Wednesday in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
"We can't let this one game define our year," said Andrew McCutchen, who has a very good chance to come away from it with the NL Most Valuable Player Award. "Because we had an amazing year, a year to remember, a year that is going to go down forever as the one that turned around the franchise."
So Wednesday night hurt. Thursday will come with pain, too. There is actually pleasure in that, because it is the pain of privilege.
"It ended too soon," noted general manager Neal Huntington, "but yes, we earned the right to feel this pain."
And it comes with a bookmark. Managers of all postseason losers tell their teams the same thing. And now Hurdle was able to tell his players: "Don't forget this feeling. Come back next year and build on it."
Beyond the immediate murk, the horizon is bright for a team that won 94 games and won over a city that spent the summer dreading, and the autumn raising Jolly Rogers higher and blacker than ever before.
After all, this is the team that changed the definition of Bucs baseball.
"It's good knowing that we are the team that made the change in this franchise, not the team that lost again," McCutchen said. "We're the team that won. We can take a lot of pride in that; we were that team, we can hold our heads high. We should all remember that we are that team. It means a lot to me. This only feels like a beginning for us.
"It will be good for us. We didn't end up where we wanted to end up -- but a lot of teams didn't end up where we did. We've come a long way. We opened the eyes of a lot of people, not just in Pittsburgh but around the country. It's definitely just our beginning."
"We were able to take a huge step forward in restoring the pride and the passion of the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization, and rebonding our city with a ball team," Hurdle said. "It was evident during the [NL] Wild Card Game and through the playoffs ... the hunger and the passion that our fans have for their local team.
"So as I shared with the men in the locker room, their futures individually and collectively are in good hands. All they've got to do is look at the end of their arms, because that's where their hands are. They've worked their backsides off this year, and I'm proud of each and every one of them."
"Everybody is going to decompress a little bit," said Gerrit Cole, the rookie pitcher who took the loss in 2013's final game, but who also personifies the future, "then I'm sure everybody's going to get excited about showing up for Spring Training and getting after it, and just keep getting better. We'll all be homing at the bits to do that."
Not everybody, because not everybody in that clubhouse will be back. Certain of returning is the core of the team, and even a bitterly disappointed Neil Walker was able to look ahead after his personally difficult (0-for-19) NLDS.
"We certainly did not reach our goals," Walker said, "but we came pretty darn close. We exceeded a lot of expectations, but we believed in ourselves and what we were doing. So there's a lot of good things to look forward to in 2014."
Some of the team's veteran players will be in limbo. Others are more certain of never again wearing a Pirates uniform, and for them, the end was tougher to take.
"It's tough to talk about the postseason being over," said Clint Barmes, tears welling in the corners of his eyes, "because we definitely had the talent to go deeper into October and compete for a ring.
"But this team," added Barmes, who likely will bequeath his shortstop position to Jordy Mercer and try to find a regular role elsewhere, "is going to be something to watch in the years ahead. There is so much talent here. They'll be exciting."
"We are gaining so much experience on so many different levels. We are becoming tougher," Hurdle said. "These are lessons that will be put in play for years after this for these men as well. So I like the way they're showing up with a business mindset about going about it."
"This was one of our stepping-stones," McCutchen said, "and we have to take it in a positive manner. If you haven't failed, you haven't lived."
They lived it up in 2013. In '14, they will light it up again.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.