Through almost a generation of losing baseball, Pittsburgh Pirates fans had a lot of moments that served to discourage and infuriate even the most loyal and diehard fans. Yet through last season, there wasn’t that one moment since 1993 that served as a defining moment of demoralization.
Then as an innocent Tuesday night game at Turner Field in Atlanta became an early Wednesday morning marathon, that moment arrived in the form of Julio Lugo being tagged out by Mike McKenry in the 19th inning.
Home plate umpire Jerry Meals didn’t see it that way. Just minutes before the clock was set to strike 2 a.m. on July 27, Meals called Lugo safe to give the Braves a 4-3 win much to the chagrin of one loud and dedicated girl at Turner Field who yelled “Lets go Pirates!” long into the night and for those fans who stuck it out until the very end watching on television or listening on the radio.
The call – while blamed by some for derailing the Pirates’ inspired play to that point in the season – did not cause the club’s eventual collapse toward a 19th straight losing season. It did accomplish two things, though:
n First, the bad call started a firestorm of tweets from Pirates fans that evolved into a worldwide trending topic on the social media site Twitter.com.
While Pirates fans expressed anger at Meals through their smartphones or computers, Adam Caldwell – one of the creators of thepensblog.com, found on Twitter @TPBAdam – opened the floodgates to a hashtag that trended around the world: #jerrymealssaysitssafe.
From there a group of fans who have had the worst luck in rooting for a winner, but developed a pretty good sense of humor about things in the meantime, were able to shine. Anger gave way to snarkiness for most of July 27, at least until the Pirates and Braves took the field that evening.
n Secondly, it temporarily united a fanbase that has a very defined division between those who have faith and almost infinite patience in what the organization is doing to build toward the future and those who believe that the team does not want to win due to its lack of spending on the major-league payroll.
At least for a day or two, the lightning rod for fan venom wasn’t ownership or management – in the front office or on the field – or even fellow rooters who just happen to be on the wrong side of the debate.
Conversely there were reported threats on Meals, a Butler native, and his family for the miscue. The phone at the Meals’ residence in Perry Township, Ohio, had started ringing almost immediately after the game had ended. Hundreds of calls jammed the phone line in the early morning hours.
Meals wasn’t the first umpire to blow a call and he won’t be the last, yet in the days, weeks and months following the call his name is still associated with that balmy Atlanta morning. At least in the realm of umpires and referees, history remembers those who make the biggest mistakes. If an official becomes a trending topic, chances are that a call was missed.
But Mr. Meals may have accomplished something else when he signaled Lugo to be safe. His call might have been the nadir for Pirates fans who weren’t even alive to remember a team finishing above .500 and for those who recall better days for the club.
From the lowest of low points, there’s only one direction to go. While the Pirates plummeted to mediocrity in the weeks following the call to close 2011, the team has firmly entrenched itself into this year’s postseason discussion with just over two months remaining in the season.
Even if the Pirates (55-42) fail to reach the postseason, the another-year-older, another-year-wiser youngsters and a couple key offseason acquisitions should keep this team competitive and fun to watch until the very end of this season and for seasons to come.
While I’ve never blamed Meals for ruining the Pirates season in 2011, I’m thanking him for indirectly creating a turnaround point for the team’s fortunes and possibly lifting the black cloud that has hovered over the Pirates since Sid Bream’s famous slide in the same city with much more on the line in 1992.
While it’s common for fans to hold onto grudges in sports, it’s time to let go of this one Pirates fans.
Jerry Meals, I forgive you.
Shawn Curtis is a news assistant at The Tribune-Democrat. He can be followed on Twitter @shawncurtis430.