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The End of the Pittsburgh Pirates

A week after shifting their best pitcher to Houston, Pittsburgh is sending franchise hero Andrew McCutchen to San Francisco. Don’t expect to see the Pirates in the playoffs anytime soon.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Even into the early 21st century, playoff baseball felt timeless, historic, sepia-toned. But in today’s age of two wild-card games, MLB.tv, highlight GIFs, juiced baseballs, and bloated bullpens, it’s urgent, interactive, and thoroughly modern.

And at its best, it sounds like this.

It can rattle one of the best pitchers of his generation into just dropping the baseball, because 40,487 rabid Yinzers are saying his name over and over. That moment, and the Russell Martin home run that immediately followed it, will be the enduring image of a mid-2010s Pirates team that was among the best and most fun of its era, and is likely doomed to be forgotten.

That team’s biggest star, Andrew McCutchen, left the only franchise he’s ever played for on Monday, when the Pirates traded the 2013 NL MVP to San Francisco for a package of 25-year-old right-hander Kyle Crick, a former top-100 prospect who’s struggled with his command in the high minors, and 2016 second-rounder Bryan Reynolds, a switch-hitting outfielder out of Vanderbilt who has potential but isn’t exactly a future MVP. It’s fine as a return for a 31-year-old free-agent-to-be who looks like he’s on the decline, but this trade, along with Saturday’s Gerrit Cole deal, closes the book on that age of Pirates baseball.

In 1992, the Pirates lost their third straight NLCS, let Barry Bonds walk in free agency, and ripped off the first of 20 straight seasons in which they not only missed the playoffs, but failed to crack .500. When they finally returned to the postseason with three straight wild-card berths from 2013 to 2015, it wasn’t the result of some grandiose rebuilding project — McCutchen was the team’s only real star. Those Pirates teams, despite averaging almost 94 wins over those three years, never lost their underdog charm. Their top prospects — Cole, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco — turned into good players, but missed on their superstar potential. Neil Walker was a nice player, but as boring as his name. Martin was a pretty good catcher but a playoff talisman: From 2008 to 2016 he reached the playoffs eight times in nine years with four different franchises, two of which — the Pirates and Blue Jays — hadn’t been to October in at least 20 years before he arrived.

The rest of the team had a Major League feel to it — castoffs and washouts wringing the last drops of magic from their bodies — and the team’s excellent but still cobbled-together roster earned GM Neal Huntington a reputation as a bargain hunter and pitching coach Ray Searage a reputation as a miracle worker. A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton, Francisco Liriano, Jason Grilli, Marlon Byrd, Edinson Volquez, Gaby Sánchez, Josh Harrison, J.A. Happ — all playoff building blocks, conjured out of remaindered parts.

But after the Cueto game, the Pirates kept running into the wrong opponent at the wrong time: In 2013, they took the eventual pennant-winning Cardinals to five games in the NLDS but lost. In the 2014 wild-card game, they lost to Madison Bumgarner and the Giants on the first leg of one of the best playoff pitching performances in baseball history. And at the same stage in 2015, Jake Arrieta, who’d allowed 10 earned runs in 116 1/3 innings since the All-Star break, duly shut out Pittsburgh in PNC Park.

It’s a proud sports tradition to fondly remember charismatic teams that fall short of titles — the 1990s Bills, the 1970s Dutch national soccer team, the turn-of-the-century Sacramento Kings — but teams in that class usually get closer than these Pirates did. So one of the most interesting teams of the decade might be nothing more than a footnote a decade from now, particularly considering that both trades are white flags on players nearing free agency and coming off down years, not reloading deals that brought back the next wave of great Pirates talent. Now that Cole has been jettisoned for nothing and McCutchen has gone out the door soon after, it could be another decade before the Pirates bring their noisy ballpark to the postseason again.