Commentary: Return to relevance of Birds, Bucs, good for baseball

In a different era, Baltimore and Pittsburgh staged a pair of memorable, seven-game World Series battles.

In a different sport, Baltimore and Pittsburgh wage one of the greatest rivalries known to fans.

In 21st century Major League Baseball, Baltimore and Pittsburgh have been about as relevant as the Cleveland Spiders or the Fort Wayne Kekiongas.

The only two MLB teams without a winning record in any season since the turn of the millennium, the Orioles were last over .500 when Brady Anderson and Mike Bordick were in their primes rather than in a TV booth, and the Pirates were last over .500 when a skinny Barry Bonds had yet to discover the wonders of flaxseed oil.

The Birds' little 14-season downturn is nothing compared to the Bucs' string of 19 consecutive losing seasons. That's not only the longest streak of futility in baseball history, it's the longest such streak in the history of professional sports in North America.

Imagine the collective surprise of the baseball world, then, when the Pirates showed up in Baltimore for a three-game series Tuesday tied for first place in the NL Central, five games over .500, to face a team a scant one game back in the AL East and eight games over .500.

That'd be kind of like the Wizards and Clippers playing a meaningful game, with one major difference: The Orioles and Pirates were once proud major-league franchises.

The Orioles had 18 consecutive winning seasons from 1968 through 1985. In the history of baseball, only the New York Yankees have had a longer run of prosperity. The Pirates have had two streaks of at least 13 seasons in a row.

The Orioles and Pirates have combined for eight World Series titles, with the two teams producing 25 percent of the champions from 1960-83.

The teams' alumni is a Hall of Fame "Who's Who." Honus Wagner. Pie Traynor. Ralph Kiner. Roberto Clemente. Willie Stargell. Brooks Robinson. Frank Robinson. Jim Palmer. Eddie Murray. Cal Ripken.

OK, that's going back a ways. Recent history has been a little different.

Botched drafts. Player development disasters. All-Stars leaving for teams with a shot at winning. Beautiful stadiums sitting largely empty. Last-place finishes, year in and year out.

That's why seeing these two teams playing at this particular time is so much fun for longtime baseball fans.

No, this is not a prelude to the 2012 World Series. But even if the final 100 games don't go as well as the first 62, this does seem to be the confluence of a pair of long-suffering teams finally turning the corner at exactly the same time.

They're winning the same way. The Orioles have the best bullpen in the AL, the Pirates have the best bullpen in the NL. They each have signature players in Adam Jones and Andrew McCutchen who are inserting themselves into the "best outfielder in baseball" discussions. They each are getting great mileage out of starting pitchers who were little more than castoffs in Jason Hammel, A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard.

And after years of fruitless farm systems, each organization is finally producing home-grown talent with minor leaguer after minor leaguer coming up and contributing at the major league level.

Baltimore and Pittsburgh are not New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. But they also aren't Texas or Miami or Colorado.

The have a lot of history and traditional importance, and their seeming return to relevance, at long last, is good for the game.

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