Philadelphia, PA – Losing is just something that a Pittsburgh Pirates fan has to come to accept.
Take my Uncle Jim for example.
Uncle Jim lives in southern New Jersey, but has always been a Pirates fan due to my grandparent's ties to the central area of Pennsylvania.
Uncle Jim has not had much to cheer about over the past 20 years.
Still, he's a dedicated fan and got into the habit of flying the Pirates' Jolly Roger flag outside of his home after every win. When they lost, he took it down.
This season, he got to fly the colors a bit more than he was used to through a better part of the summer.
A few days after returning from a trip to London to cover the Summer Olympics, I asked my Uncle Jim how the Jolly Roger was doing. An "of course this happened to me" smile, ever so slight, came onto his face before he answered.
"Somebody stole it."
Perhaps my uncle should feel fortunate someone relieved him of his prized possession. Around the time of our late August conversation was when the Pirates were putting together a season-ending tailspin that has put them on the verge of extending their North American professional sports record of consecutive losing seasons to 20 in a row.
Since improving to 62-46 and moving 3 1/2 games out of first place in the NL Central on Aug. 6, the Pirates have gone just 14-34. They have lost 20 of 26 since shutting out the St. Louis Cardinals, current holders of the league's second wild card spot, over back-to-back games on Aug. 28-29.
Pittsburgh now sits four games under .500 with six to play. It closes out the season with three-game sets at home against the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves, two clubs already secured of 2012 postseason spots.
It doesn't look good for the Jolly Roger, where ever it may be.
The one hope that the Pirates can cling to is that the Reds don't have a whole lot to play for unless finishing with the best record in baseball is a primary goal. They trail the Washington Nationals by a game for that distinction, but getting things lined up for a postseason run may be more important.
The Braves, meanwhile, could be out of contention for first place in the NL East and locked into a wild card spot by the time they visit the Pirates, making that series meaningless.
Despite the late-season collapse, Pittsburgh can still take some positives away from the 2012 campaign, even if it is one that ends under .500.
Andrew McCutchen has emerged as one of the top players in the league and is in the running for the NL batting title going into the final six days of action.
The rotation, meanwhile, features a trio of pitchers with double-digit wins in A.J. Burnett, James McDonald and Kevin Correia and a fourth hurler in Wandy Rodriguez who figures to be a main part of the starting five next year after being acquired before the trade deadline from the Houston Astros.
Pittsburgh's 59 wins out of its starters, including a staff-high 16 from the 35-year-old Burnett, are the most the club has logged since the 1992 staff also won 59 games.
But there are still plenty of things to be addressed, mainly on the offense. McCutchen needs help as the Pirates are hitting just .237 and averaging a mere 3.8 runs per game in the last 26 since Aug. 31.
Pittsburgh is still hoping that third baseman Pedro Alvarez will figure things out and live up to his billing as the second overall pick of the 2008 draft and highly-regarded prospect Starling Marte has been getting steady work since late July.
The Pirates, though, don't figure to have many other offensive prospects ready to help out in 2013 and playing in Pittsburgh could still be a tough sell to free agents, even after the club showed some commitment to winning by signing McCutchen to an extension in March.
Pittsburgh does have a healthy number of pitching prospects, so it could be players in the offseason trade market.
But while the sweet allure of the playoffs was invigorating for most of the season, the Pirates don't need to jump into the deep end of the pool. Building a consistent winner should be the goal rather than trying to go all-in next season for a shot at the playoffs.
Walk before you run. Or at least have a winning record.
And maybe my uncle will have a new flag by next April.