This is how it starts: in 1989 in a living room in front of an old cathode-ray tube TV, the kind with the power button that pulls out into a little knob to adjust the volume and the individual buttons for channels running down the side, with a four-year old asking his dad a non-stop stream of questions about the Pirates/Phillies game on the TV.
Or maybe this is how it starts: in a parking lot at Three Rivers Stadium where the same little boy is tailgating before his first-ever Pirate game, eating food out of the back of a car, then watching the Pirates dismantle the Expos 6-1 with his favorite player hitting a home run.
Or maybe it starts in the second floor hallway on the morning of October 15th, 1992. That's where he finds out that the Pirates blew the 1-0 lead they when he went to bed the night before in the most painful way possible and that, for the third season in a row they will not go to the World Series. The worst is yet to come, though, and no one has any idea how bad it can get.
Maybe it doesn't matter where it starts. Maybe, like so many things in life, it doesn't really have a beginning. To hear my parents tell it, I was captivated pretty much from the very first baseball game I ever watched in a way that they didn't really understand (my dad was always a baseball fan, though he always says that basketball was his favorite sport to watch until his oldest son turned into an inexplicable seamhead at the age of four or five). I've never spent much time thinking about it, but if I had to try and quantify it I'd tell you that it's because baseball has everything that I love; baseball is science and literature and a heavy dose of history that informs everything that happens all rolled into one.
For me, the Pirates have always gone hand in hand with baseball. I was five years old in 1990, which was the perfect age to get hooked by Van Slyke, Bonds, Bonilla, and Drabek. Those teams were incedible; they were talented and charismatic and fun. I would watch them on KBL and fall asleep with Lanny Fratarre's voice coming through the radio. I would listen to stories from my dad and my uncles about Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell and the '71 Pirates and the '79 Pirates. I had a VHS tape that told the story of the first 100 years of Pirates' baseball that I'm pretty sure I watched until it wore thin. Looking back at all this now, well, how could anyone grow up in Western Pennsylvania in the early 1990s and not become a Pirate fan?
It's that beginning that's easy to explain, even though it all happened so long ago. What came next is much more difficult. At first, things didn't seem so bad. Bonds and Drabek left, but Van Slyke and Bell stayed and with Jeff King and Orlando Merced and guys like Al Martin were coming up. In 1993 it felt like maybe all the Pirates had to do was recalibrate. I don't want to rehash everything that happened next (that's what these posts were for), but by 1996 that plan had been torpedoed for a rebuild that would focus on a new stadium in 2001 and by 2001 that plan had been jettisoned for whatever the Littlefield era was. By 2007, the Littlefield regime had presided over a cosmic horror that would've given HP Lovecraft shivers. Even that was six years ago.
That was also around the time that I moved to North Carolina for grad school (my last full day as a resident of Western PA was July 31st, 2007; I drove from Hermitage to PNC Park with my dad, we got to the park, and the Matt Morris trade was announced on the scoreboard). When I would wear my Pirate hat around Chapel Hill back then, people would ask me why I was still a Pirate fan. "Why waste your time with a team that doesn't even want to win?" they'd ask. "What's the point?"
I never had a good answer for that question then. If we're being honest, I don't know that I do now. I want to tell you that I really haven't ever felt like the Pirates (or any sports team) owe me anything; one of the things that makes baseball great is that it mimics life in that so much of it is beyond our control, but that its consequences aren't really consequences at all in the grand scheme of things. I want to say that, but it seems like that's at least a little bit of ridiculous nonsense feelgoodery that fans of awful teams use to rationalize the awfulness. Being a Pirate fan has been awful more often than it hasn't. I was at the Home Opener where the Pirates turned a bunt into a home run and everyone threw their extendable flags on the field and booed mercilessly. I remember two separate occasions on which two Pirates stood dumbly at third base while they were both tagged, only to get off of the base in the wrong sequence and hand their opponent a double play. I remember Derek Bell and Jody Gerut and Raul Mondesi. For a time, Craig Wilson was an underappreciated folk hero. Craig Wilson. I don't believe in curses and it's relatively easy to point out where the previous front offices went wrong and how the team got to where it was at its lowest point without invoking superstition, but I'll never forget waking up on the day that PNC Park opened to read that Willie Stargell had died the night before. He died hours before the Pirates were going to open a new stadium by dedicating a statue of him. How can you watch history unfold like that without wondering if things will ever get better?
The reality, though, is that I never really ever considered not being a Pirate fan. Everyone needs places to escape to every once in a while, and baseball has always been one of those places for me. The Pirates have always been my lens for baseball, and I've never been able to see it any other way. The teams that I grew up with and the franchise's history is something that I interalized and made a part of me at the age when those sorts of things make impressions in a way that can't ever really be undone. Now that I've moved away, it's the Pirates more than almost anything else that act like an anchor back home for me (I say almost, because there are still plenty of Lackeys in Western PA and I'm not trying to slight them in any way, of course), and I mean that in a good way.
When people would ask me in 2007 or 2008 or 2009 or 2010 why I was still a Pirate fan, I started giving everyone the same response: "Because I've made it this far, and when it finally pays off it's all going to feel like it's been worth it." The thing about this 82nd win that makes it strangely gratifying is that I feel like it hasn't all been paid off yet. The 2013 Pirates won their 82nd game a week after Labor Day. They're in the middle of a heated of a division race. They're going to play at least one playoff game this year. The best player in the National League will wear black and gold until 2018. The 82nd win was a tour de force from a 22-year old starter that has mesmerizing stuff and a ceiling unlike any Pirate pitcher I've ever had the pleasure to watch. For years and years this number -- 82 -- has loomed over the Pirates. Now that it's here it feels weird to even think about celebrating it because it's clear that there's more work to be done, both this year and beyond.
More than anything, 82 is a relief. The longest losing streak in professional sports has been the defining aspect of the Pittsburgh Pirates since several years before they broke the old record in 2010. It always felt foolish to think big or dream big when the Pirates hadn't even managed to finish above .500 since the Bonds Era. I think that maybe the hardest part of the losing streak was its open nature; the last good Pirate teams are a distant memory now and they were immediately followed by this streak that refused to end. It's been an unending parenthetical aside that we, as Pirate fans, have been waiting to close off for forever, just so that we can get back to the main story.
As of this very second, just after midnight on September 10, 2013, the losing streak has been closed off. It is now a piece of Pittsburgh Pirate history, destined to fade into memory with all of the good and bad that this storied franchise has been through. It no longer has to define the Pirates' present. It no longer has to define the Pirates' fans' present. The streak is behind us and we can finally start thinking about the Pirates in different terms. The streak is dead, a weight has been lifted, and the best part about it all is that I need to decide if I should fly home for the start of the playoffs.