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.
I was that kid who went to bed in '92 thinking we were headed to the World Series. My parents always used to put the score on my door so I'd see it when I got up the next morning. Yeah, that next morning, they almost didn't want to tell me.
Also, I was also at PNC on trade deadline day in 2007 (part of an internship program with Clear Channel, I had to help set up the on-site remote for Ellis Cannon's show). I just remember David Littlefield coming by for an interview, and the look on the man's face was just one of vacancy. I think he knew he was a dead man walking at that point.
My first game was at Forbes in 1958, I was 6. By the time i went the next year I pretty much knew what was happening.
From a fellow western PA kid transplanted away from the town and the team we grew up around, lets get those plane tickets on order. I'll meet you at the front gate of PNC for some playoff history.
I moved to this fine city around the start of the Littlefield era, went looking for Pirates blogs a couple years later when I started really following the team and also wondering why they seemed to be stagnating. WHYGAVS has always been the home of solid baseball analysis, but more importantly, some of the most honest emotion you'll find on the internet. Reading the comments section it always seemed more like group therapy than a bunch of people talking about baseball.
So thanks to Pat for sticking it out for so many bleak years. Congrats to you, and all the others who have found the time to write a few words in the threads. wkkortas, bwzimmerman, savage beast, carnegie chip, nick juneau, mornacale, azibuck, miniplen to name a few, I'm happy you all got to experience 82. Here's to October.
I've tried to write something in response, but every time I've tried I've looked at it and thought, "That's just about me."
The beauty of what you've done is written about yourself, but made it about all of us. Thanks.
I've been a Pirates fan since 1975. I'm lucky that I got to see The Family in 1979 (albeit from Houston). 1990-1992 was great but I disliked Bonds so much that it kept me from enjoying it as much as I could have. I personally don't think this team is as good as the Cardinals and probably not the Reds either, but it has been so fun to watch them do as well as they have, despite the occasional missteps. A great bunch of guys to root for. I hope they prove me wrong and win the division, but either way, this season has been a blast. I was starting to wonder if they would get to 82. Maybe now that they got over that hump, they can relax and start to get some consistent hitting going again.
Don't comment much, but I've been reading your stuff here since 2004 or so. I was six in '92, so we have a pretty similar experience. Thanks for all the fantastic pieces you've written about our favorite team, and I'm so glad you finally got to write this one.
It is said that, on the Manatee River, there is a ghost boat which appears on certain murky mornings, from which you can just barely hear the murmur of late-90s hip-hop music. There are those who swear that, on the stern of the boat, one can make out the faded and peeling lettering "O ER T ON SH TD WN". It is been said as well that, on one September morning in the year of our Lord 2013, a deep sigh and the word "nevermore" was heard from the ship's deck, and that it sailed into the mists, never to be seen again, amen.
Pat, your blog is one of several I've been following the past couple of seasons. Reading your posts have been interesting, informative (how do you KNOW all this stuff?), and just plain inspiring. Whether I watch the games at PNC Park or from my living room, I always turn to this blog afterwards for your thoughts. Whatever it is you do in your laboratory, please keep writing, as you're brilliant.
Hope we'll all be at the playoffs. I already took a leap of faith and bought two post-seasons strips for my husband and me. Look us up, and we'll buy you a beer - although I'm not sure PNC sells anything that fits your microbrewed/homebrewed tastes. Almost responded to one of your tweets last night to ask what you were drinking to celebrate Win 82. Maybe a local microbrewery will craft a brew in honor of the Pirates. Should be a fall seasonal ale, I think - something that makes you think "October" at the first sip.
I am a Pirates fan because I remember excatly where and who I was siting with when Merv Retmund grounded out to Jackie Hernandez, or when Pat Kelly flew out to Omar Moreno. I remember when my first favorite play was Bucs centerfielder Matty Alou. Baseball is a game of history and memories like no other. There were times I was so mad I refused to watch but never a time when I would call myself anything but a Pirates fan. Thanks for making baseball fun again.
I'm 25, and I've been a Pirates fan since, I'm told, before I can remember. My first game was in 1991, an 11-inning beauty against the Cubs, on this miserable, cold, rainy April day. I was with my older brother and my dad, and it was tied late, and my dad was trying to get us to leave. My brother kept repeating like a mantra, "You never know. We can't leave. You never know." The Cubs scored five in the top of the 11th. The game should have been over. My dad said as much, let's go, it's over, they can't win this one. My brother came back with "You never know," over and over, and we stayed. The Pirates scored six in the bottom of the 11th, to this day the biggest comeback in a single inning in extras in baseball history. It was incredible. Only a few thousand people were left, the team, after handshakes, took a moment to applaud the fans.
That's what I always told people when they asked why I was still a Pirates fan. Blind optimism. You never know. And as much as 82 wins feels great, I can't wait to watch this team in October. Liriano and AJ are a legitimate front end. Cutch and Starling and even Pedro are guys that can win baseball games in the postseason. This has been the most fun I've ever had as a baseball fan, and I'm sure that goes for our entire generation of Pirates fans, but it's not over.
And you never know.
I'm not a Pirates fan, but I found this blog five years ago and have read it sporadically ever since. You really have a knack for articulating the subtle aspects of baseball which make it such a special sport. This was yet another great piece. Congratulations on the streak finally coming to an end. I'll be rooting for the Pirates in the playoffs.
This was a great read. Not sure if you remember me, I used to run the "The 'Burgh Blues" blog back in the day. Feels like sometime ago. Want to say you've always been one of my favorite Pirates bloggers, and I'm glad you stuck with WHYGAVS (as well as the Pirates themselves). All the best, and here's to Buctober.
These epic narratives of yours are why I respect the hell out of you as a writer and fellow fan of not just the Pirates but the game as a whole.
Now maybe you can be less of a grumpy bugger going forward.
@azibuck Thanks for keeping me in line for so many years!
@Eephus Hey! Where is azibuck?
@DoctorGeeves Whoa whoa whoa, less grumpy? Let's not raise the bar too high!
Thanks, though; it really means a lot to hear from guys like you that have been reading this site almost from the word go. You are all what kept me going through the toughest stretches.