The Pittsburgh Pirates, and Hope After Hope

It has now been 20 years since the Pittsburgh Pirates last finished above .500. How could any fans survive this? The same way fans survive everything.
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This, but for 20 fucking years.

Image via 90FeetofPerfection.

It's 1992. Nirvana and Boyz II Men play on the radio and bump up against each other uncomfortably on various MTV countdowns. A phone is still just a phone, as in it only makes phone calls, on which calls you might discuss, for instance, the fact that Bill Clinton will likely be elected president in a few weeks or that the Pittsburgh Pirates are in the National League Championship Series for the third time.

Down in South Florida, by way of Pittsburgh, my family's bonding over the Pirates comes easy. Barry Bonds is already Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke is crazy and great, the young knuckleball wonder Tim Wakefield owns the mound. The Pirates are one win away from going to the World Series, and I'm 11 years old and don't want to talk about much else. Moreover, I'm used to it: for much of my short life to that point, the Pirates have been winners.

On the night of Game Seven of the National League Championship Series I sit with my legs folded beneath me, so close to the television that my mom issues the timeless threat of blindness. My dad uses the plays to teach me baseball logic: when a catcher should run to first to back up and when he should run to third. It's the bottom of the ninth and the Buccos are three outs away from the Series. All the boys in school, the success-spoiled sons of Mets fans, will be jealous. My family will be elated. Jim Leyland, though, is not putting in Tim Wakefield.

I am already well-versed in the fan tradition of vexed rhetorical questions, spoken aloud and to nobody in particular, so I ask out loud: "Why doesn't he put in Tim Wakefield to pitch?" Doug Drabek was pitching the ninth, and Drabek won the 1990 Cy Young Award, but in my 11-year-old opinion Wakefield was a much better choice against the Atlanta Braves. Analysts would later point out the decision meant righty Drabek would be facing a lefty and a switch hitter. But that was not on my mind at the time.

And then it is one painful crack of the bat after another, shock and fear and a safe but pointed early intimation of a cold, uncaring universe. Stan Belinda comes in, as if to prove that earlier point about the universe. He tries to stop the damage, and doesn't. And then the pitch, and the hit. Sid Bream's clomping snowshoe chug for home. The limp throw from Bonds and Mike Lavalliere twirling, trying to swipe the tag. The umpire calling safe. My father telling me that it's only baseball—and the casual comfort, hours and some pouting later, that the Pirates will be back next year.

***

There are only so many ways to answer the question of why a person cheers for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who recently clinched their 20th straight losing season. Over time, the answers evolve and get more creative. Family tradition. Sticking with my team. Love of the city. Loyalty. Shared pain. Masochism. Stubbornness. It's all of that, and it's more complicated than that.

Trying to remember the first time my father talked about the Pittsburgh Pirates is a bit like trying to recall a first day of school or learning to drive. It's a hazy mashup of images and feelings, less a concrete moment and more a series of sounds and feelings—a movie score, if you like, always humming along in the background and occasionally rising to the fore.

My father, who moved from Pittsburgh to Florida with my mother and me in the 1980s, wasn't a teller of traditional children's stories. He never spoke of princesses, ponies or dolls. That was Mom's beat. Dad stuck, for the most part, to baseball. In his stories, the heroes always wore black and gold. Our tragic hero was Roberto Clemente. Our noble man was Honus Wagner.

And, more than all that, there was Maz. Bill Mazeroski was always just Maz. The steady second baseman who hit the greatest home run ever, the kind of moment you expect in movies and fairy tales, a swing in the bottom of the ninth of the final game in the World Series to defeat, perfectly, the Yankees.  The Greatest Home Run Ever Hit was our Bible story, and a parenting aid without parallel for my father. It morphed, in his hands, to teach whatever lesson the moment required.

But the tale he probably told the most, because it's a great story, was about the 1927 World Series and the Waner brothers, Lloyd and Paul, who played for the Buccos that year. The team lost to the Yankees in four straight. As Dad tells the story, the Waners came home to elated fans. Confused, the brothers asked why. The answer, according to Dad: "We weren't betting on the Pirates to win. We bet the Waners would out perform the Yankees stars. You made us rich!"

Is this story true? I have no clue, and doubt any living person does. But whenever Dad has to make a point about different perspectives—like, say, how winning games isn't everything—he always comes back to the Waners.

We skip over the nasty 1980s Pirates cocaine controversy. Dad left that part out, later saying it didn't seem like much of a team highlight, and anyway he figures the Pirates weren't the only team partaking the drug. By the time 1992 arrives, the Pirates lineup is a regular pennant contender. Mom sings during games the theme song of the 1979 World Series championship Pirates, "We Are Family." Dad points out Pirates baseball cards during the memorabilia shows at the mall and teaches pieces of obscure baseball trivia for outsmarting boys at school.  

Dad tries to warn that Bonds probably won't come back after 1992, and I ignore the warnings, instead coming up with my own reasons why Bonds should stay. He dutifully tries to explain salaries and small markets and other things to a kid. It helped that, despite losing Bonds, Dad didn't seem to worry much about latching onto a potentially disastrous team for decades to come.

"The Steelers came back," he tells me today, referring to how horrible Pittsburgh was in football before the 1970s. "I thought there was hope for the Pirates, too."

***

As the team sank and kept sinking, my father found a new way to keep himself interested in decades of Pirates-less World Series. He did this by finding the former Pirate on each team's roster.

There was Denny Neagle starting Game Four of the 1996 Series, for the Atlanta Braves. And Tim Wakefield, still throwing his mystical knuckleballs, in 2004, for the Boston Red Sox. Freddy Sanchez hitting three doubles in his first three plate appearances in 2011, for the San Francisco Giants. The Pirates would be a great team, he tells people, if they could just round up all their former players and put them back in black and gold.

My coping mechanism is different and a little less sunny-sided. When Bonds comes to South Florida in August 2007 for a series against the Marlins, a coworker invites me to come along. He knows I want to boo.

This, admittedly, is not a novel approach, from a fan's perspective, to being confronted with an enemy. That year, it was especially unoriginal: clusters of people across the country go to baseball games that year to jeer Bonds while he surpassed Hank Aaron's overall home run record. Bonds has been outed as a likely steroids user, and he's getting older. His overall performance has leveled off, and the player who was once his era's premier doom-bringing offensive weapon now mostly hits homers and draws walks and scowls. He is, it's generally agreed, a jerk.

But while the rest of America is just learning to despise him, I have a sizable lead, thanks to more than a decade of blaming him for what happened to the team that brought all that life and hope into my youth. The Pirates are, in 2007 as now, a joke. Then, as now, fans are wondering if they can ever be fixed. Bad management drafts bad players and signs others, all as cheaply as possible. As I took my seats in the stadium that night, I was struggling to get my mind around the fact that the Florida Marlins had won two World Series since the last time the Pirates so much as finished a season above .500.

The night I see Bonds, the baseball stadium is busier than normal but still not full. It's a typical baseball night with the smell of beer and hotdogs, the sound of organ music and muggy summer air. A few people have made anti-Bonds signs. I wear a Pirates T-shirt, my silent protest.  

Bonds comes up to the plate four times. Every time, my hands cup around my mouth, my shoulders bend forward and my voice calls out, "Booooooooooo … Cheater …...... Booooooooo ….."  It feels… well, how does it feel? Cathartic in the moment, empty in the aftermath—he can't hear me, and it's his job not to listen, anyway. Bonds leaves the four-game series with one more home run than he brought into it.

***

Ed Hirt knows my pain, even if he hasn't experienced it. Hirt is a professor of psychology and brain science at Indiana University, and a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. He has spent decades studying the psychology of sports fans, hunting for an answer to the question that puzzles Pirates supporters. Why does anybody stick with a loser?

Hirt says one belief was people stayed with their teams because the winning made them feel good about themselves, an idea called "basking in reflected glory." But Hirt found it hard to believe that was all there was to the relationship. If that was it, the Pirates would have lost their fans years ago.

"Anyone who's a loyal fan of any team knows that part of your badge of honor is you stick with the team independent of performance," Hirt says. Of course, you don't need a psychology degree to know that rooting for any team, even the Pirates, is only somewhat about wins. It's also about tailgating, meeting up with friends, esoteric conversations real and virtual, beers and high-fives with strangers. We go to games and feel less alone, or watch them and feel the unique comfort of home. Like the song says: we are family.

When teams get down for too long, fans harken back to past successes, Hirt says: the childhood stories about Clemente and Wagner and Maz, for instance. For a loyal fan, those moments transcend time. They are part of the relationship with the team, and the past is a boon in the present.  "It's just a really interesting bonding over both the good and the bad and everything in between," Hirt says. "It still unites people in a way. I find it to be a relatively unique experience in our social existence."

Does winning matter at all?  

Hirt's answer: "I don't think it matters how good they are."

***

But winning would be nice.

Three days after I talked to Hirt, the Pirates are at the receiving end of a no-hitter and clinch their 20th straight season with a losing record. Hirt and others will point out there's still a chance for the Pirates. The Baltimore Orioles are winning despite a mountain of metrics that say they should lose. The baseball blogs talk about the importance of the Pirates signing great center fielder Andrew McCutchen to a six-year deal, the promising arms in their minor league system. They were, for much of this season, actually pretty good. The refresh cycle of sports, always ready with a new offseason, new players and new storylines to give fans hope, continues.

Did my father ever consider switching? He says the idea came up one day, when I was 6 or 7. "You said, 'Dad, if it's your team, you gotta stick with them,'" he told me. "And I said, 'Yeah, you have a point. I never thought about it that way.'"

He chuckles and adds, "You made me do it."

So my father, an educated man trained as a chemist, was swayed by a kid who couldn't write in cursive yet? It's emotional, and it's silly, but that's also what all this is about. As Hirt says, "The interesting thing about fandom is that hope does spring eternal."

And so there's next season, as always. This is the answer we fans are stuck with: we'll keep cheering for our Pirates as long as there's hope, and then even on after that.


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