When I was growing up, the stories of the recent success experienced by Pittsburgh Pirates fans echoed in the pantheon of the city. Green Weenies, Famalee, Pillbox Caps, seats painted gold to show just how far Willie Stargell mashed a ball, Roberto Clemente’s ill-fated humanitarian trip, 71, 79, its quite a lot to take in as a young child.
Pittsburgh was the city of champions, the Steelers won four championships in the Seventies and the Pirates won two. I wasn’t aware really, but I grew up in that shadow. The expectations of every team I watched from the time I started paying attention to sports was shaded by the expectation that we were not only the top of the food chain in professional sports, but always would be.
Times changed, and sports changed.
The Pirates and Steelers of the 80s were abysmal to be kind but 1990 brought winning back to Pittsburgh. The Pirates were finally back on top in their division and while they didn’t get the job done that season, they seemed poised for more in the future. The Penguins of course won the first of two back to back Stanley Cups as well. As a 13-year-old I watched my entire generation gravitate toward hockey. We played it, we watched it, we lived it. And our baseball gloves collected dust as soon as the Pirates’ run was over in 1992.
Something else changed right around then, I became aware of the economics of sports. The Pirates were forced to let Barry Bonds walk away in free agency, and then came the trades that dismantled the team. Jim Leyland left and openly stated he didn’t want to coach for a team that wasn’t trying to win. The Penguins were in serious financial distress as they had spent far more money than the team could actually afford to win those two cups and it nearly cost them their franchise.
MLB was in trouble too; labor peace came to a halt in 1994 and for the first time in modern history the World Series was cancelled. Thinking back on this time it strikes me how different this game could be today had they just set up the league to handle the modern era and free agency by using the strike to build a foundation of economic success right then.
So, are we a baseball town? Does Pittsburgh still love the game that helped lay the foundation for the other teams in this city to build on? Or, has Bob Nutting destroyed that for you?
On the surface, let me say this, If Bob Nutting spending too little has eclipsed all of that history I just spoke to, man that’s giving an awful lot of power to a man you clearly loathe.
I remember sitting on my grandparent’s porch, listening to Lanny Frattare and Jim Rooker call a game against the Reds. The game ended and my Grandpa who rarely spoke due to hearing loss told me about what it was like when Maz hit the homerun to win the 1960 World Series. He and his co-workers were all allowed to leave the mill and join the party in the streets. This wasn’t downtown Pittsburgh we’re talking about; this was Beaver County.
See, when I say are, we a baseball town, I don’t mean the city proper, I mean all the territory the Pittsburgh Pirates OWNED baseball fans around here. Think of how incredible that must have been, in an industry that was still not easy for workers, to recognize the moment and willingly send people home to celebrate. That’s the kind of binding power baseball has held here in the past, and when you talk to that endless optimist and think he or she is off their nut, take a look at how bad the Pirates were before that season. That is the dream many of that generation hold onto, then you have the folks that grew up in the 70s when the Bucs were supposed to lose to Baltimore both times and not get there at all past the Reds.
We’ve been hurt here for sure, and much of it has been self-inflicted by ownership. Stewardship of that responsibility should be paramount to this new management group. Not to go all Field of Dreams corny here, but if they build it, we will all come back.
Just like we did when they put a winner on the field in the middle of last decade. We can quibble over the baseball town phraseology, what we really are probably looks more like proud. We’re proud of winning, and proud of trying to win. Say what you will of the Penguins and Steelers, and there are plenty who will say they both should have won even more with talents like Mario, Sid, Geno, Ben, hell I’ll even toss in AB, but you can’t EVER say they don’t try. Both spend to the cap every season and each make moves to improve every chance they get. Baseball of course doesn’t offer the same spending limit but to folks who want desperately to be fans of all three of our big pro sports squads, it’s hard to look at the Pirates and put them in the same “try” class.
Part of me wonders if that’s a fair expectation or comparison, part of me sympathizes and agrees with it completely. Whether perceived or real, the Pirates must start to show they have a pulse, or the heartbeat that used to pound for them in this town will eventually lose it’s rhythm. Perhaps current events will intercede and cause absence to make the heart grow fonder.
In my heart of hearts, Pittsburgh will always be a proud sports town, and I long for the day when this club, the Pirates, is ready to join the conversation again.