Around the age of 12 to 14, you begin not only to believe in a sports deity, but also begin a relationship with him or her (okay, we know it's probably a "her"). You come to believe in jinxes, and you wonder what you did wrong (or why She hates you) if your team fails. That middle school period of time finds you at your most insecure, transitory state. You need something to lean on -- sports, theater, something, but probably sports -- to make sense of the world.
Here's a list of things that happened to my favorite teams between 1990 and 1992, when I was between 12 and 14 years old.
- June 14, 1990: Detroit finishes off Portland in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
- October 6, 1990: Fifth Down.
- October 12, 1990: Cincinnati finishes off Pittsburgh in Game 6 of the NLCS.
- January 12, 1991: Buffalo whips Miami in the AFC divisional playoffs.
- May 30, 1991: Magic Johnson flips the ball down the court.
- October 16, 1991: With Pittsburgh up 3-2 in the NLCS, needing just one win in two games at Three Rivers Stadium, Alejandro Pena buckles the knees of Andy Van Slyke on a 1-2 changeup, Van Slyke strikes out looking with the tying run on third, and Atlanta forces a Game 7 with a 1-0 win.
- October 17, 1991: John Smiley gives up three runs in the first inning, John Smoltz pitches a complete-game shutout, and Atlanta wins Game 7, 4-0.
- June 3, 1992: Michael Jordan shrugs.
- October 14, 1992: Francisco Cabrera.
- January 17, 1993: Buffalo whips Miami in the AFC conference finals.
Growing up where I did, there were no automatic favorites. I had already eschewed simply rooting for Oklahoma and the Dallas teams, so in the late-1980s, I found myself simply gravitating toward the players I liked: Dan Marino and Mark Clayton. Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter. Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, and Bobby Bonilla. The Mizzou love was born into me, so I didn't have a choice in that one. But the results of my selections were a series of exciting teams and persistent, crushing postseason heartbreak. My makeshift sports city is more tortured than two Clevelands.
By my recollection, my last two sports cries were on October 23, 2010, and October 14, 1992. In the former, Mizzou's football team finally got the Oklahoma monkey off its back, and a friend and I were a bit overcome by the thought of another friend who passed away a year earlier and who would have been so joyous at that moment. But I guess that was only so sports related.
Sid Bream and Francisco Cabrera, center. (Scott Cunningham)
In the latter, Francisco Cabrera happened. And Sid Bream's slide. And Barry Bonds' awful throw. And Andy Van Slyke's stunned sit-down in the outfield. And Chico Lind's error a few minutes preceding.
This one hit me harder than everything else on the above list combined. There was such finality to it that, even at 14, even at my most naively optimistic, I couldn't negotiate my way into thinking the Pittsburgh Pirates would get another chance the next year. That was the case in 1990, when the wire-to-wire Reds took the Buccos down in the NLCS. And despite Bobby Bonilla's impending departure, it was the case again in 1991, when the resurgent Braves set the table for one of the most incredible World Series in history. (And that Pena changeup was so disgusting that my dad, watching in the room with his emotionally unstable son, actually laughed out loud at it.)
In 1992, we knew it was Pittsburgh's last chance for a while, and the Sports God was unimaginably cruel about it. The Pirates fell behind, three games to one, in the NLCS; but as Pirates fans came to grips with approaching mortality, their team came back to win Game 5 in Pittsburgh and Game 6 in Atlanta. She even let the Pirates go up by a couple of runs heading into the ninth inning of Game 7. A simple Game 5 loss would have hurt badly enough; this was just mean. This was poking an open wound. This was toying with your victim like our cat does with a spider. One leg gone, then another one, then ooh! You think you're going to get away! Then another four legs gone.
(And yes, the same exact damn routine happened almost eight years later with the Blazers and Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals. I didn't stop wondering why She hates me at 14.)
Since 1992, the Internet happened to the world. So did Shai. And Lou Bega. And the Blair Witch Project. And Shakespeare in Love. And Dane Cook. The iMac has taken on about 17 different looks. Outkast made a song about bombing Baghdad, and four years later, we bombed Baghdad. Miley Cyrus was born a month after Bream slid into home. And with every passing year, the Pirates continued to lose. They almost crafted together the dumbest, greatest playoff run of all-time in 1997, then went back to losing. They teased in 2002 for a little while, then collapsed. They teased in 2011, then collapsed. They really teased in 2012, then collapsed.
James McDonald (USA Today Sports)
Over time, Major League Baseball has lost me. I've always liked football and tennis more, anyway, but each year since 1992 has seen my interest dwindle, little by little. First, it was Albert Belle making more than the entire Pirates' lineup. That was somehow fair. Then, it was the look-the-other-way steroids era and baseball's attempt both to make money and remain morally high and mighty. Finally, it was the draft rules changes of a couple of years ago, when payrolls were allowed to remain continually obscene, but spending limits were installed for the draft so those crazy, free-spending Pirates would stop deriving an unfair advantage over the rest of baseball. I knew baseball was unfair, but I always thought of MLB's role in that as, more than anything, "Hey, what can we do? People want to watch the Yankees int he playoffs. Our hands are tied." The draft rules proved that they not only didn't care that small-market teams were facing stupid-awful odds -- they wanted to encourage it.
But while my love of baseball is no more, my love of this team has never ended. I can't help it; if I could, I'd have stopped long ago. I stopped caring about the Dolphins when Marino retired, but I have loved Pittsburgh through Kris Benson and Operation Shutdown and Rinku & Dinesh and Lloyd McClendon stealing first base and Dave Littlefield putting together a few of the worst years in the history of general management.
More than the Pirates, though, I love Pirate fans.
Every time you drive to St. Louis, you pass "Home of Baseball's Greatest Fans" billboards, but it's easy to root for a winner. Positive reinforcement is quite obviously a powerful thing in fandom. Rooting for a winner makes you feel like you're entitled to wins, and when more wins follow, you begin to think it's because of you. But that's crap. Pittsburgh fans, the ones that kept showing up, the ones that kept caring and writing and clapping and hoping, are baseball's best fans. My job as a fan was easy: Check the Internet each morning to find out who won, roll your eyes if your team lost, move on with your day, and try to hit PNC Park if you're anywhere near Pittsburgh (which I am about every 6-8 years). But the Charlie Wilmoths and Pat Lackeys of the world, who have been writing daily about this team for nearly a decade, who have figured out ways to keep caring, who have figured out ways to keep me caring, are fan heroes as far as I'm concerned. When the Pirates clinched a playoff bid last night, via a ninth-inning Starling Marte home run and some drama, my first thought wasn't "I'm so happy for the Pirates," or "I'm so happy for myself." It was "I'm so happy for Charlie and Pat."
Kids Day at PNC Park, August 21, 2011 (Jared Wickerham)
I discovered SB Nation back around 2004 or so because of Bucs Dugout. I was desperate for a sign of hope for the Pirates, and in hope's absence, I found a site full of people who were going on and hoping anyway. Perhaps I'd have gone down this career road without discovering them -- I'd have surely come across other SBN sites at one point or another -- but they set the template for the type of blogging I tried to emulate in proceeding years: hopeful but realistic, steady through suffering. And after 20 years, there is payoff for hope.
It seems likely that Pittsburgh will end up in the rather silly one-game wildcard with the Reds next week. (I say it's silly, and it is, but obviously if the Pirates were to finish in the second wildcard spot, I'd feel a lot better about the concept.) And lord knows the thought of the Pirates' playoff experience starting and ending in the same day feels too tempting for Her to pass up. But after two decades in the wilderness, after two decades simultaneously in the past and future tenses, the Pittsburgh Pirates are back in the present tense. And that alone feels damn good.
Celebrate, Pirates fans. You are all badasses, and nobody deserves to be happy as much as you do right now. Hopefully you get to celebrate a lot further into October. And hopefully the Pirates are back here, playing meaningful late-September ball, for years to come.