In 1988, I was playing tee ball in Erie. MYAA. Sponsor? The Beer Mug. Yeah, I've got pictures. 1989? Sammartino Home something or other. That year, I got a “baseball card” made, and on the back of the picture is two questions and answers...FAVORITE TEAM : PITTSBURGH PIRATES and FAVORITE PLAYER : BOBBY BONILLA. I was collecting baseball cards like mad; I was a massive fan of Andy Van Slyke and his diving center field catches. Doug Drabek, Jose Lind, Jay Bell...
My first game was in 1988 vs. the Philadelphia Phillies at Three Rivers Stadium, and I still remember the awe I felt sitting in that seat in that stadium, seeing the tiny specks that I watched on TV play the game that I loved. 1989 brought me back to see the New York Mets come to town. Bus trip from Ridgway. My mom's side of the family were huge Pirates fans; my grandma knew all of the players and there were times that we'd sit and watch games together. We were watching a lot of games together that summer; my parents marriage was crumbling and my little brother and I spent a lot of time at my grandma's house.
The turn of the 90's finally brought the Bucs their first division crown in a decade, with guys like Van Slyke, a skinny kid named Barry Bonds, Mike “Spanky” Lavallier, Sid Bream, Lind, Doug Drabek, Neal Heaton..the list goes on and on. Those tight polyester black and yellow jerseys, the high bouncing grounders on Three Rivers' artificial turf, the ghost lines of the football gridiron crossing the field like a giant cat ran his paws across it.
My parents were living in separate homes by then, my mom with a new guy; my dad, alone. Dad wasn't much of a baseball guy, but Bill, my mom's new dude, was. So I still spent a lot of time watching games, seeing Chris Sabo and the Reds tear through the Pirates in the 1990 NLCS on their way to surprising the Athletics in the World Series. The next year it was the Atlanta Braves outlasting the Bucs, and then the heart wrenching seven game National League Championship Series in 1992 against the very same Braves team...
A line drive to center...Bream around third...throw home from Bonds...
Suffice to say it was pretty hard. The Bucs, as widely known, haven't been in the playoffs since. In fact, that year I turned 12 years old, was the last year that they won more games than they lost.
The rest of the 90s was an awkward, confusing time for me; my home life was choatic at times and I stopped collecting baseball cards and watching as many games. The Pirates were a mess too, losing like they didn't care. They lost all their players to free agency or trades; Bonds went to San Francisco, Bonilla went to the Mets, Van Slyke moved on...the team was just dead. In 1995, I fell in love with a guitar, a deceased Texan blues guitarist and five rock musicians from Manchester, England. Baseball was falling off the radar for me.
The Pirates almost left town too; they were saved pretty much at the last minute by an ownership group and the new group promised a new era of Pirates baseball, including plans for a new grass stadium. Around that same time, Erie got a new ballpark and ended up being an affiliate of my favorite team. I saw Aramis Ramirez, Jose Guillen, Chad Hermansen, and a bunch of Pirates players that ended up on the 1997 “Freak Show” team that almost won the National League Central division but came up short and still didn't win more games than they lost. In 1998, the Erie SeaWolves became an affiliate of the Anaheim Angels and we didn't see any more future Pirates. Jeremiah Konetsky took me to the last game of the season the year Jim Leyland decided to leave the Bucs, and I remember choking back tears when he came out of the dugout for a curtain call at the end of a hard fought extra inning loss to the Cardinals.
Jeremiah also gave me the opportunity to go to the very first game of the final year of Three Rivers Stadium in 2000. I was feeling pretty good; just finished my first year (well, ¾ of a year) of college and we went to see them play Houston in the season opener. Unfortunately, it was rained out. Thats a long trip to make for a rainout, but it was worth it to say that I WAS there.
PNC Park opened in 2001, and I got to go to the very FIRST game (albeit exhibition) against the Mets. Saw Mike Piazza hit the very first homerun into the left field stands. The new stadium was absolutely beautiful too, a real sight to see.
A few months later, I went down to Pittsburgh and stood on Washington Hill to see Three Rivers Stadium be imploded. I thought it would be a fun time with my friends, it was freezing and we stood out there to watch it. The stadium was stripped of everything but the concrete; it looked like a circular tombstone. I looked at it hard, and remembered the smiles and the memories of those games in 1988 and 1989, and I took a step back from my friends and swallowed hard, trying not to cry. Even as I write this, the hairs on my arms are standing on end.
I went to a couple games that year; but even though the “new era” that was promised ended in a 100 loss season, it felt like brighter times were on the horizon.
Boy was I wrong.
The team was on a virtual never ending carousel of losing. Just when you thought they were picking up, they would trade off their best players at the deadline for “prospects” who nearly NEVER made the majors. They were drafting players that weren't the best ones available. It was very upsetting. My grandma, who I still managed to visit a couple times a year at most, said that she stopped watching games because she didn't recognize any of the players. This was a very dark time for the Pirates, and I personally stopped watching them after just a couple years. I still followed, but it was always pretty much a joke; they traded away everyone every year, signed free agents that were WAY past their prime years in the game. They never finished higher than next to last place.
In 2006, I met a guy at Sears who had been a big baseball fan but stopped watching because it had been getting too big. He is a really funny guy who has very hard nosed opinions on the world. His real love is writing, and he turned me on to a guy named Jim Bouton who wrote a very important and controversial book called “Ball Four”. The book was written about Bouton's comeback season as an aging pitcher for the Seattle Pilots in 1969. He wrote about the locker room talk, the trading politics, drugs, alcohol...the “realities” of the life of baseball. And boy, did I get hooked.
So I took a new interest in the game that I loved as a child. And a new interest in the Pirates. Unfortunately, they were still losing like crazy. We had a few really great players; Jack Wilson, Jason Bay, and the eventual batting champion that year, Freddy Sanchez. But the management just wasn't there, and they continued to lose. But I kept on the love interest. I got into a new job at a hotel and realized that working second shift afforded me the chance to start listening to games on the AM radio again, and I just loved it. It was wonderful. The team stunk, but I was still screaming when Matt Stairs crushed another pinch hit home run into the crisp summer night, or when Mike Gonzalez struck out another last batter to save a rare win for the Bucs.
In 2007, I started realizing that I didn't want to follow a team that wasn't going to commit to winning games. They traded away players at the deadline yet again, and signed some over the hill players to small contracts, yet again. But at the end of the year, the Pirates owners fired the General Manager and the team President left to pursue new duties.
2008 saw a new era begin with the addition of former Cleveland Indians assistant GM Neal Huntingdon take over the reins of the GM spot and former MLB exec Frank Coonelly became team President. They came in and told every player they were on the hot seat and that they needed to prove their worth. They got rid of a few big contracts that they didn't need, but the team still didn't win. They traded away the Pirates big player, Jason Bay, to the Boston Red Sox. But we received a few guys who have been at least average everyday players, so it wasn't like the 'prospects' deals the old regime had made. The Bucs still finished last.
2009 was supposed to be the new big thing. The Pirates were #11 on the Power Rankings on CNNSI.com in May. 14-11 record. Pretty good things going on. But a few weeks later, they shocked the baseball world by trading 2008's surprise star Nate McLouth to Atlanta for a few other players. My friends and I were shocked. What the heck were they doing? Then a few months later, they traded away fan favorite Nyjer Morgan to the Washington Nationals. Rumors abounded about the players they were going to get rid of at the deadline, and that nobody was safe. I swore to my friends in an email that if they traded away Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson, that I was done being a fan.
At the deadline, the Pirates traded away Freddy and Jack as well as almost every member of the 2008 team that finished dead last. Seven players gone...and I was upset. Called myself a “fan free agent” and was totally dejected, leading a toast at a bar to “screw the Pittsburgh Pirates!!” that was met with smiles and laughs.
My aunt Betty wrote me a text message mentioning my now deceased grandma, how sad she'd be at the current state of the team. My mom writes on Facebook that I'll always be a Pirates fan in my heart. And it brought back a flood of memories about how much I truly love this team. How sad my grandma would be that I gave up on them. What team was I going to raise my child watching?
It got me thinking. Maybe this isn't so bad. I analyzed the deals. Seven players gone, three major leaguers received, but 25, TWENTY FIVE prospects, including a pitcher who San Francisco coveted like Gollum coveted the Ring of Power. Maybe this ISN'T so bad. Yeah, my team is going to finish under .500 for the record breaking 17th consecutive season, setting a pro sports record. But I'm going to be there, and my heart isn't broken. If anything, I am really looking forward to the next couple years watching this young, speedy team gel into what could be another few years in a row of winning baseball.
We can only hope. But hope is what we have as Pirates fans. Hope.
Hope, and maybe a little luck.