I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and aside from the fact that I still have family there the one tie I keep with my hometown is through its sports teams. I spend money that I probably shouldn’t be spending to order the NHL Center Ice package so I can watch every Penguins game, and I do the best I can to catch as much of the Steelers as possible (Sunday Ticket is outrageously expensive, and I’m essentially repulsed by the idea of finding a Steelers bar nearby and shoehorning myself in to it to maybe watch the game or maybe get stuck staring at the back of somebody’s head the entire time). I’m enough of an irrational fan to be able to acknowledge that Ben Roethlisberger should probably be in prison, yet still root for the Steelers.
But before I was ever a Steelers fan or a Penguins fan, I loved two sports teams above all else: the Pittsburgh Spirit, our indoor soccer team that was out of business by 1986, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, our MLB franchise that probably should have gone out of business in 1993.
For most of my childhood the Pirates were pretty wretched. They won the 1979 World Series, when I was too young to remember it, then meandered around at the fringes of playoff contention until three straight last-place finishes from 1984-1986, including a fantastically awful 104-loss season in 1985. Probably not coincidentally, that was the same year that we had the Pittsburgh Drug Trials, in which several Pirates and a bunch of other MLB players were called before a grand jury investigating what turned out to be a rampant culture of drug use throughout the sport. I was too young to care about the drug trials, but I do remember my dad developing a healthy dislike for a lot of Pirates around that time. Drugs or no, I loved that ballclub. I collected all their baseball cards, went to games and sat among sparse, generally disinterested crowds, and when I played makeshift baseball in my driveway with a tennis ball and a stone wall to serve as the “batter,” I imagined I was a pitcher for the Pirates, though not any particular pitcher since all the ones they had around this time pretty much blew.
After the 85 season, in the wake of the drug trials and the embarrassingly bad season the team had just finished, the Galbreath family, which had owned the team since 1950, sold it to a group of Pittsburgh businessmen who wanted to make sure the team would not relocate. The new ownership cleaned house, bringing in a retired scout named Syd Thrift as GM and the White Sox’ third base coach, Jim Leyland, as manager. Their first season, 1986, was only slightly better than 85, but at least they didn’t break 100 losses (98! woo-hoo!). But something remarkable happened in 1987; they didn’t totally suck that year, only losing 82 games against 80 wins. In 1988, they finished in second place in the division, with an actual winning record for the first time since 1983. 1989 was a bit of a setback, fifth place and a losing record again, but in 1990, miraculously, they won their division and made the playoffs, the first of three consecutive trips to the National League Championship Series (and the first of three consecutive frustrating losses in said series, but it is what it is, I guess). Very quickly it became a lot easier to be a Pirates fan. Instead of playing “nameless Pirates pitcher” in my driveway, I could be Doug Drabek, who won the NL Cy Young Award in 1990. Going to the ballpark was fun, the stands were packed and people were into the team. Pittsburgh baseball was back.
Anybody who follows baseball knows what happened next. The Pirates ownership, woefully poor in an era where player salaries were just starting to mushroom into the huge contracts we see today, couldn’t afford to hang on to its best players and, after they fired GM Thrift over personality clashes, brought in a rotating series of doofus GMs who couldn’t draft, run a farm system, or deal away soon-to-be-leaving talent for the kind of young prospects that could have helped the team a couple of years down the road. What followed was a 19 year string of losing seasons, a North American professional sports league record, beginning in 1993 and continuing through the present day. When the team had a winning record in 1988 for the first time since 1983, it seemed like a really big deal. That was five consecutive losing seasons. They’re now on 19 and potentially counting. They’ve had the occasional good or even great player, the perpetual promise that smart drafting and development would bring the team back, a promise that has been made and remade countless times by successive general managers who could neither draft nor develop major league talent worth a damn, and ownership that has consistently been either forced to spend far less than most other teams on player payroll or has spent less out of a craven calculation that it could make more money with low payroll, MLB revenue sharing, and half-full stands than it could with a higher payroll and full stands, but no revenue sharing money. Leyland quit after the 1996 season, took over the Florida Marlins and immediately won a World Series in 1997 with the best team Wayne Huizenga’s Blockbuster money could buy. I gave up too; you can only take so much misery out of what is in the end a voluntary relationship as a fan, and when I left Pittsburgh I left behind my Pirates fandom and pretty much my baseball fandom as well. I followed the team in the box scores, but only to laugh as they racked up losing season after losing season.
In the midst of that record-setting 2011 season, though, something seemed to happen with the Pirates that gave lapsed fans like me some hope that things might be getting better: for the first four months of the season, they really didn’t suck. In fact, as late as the end of July they were in or near first place in their division. Sure, they collapsed at the end of the season to go 72-90, but they had some really promising talent on the field and (for a welcome change) seemed to have a lot in the minor league pipeline too. So I, 8 years after giving up on them, tried to will myself back into fandom once more. I spent money I really don’t have to order the MLB Extra Innings package, I stopped following the box scores to point and laugh and started really learning the players and following the team again. And they were great! They had a legitimate NL MVP candidate in Andrew McCutchen, a couple of really solid starters, a solid bullpen, and while they weren’t perfect they flirted with playoffs for almost the entire season.
I was moved to write this, however, because at this very moment they are two outs away from dropping to .500 on the season. They are in the midst of an epic, month-long collapse that has seen them lose at a 110 loss pace, and it is highly unlikely that they will recover enough to even prevent a 20th straight losing season, let alone to challenge for the playoffs. Everything that went right for them early in the season–the pitching, timely hitting, McCutchen–has failed. No help has been forthcoming either from the supposedly stocked minor league system or in trade. Clint Hurdle, their manager, looks increasingly lost, or panicked, or both. Deadspin recently argued that the collapse has made this the worst Pirates season ever, and for sheer build-your-hopes-up-then-crush-them-into-dust disappointment, it’s hard to argue with them.
And now they’ve lost the game and dropped to .500. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if this is the last time they see .500 this season. I can’t complain too much. Following the team more closely this season gave me more to talk about with my dad when I call home, even as the team started tanking and we just ranted about it to each other. On some level I should have known this would happen (you shouldn’t get your hopes up about any team that’s become this good at losing). Still, that kid I was in the 80s wanted to believe this was the year they would finally pull it together, and he had a lot of fun for a few months when it looked like it might actually happen. So yeah, I can’t complain.