After the Pirates' glorious rise in mid-season last year, their disastrous late-season collapse was gut-wrenching for diehard Pirate fans (the ones who bleed black and gold, not the bandwagon jumpers). When the misery finally came to an end, the Post-Gazette's Ron Cook called it the worst of the Pirates' 20 consecutive losing seasons, and most of those who commented on his column were in unhappy agreement.
The fall was so dramatic and the reaction of fans so emotional that it had me wondering if the Pirates had, at long last, become the stuff of tragedy. So, once spring training began, I decided to channel a couple of old friends that I hadn't been in touch with since my days as an English professor to see if they could help me understand the depth of the Pirates breathtaking fall in 2012 as my hometown team prepares for a new season.
Since Aristotle had written the classical definition of tragedy, I approached him first and asked if the Pirates had finally become tragic figures. A bit of a stuffed toga, Aristotle smugly pointed out that heroes in Greek tragedy were princes and kings of great city-states, not Pirates playing in a Smoky City.
Before I could mention Bob Prince or Nellie and Rob King, or tell him to brush up on his Pittsburgh history, Aristotle went on to point out that tragic heroes usually fall because of excessive pride and, once they see the consequences of their pride, do something drastic like gouging out their eyes. He couldn't quite see how the Pirates could feel excessively proud about 20 consecutive losing seasons, though he thought that fans who said they weren't going to watch the Pirates play anymore offered an interesting twist on blinding oneself.
Before Aristotle could bring up Zoltan, I decided to move on to William Shakespeare, who'd written a fair amount of tragedies in his day. A notorious punster, Shakespeare must have known I was coming because, perched on a gravestone, he was mumbling, "To be a Pirates fan or not to be a Pirates fan, that is the question."
When I asked Shakespeare to come up with an answer to the question, he said it all depends on the way Pirates fans want to look at the past baseball season. They could see it as a tragic spin from the very top to the very bottom of a cosmic Wheel of Fortune, or see it as merely a comic blunder, a midsummer night's dream of mistaken identities and misplaced loyalty and love.
Before I could accuse Shakespeare of sounding like his wishy-washy Hamlet, he said that if some Pittsburgh patron of the arts commissioned him to write a play on the Pirates 2012 season, he'd write a comedy. He pointed out that tragedies are hopeless affairs where everyone is usually dead at the end. Comedies, on the other hand, often seem headed for disaster but finish with a note of hope.
In Shakespeare's baseball comedy of errors, he'd have Pirates fans, bewitched by pennant fever, mistakingly believe they see a post-season team on the field at PNC Park. Awakened from their spell by an alarming losing streak, they discover that it's just the same old Pirates.
Once the dream is gone, they feel like fools, but, while vowing never to be deceived again, they remember the fun they had when it looked like the Pirates were heading to the World Series. After a winter of discontent, Pirates fans decide to head back to PNC Park in 2013, and, remembering the mid-season magic from last year, hope that some baseball Puck, or maybe another Zoltan, will cast a spell on them all over again.
When I asked Shakespeare how it all turns out for the Pirates and their fans, he reminded me that comedies, while they may seem to take forever to untangle all the obstacles along the way, always have a happy ending. So, as soon as the Pirates learn to play well enough to keep the dream alive for an entire season, long-suffering fans will finally get to dance in the streets again and sing that all's well that ends well, even if it did take more than two decades.
As for my own fate, readers may recall that I vowed a couple of years ago to run in the Pittsburgh Marathon until the Pirates win another World Series. And that's still the plan.
At the age of 74, I may appear to be running out of time, but my spirits were lifted when the oldest marathon runner in the world recently announced his retirement at the age of 101. So I'm in shape for a new season and, I hope, for another 27 years of Pittsburgh Marathons.
Of course, whether the Pirates end up delivering me a comedy or a tragedy may depend on when my own end arrives.
Richard "Pete" Peterson is the author of "Growing Up With Clemente" and "Pops: The Willie Stargell Story," scheduled for publication in May. He is professor emeritus of English at Southern Illinois University.