On the campus of North Carolina State University, in a student lounge on an October night nearly 21 years ago, Mark Stover unwittingly walked smack into the dreaded Dickensian moment:
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
"I was surrounded by Braves fans," he remembered on the phone this week, "and they were having the best time ever. I was not. I wasn't convinced Sid Bream was safe. I went through all this denial, watching Andy Van Slyke sitting on his butt in center field.
"It felt horrible."
And, if that weren't enough, an historic moment of stunning heartache for an 18-year-old Pirates fan 500 miles from home, it was further both the epoch of belief and the epoch of incredulity, apparently because Dickens was nothing if not relentless.
"Not long before that, I'd tried to walk on to play baseball at N.C. State," Stover said. "I realized I wasn't good enough."
That's about what baseball tasted like to this kid from Beaver Falls the last time the Pirates had a winning season, the last time they showed their face in a postseason, the last time they weren't a validated summertime joke.
The aftertaste only lasted 20 seasons.
Pittsburgh went to a baseball wilderness where hope and promise and even simple competence dared not dwell.
Stover went to the United States Air Force, to Korea, and, after 9/11, to Afghanistan.
But now, Technical Sergeant Mark Stover is retiring, and, though he never has ventured much past the observation that it's hard to believe the Pirates didn't have a winning season the entire time he was in the service, the synergy, or at least synergy's invitation to irony, can't be meaningless, can it?
Not 100 percent meaningless.
Among the tens of millions of reasons the Pirates have finished under .500 every season since Stover filled out his enlistment papers, which includes one reason for each of the $4.5 million dollars they paid Derek Bell not to play for them during Operation Shutdown, there has to be room for at least the whimsical possibility that they were just waiting for Stover to get out of the service.
I mean that's the kind of fan he is. And he's certainly not alone.
"It doesn't take long to figure out where the Pittsburgh sports fans are on any base or any installation," Stover said. "They've got their cars outfitted with stuff, and there's usually a Pittsburgh bar or three in every town. We'd always find each other. And then, with the advent of the Internet, to go online and read the Post-Gazette, that was a game-changer. Before that, I used to drive home from Dover Air Force Base and bring the papers back with me."
Stover was probably in Afghanistan -- he can't say officially -- by the time Operation Shutdown started, which was when Bell, who'd hit .173 in 2001, said he would go into Operation Shutdown rather than be forced to compete for a starting spot on the 2002 team. He was released a few weeks later and never played again.
Operations over Afghanistan were a little more critical.
"There are decisions that get made, both during a war-time scenario and everyday peacetime operations that affect people's lives," said Stover, who prepared weather forecasts for brutally difficult missions. "It's not like whether it's going to be partly cloudy or not. It's about how dangerous are the weather conditions going to be for pilots and for people on the ground. I have to tell pilots within a couple of hundred feet where the cloud cover will be and within meters how much visibility they're going to have so they can execute their mission and stay safe.
"Sometimes, troops' lives were in the balance of being able to get air support to save them, and, sometimes, that hinged on the weather forecast. Could they get to them? That's real pressure."
You might think, as I often did, that when someone has that life-and-death kind of day ahead of you, that the ceaseless flailing of your favorite baseball team thousands of miles away doesn't really amount to much, much less the observations of the people back home writing about them.
You'd be wrong.
"It's so important; it really is," Stover said. "Just the three-minute distraction of reading a column, sharing a common point of view. It's a little self-indulgent but it takes you out of whatever the stresser is at the moment. It's critical."
With an 82nd Pirates victory soon to be on the table, I asked Technical Sergeant Stover, now just a couple of months from his return to civilian Pirates fan status, if he ever in the past 20 years thought his scarce free time would be better spent with another baseball team.
"Noooo," was the short answer. "That's usually one of the better arguments military people have with each other, how they decide their sports allegiances. With us, there's no question. I was born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. I am black and gold. There's no question about it."
The Pirates, of course, haven't always deserved that kind of bedrock loyalty. But, as the streak ends on this little slice of symmetry with one Air Force career, I don't guess anyone should be surprised that Mark Stover was someone they could count on.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org.