Saturday Diary: I'm a fan, no matter the weather

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It may be hard to believe, but the phrase “pitchers and catchers report” is now reverberating throughout the nation this month as Major League Baseball spring training begins. Of course, with the Pirates’ success last year — their first winning season in a generation — here in Pittsburgh the anticipation that those words represent will be felt more than usual.

Not with me, however. Those have always been magic words to me, no matter how well the Pirates do, though I admit to considerable glee when they achieved that 82nd victory and made the playoffs last year.

No one has ever accused me of being a fair-weather fan; I supported the team when it was an offensive juggernaut in the 1970s, stained by the drug trials in the 1980s, in revival in the early 1990s and going through the two-decade stretch of futility that has finally ended. On Labor Day 2009, I went to PNC Park to watch the Pirates lose to the Houston Astros — the game that clinched their 17th consecutive losing season, setting the record for the longest in major professional sports.

Of course, the dedication of Chicago Cubs fans, none of whom experienced a World Series champion in their lifetimes and most not even a visit to the Fall Classic, is now legendary.

And do you know what? In one sense I envy their lofty status as authentic fans because I have witnessed the Bucs winning it all.

Mom was pregnant with me during the 1960 World Series, so I missed that one. But I was around for 1971, when the Bucs unveiled a “secret weapon” known as Roberto Clemente, and the 1979 “Fam-A-Lee” team.

I remember that in 1979 they had a better road than home record when the Orioles went ahead in the series 3-games-to-1 with the last two contests to be played in Baltimore. I remember thinking, “We got ’em right where we want ’em.”

But even beyond the Pirates, I root for my teams even when they lose. And then when they do win, I feel vindicated — I had “stayed the course.” It doesn’t get much more satisfying than that.

The University of Pittsburgh’s men’s basketball team, most of whose games I attended as a student, had it bad in the 1990s, with embattled head coach Paul Evans being shown the door — technically, his contract just ran out — and successor Ralph Willard having limited success.

But after I graduated in 1997, with Mr. Willard still at the helm, I invested in a season ticket, even in the dark, dank Fitzgerald Field House. There was no Oakland Zoo at the time; indeed, the student section was rarely filled. I went to games because that was what I did.

Then in 1999 came Ben Howland, with chief lieutenant Jamie Dixon in tow. A friend who had watched Mr. Howland at his previous job at Northern Arizona told me, “Pitt does not know what it’s getting!”

We would soon find out.

In 2000, during a game against Robert Morris, I noticed that on offense the Pitt team was passing the ball around the perimeter and into and out of the post and remember thinking, “What are they doing?” But time after time, I noticed that the deliberate play resulted in a lay-up, a short jump shot or a wide-open three.

“Oh, I get it,” I thought. “They’re playing basketball.”

At the tail end of that season, the team caught fire, going to the finals of the Big East Tournament but losing to Boston College. The overall record precluded its going to the NCAA tournament, but Mr. Howland said right before the next season, “Remember the Run.” With good reason, it turned out.

Since then, of course, participation in the NCAA tournament has progressed from pipe dream to expectation. Far from just hoping for a decent season, Pitt fans complain now about seeding and the lack of a Final Four appearance. (Hold your horses, folks — the Panthers will eventually get there.)

On March 7, 2009, I witnessed the Panthers, by then having moved to the Petersen Events Center and with Mr. Dixon in charge, take down the University of Connecticut for their first-ever home victory against a top-ranked team. I remember the date because I still have the stub in my wallet. (The first win happened earlier that year on UConn’s court.)

Though I gave up the season ticket three years ago because I needed to put my money and energies elsewhere, I feel as though I’m being rewarded for my loyalty.

In August 1993, I spent a weekend visiting a then-future, now-former girlfriend who at the time lived in Chicago. Whenever I travel to another city I like to visit a local chapter of my fraternity if one exists, so on Saturday afternoon we drove to the campus of Northwestern University in the northern suburb of Evanston.

Upon returning to Pittsburgh, I began following the Northwestern Wildcats from a distance. Yes, I knew that the football team was lousy and the men’s basketball team was an afterthought, never even having played in the NCAA tournament. Still, I developed an affinity for a place I might have considered attending had I decided to go into journalism right out of high school.

So when the gridiron squad opened its season two years later by stunning Notre Dame 17-15 on the road, I was already on the bandwagon. (It turned out that the Wildcats were so confident they would prevail that then-coach Gary Barnett told his players beforehand, “When we win, don’t carry me off the field.”)

That game turned out not to be a fluke, as the team went undefeated in the Big Ten Conference and played in the Rose Bowl — just as Mr. Barnett promised, to “take the Purple to Pasadena” to, I’m sure, a lot of “yeah, riiight.”

Yeah. Right. That turnaround became the story of the year in major-college football.

One of these days the Wildcats’ men’s basketball team will make it to the Big Dance. And when it does, I’ll be rooting for it.

That is, of course, unless it plays Pitt.

Rick Nowlin is a Post-Gazette news assistant (rnowlin@post-gazette.com, 412-263-3871).

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