Postcard from the Pirates diaspora

I've been hooked on the Bucs most of my life, though I've never lived in Pittsburgh.

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- We did not drive two hours to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs. We went because the Pirates were there. That's why we took the kids out of school to see their very first Major League Baseball game. It was about the Pirates -- the wild-card, playoff-bound Pirates.

We went because what has happened in Pittsburgh this summer has gladdened hearts all over -- from baseball fans pulling for a small-market team whose pitching, defense and modest but timely hitting have earned admiration to Pirates fans wearing Pirates gear in northern Indiana who now hear "Go, Pirates" from strangers once silent with indifference.

People are talking about the Pirates, and Pirates fans scattered geographically are finding each other and swapping memories and hopes in happy solidarity. It's not about a bandwagon; it's about rekindling dormant dreams.

The old man puzzles me by saying, "I've been there. I've walked across that bridge," -- until I realize he's responding to my "Meet Me at the Clemente Bridge" T-shirt.

The usher at the college football game here in South Bend sees my Pirates cap and says he grew up in Pittsburgh. He comes by later, "I just got a text. The Pirates got Morneau." High fives between two guys who just met.

So we drove to Chicago to see the 2013 Pirates in person, and at the Indiana Toll Road plaza we spotted the little boy in a McCutchen jersey. And the two dads, each wearing Pirates shirts, grinned and said, "Go Pirates" and "Enjoy the game." Kindred pilgrims.

But the main reason we went to Wrigley was to share the latest chapter in a long book, to initiate three 9-year-olds, to honor an affection -- a love really -- that goes back half a century.

I first became aware of baseball in October 1960. I was 8. My best friend said we wanted the Pirates to win the World Series because the Yankees won all the time. I can still feel the jubilation of Mazeroski's climactic home run.

As a boy in Louisiana in the early 1960s, I had no home team. But I had the Pirates. I read box scores each morning in the daily paper. I subscribed to The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated and Sport magazine. Baseball was my boyhood passion, and Roberto Clemente was my hero.

I wrote Clemente letters and got notes back. I mailed baseball cards for him to sign and got them back autographed, with a couple of signed black-and-white photos tucked in. Family vacations were timed to see the Pirates in St. Louis and then Houston when the Colt 45s and Astros were there.

Clemente's baseball cards -- every one issued -- are my most valued possessions still today. And still today, when I see the old, historic, black-and-white footage of Clemente swinging, fielding, running the bases (those pistons legs flying), tears spill from my eyes. I cannot help it.

On New Year's Day 1973, I was a college student visiting Miami for an Orange Bowl game, when my parents tracked me down to let me know that my boyhood hero had died. So deep is that wound that at Wrigley Field last week, pointing to Neil Walker and trying to tell my kids his story, my throat choked off the words.

But that tragedy did not extinguish my bond with the Pirates. I remember 1979, sitting in a campground in Michigan with the car running so I could hear the radio play-by-play to catch Manny Sanguillen's game two, ninth-inning pinch-hit single and watching The Family's World Series comeback over Baltimore on TV.

My first-born son came into the world that year and, despite our proximity to Chicago and Detroit, he adopted the Pirates as his own. His personal devotion was forged during winning years but did not wane throughout the drought. Sid Bream broke his 13-year-old heart; his own son, not yet 1, wears Pirates gear on Facebook. Living in central Indiana, he and his brother have watched the Indianapolis Indians, attending games to scout the Pirates' future.

But some of the most poignant chapters in this family saga have been the weekends when we'd drive to Pittsburgh, catch games at Three Rivers or PNC Park, walk along the rivers, stroll across Clemente Bridge, hang out by the fountain and Fort Pitt after a Saturday night game. I vividly recall our first arrival in Pittsburgh, emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel at night, the city looking like a jeweled mecca at our feet. There's a brick at PNC with our names on it, and the number 21.

Those memories are all the more precious because we took those trips through years when we were struggling with a painful divorce. The Pirates was a love we shared, and those trips helped keep us together when life was sending us apart.

So on that trip to Wrigley last week, bound to others in Pirates caps, Clemente jerseys and even a "We Are Family" T-shirt, it wasn't about that single game. It was about kids and baseball and Roberto Clemente and family, and a lifetime of deep and winged feelings so many of us know.

pirates - opinion_commentary

Kerry Temple is the editor of Notre Dame Magazine (


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