Pitch in to celebrate Pirates' 82nd win

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About six weeks ago, a New Yorker with Pittsburgh roots came to me with a charitable notion that I blew off.

Jim Vespe suggested launching "Team 82" to encourage Pittsburghers to make donations in multiples of 82 once the Pirates won their 82nd game. That's the number it would take to end the string of 19 consecutive losing seasons, the longest in the history of North American professional sports.

When Mr. Vespe shared this in July, I didn't want to hear about recognizing mere mediocrity.

"Nobody's thinking of 82 wins now," I emailed Mr. Vespe on July 30. "That's small beer. The goal is the playoffs. Eighty-two is just the consolation prize now."

The Pirates were 58-43 that morning, three games out of first place and holding the top wild card spot in the playoffs. Visions of mid-October baseball were dancing through every black-and-gold brain in Western Pennsylvania.

The Pirates then proceeded to go 11-17. Heading into last night's game, they'd lost 13 of 19. All Pirates fans know a winning team collapsed last August, too, and they've thrown in enough towels these past two weeks to fill a fleet of laundry trucks.

So, with confidence dropping like Facebook stock, I retrieved Mr. Vespe's email and reread it:

"As a medical writer for more than 30 years, I have a very soft spot for children's hospitals, and I don't have to tell anyone in Pittsburgh that you have one of the finest in the world in Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh."

The way he figures it, when the adjective "long-suffering" is finally excised from Pirates fans, "Little kids could pledge 82 cents. Teenagers could pledge $8.20. ..."

I'll just cut off his email before he gets to how much he thinks Michael Keaton and Bunny Mellon should kick in. (Hint: Way more than Ms. Mellon gave when trying and failing to paper over the sins of the sniveling John Edwards.)

I called Mr. Vespe in Larchmont, N.Y., and got a voice that still bore traces of his boyhood in working-class Astoria, Queens. He grew up a Mets fan, but told me he had a trace love for the Pirates through his mother's side.

His mom hailed from Lyndora in Butler County, and when he was a kid she was "the only Olga in a neighborhood of Rosies and Ronnies and Connies." Her steelworker father, Mike Buchta, had moved the family to Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1932. (Only 5-foot-3, his grandfather was a power-hitting first baseman for his steel mill team, "a Joe Morgan among Mike Ditkas," Mr. Vespe said.) Anyway, his mother wound up marrying an Italian from Astoria.

Due to his maternal bloodline, Jim Vespe became about the only boy in Queens who would windmill his bat like the Pirates' Willie Stargell, something that led at least one Astoria pitcher to try to put the ball in his ear.

Mr. Vespe wasn't as down as I was about the Pirates' playoff chances, recalling that the Miracle Mets of 1969 were way behind the Chicago Cubs in mid-August before they began their unlikely run to the world championship. When those perennial losers reached baseball's pinnacle, it was an even bigger lift than the moon landing or Woodstock that same summer. As Mr. Vespe saw it, "if the Mets can win the pennant, that meant you can get the job, you can get the girl, you can make the team."

I like the way this guy thinks. Mr. Vespe chose Children's because he's a "guess-I'm-retired medical advertising copywriter." ("That means you don't get called for staff jobs or freelance assignments when you're 63 years old.") But, if I can put my two -- or rather, 82 -- cents in, a gift to any charity would be a good way for Pirates fans to mark this occasion.

Some fans have waited their entire lives for a winning team, but there's still that ticklish question of etiquette that Emily Post never faced: What's the appropriate way to celebrate mere competence in the City of Champions?

For once, fellow Pirates fans, the answer isn't "fireworks." When that 82nd win comes next month, just quietly send a little something to your favorite cause with "Team 82" on the memo line. If a winning season is clinched early enough in September, celebrations in October may even follow, though I wouldn't bet too high a multiple of 82 on that.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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