What's the proper way to celebrate mere respectability?
Pirates fans have needed to give this an uncommon amount of thought. As I write, the team infamous for the longest losing streak in the history of North American professional sports has 81 wins. That guarantees the consecutive losing seasons will not reach 21, a sacred number for all Pirates fans because that's the one the sainted Roberto Clemente wore on his back.
But a winning baseball season, that takes 82 wins. The Pittsburgh Baseball Club hasn't had one since the Bush administration -- not George W's administration, his father's. Yet now that the team is blowing right past respectability and has a 99.9 percent shot at making the playoffs, a winning season is only a milepost, not the finish line.
Still, one can't blame long-suffering Pirates fans (pardon the redundancy) for wanting to raise a glass for win No. 82. So I poked around a little in the great Pittsburgh Diaspora to see how it might be celebrated.
• Back in '92, Kevin Joyce was a young physician living in a Peters townhouse. Every night during the October playoffs, he washed down pierogies and kielbasa with an Iron City and then smoked a cigar between the eighth and ninth innings. That worked well enough until the night Pirates outfielder Barry Bonds couldn't throw out one of the slowest guys in baseball at home plate and the Atlanta Braves went to the World Series instead of the men in black and gold.
"I have not smoked a cigar, had a pierogi or eaten a piece of kielbasa since," Dr. Joyce emailed.
He will partake of the sacred food when they win their 82nd, "and if I can find an IC in the Lehigh Valley, I will have that, too. ... I will go out on my deck, and this one last time puff on a cigar. Then never again."
• A fan who goes by "Jolly Rodger" wrote on the PG+ website Tuesday that he intends to drink the craft beer Monkey Knife Fight upon the final out in the 82nd victory, "to kill that monkey on my back and reflect on the last 20 years so I can then truly relax and enjoy the rest of the pennant race."
• Joe Luchok, of Arlington, Va., says he's having a glass of 20-year-old port.
All fine ideas, but this can't be only about the toast, even if this team was toast for the past score of Septembers. Jim Vespe of Mamaroneck, N.Y., has a more ambitious idea. Truth be told, it's the same idea he suggested about this time last year -- and then the Pirates lost 23 of their 32 remaining games.
"I have a very soft spot for children's hospitals," wrote Mr. Vespe, a longtime medical writer. "And I don't have to tell anyone in Pittsburgh that you have one of the finest in the world in Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh."
Thus he suggests a "Team 82" to encourage Pittsburghers to make donations in multiples of 82: "Little kids could pledge 82 cents. Teenagers could pledge $8.20... " And so on into the big bucks.
I called Mr. Vespe, 64, after the 80th win the other day. (He's a Pirates fan because his mom hailed from Lyndora in Butler County, enough bloodline for him to be about the only teen in 1960s Queens to windmill his bat like Willie Stargell.)
He says his idea was inspired by a 1995 campaign by the Baltimore Orioles: People made donations to Johns Hopkins University for research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease, when Cal Ripken was on his way to breaking Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played.
In New York, Mr. Vespe has been blessedly unaware of the ongoing catfight between UPMC and Highmark. When I shared my concerns that all their attack ads might dampen the enthusiasm for giving, he said strategies in the corporate suites are beside the point.
"The bottom line is these people do help children, desperately ill children," he said.
Indeed they do, and God bless them. Mr. Vespe allowed, however, that any charity would do. Donors are free to make their own choices and still be part of Team 82.
It does seem a fine way to mark a milepost. So on Wednesday morning, I wrote out a check for a multiple of 82, leaving the line blank after "Pay to the order of." I could decide what to put there when the Pirates got their 82nd win and, boy, it felt good to be running out of time.
Correction, posted Sept. 5: An earlier version of this column misspelled the last name of Joe Luchok of Arlington, Va.brianoneill
Brian O'Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.