Irate Pirates fans uncork wild pitches of frustration on Web

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The Pirates' nagging habit of losing has angered the P out of more than a few followers.

Iratefans.com is one of the latest in a litany of Web sites that sling venom, vinegar and vitriol toward the cellar-dwelling baseball club heading for its 14th consecutive losing season. It started a month ago last Sunday and quickly churned up 10,000 unique page views plus 230 T-shirts sold. The shirts, for a bargain, um, basement price of $8.99-10.99 (depending on size), portrays the swashbuckling signature skull and crossbones alongside a sinking team-logo P to form the word irate, a play on a word that describes these fans' feelings about the woebegone team's play on the field.

The site's handful of ringleaders, who had never previously met in person but only online, got together June 3 to wear their black-on-gold protest shirts to a San Diego game at PNC Park, whereupon the Pirates since have won four and lost 16 -- including 12 in a 51-year, franchise-low row after last night's home loss to the world champion Chicago White Sox.

"There certainly are a lot of angry Pirates fans out there, and they seem to be congregating on the Internet," said Don Spagnolo, 28, a sports memorabilia dealer from Canonsburg and the operator of Mondesishouse.blogspot.com, an outlet where he can dispense his "sarcastic, jaded, Pittsburgh point of view -- the anguished fan."

In fact, there are almost as many such raging Pirates portals (24 unofficially) as Pirates victories this season (26). They are started by followers locally, such as Mr. Spagnolo, the son of the same Angelo crowned America's worst golfer in 1984, and by followers abroad. And they're seemingly launching new ones daily: The door to Mondesi's House swung open Monday, earning a link on the sardonic Internet stop Deadspin, an on-air reading by Tim Benz on sports talk WEAE-AM and some 1,200 hits, all on its opening day.

After (Raul) Mondesi's House, can (Matt) Stairs To The Basement be far behind?

"It's not even like an option anymore, whether to lose or win," Irate Fans' Kraig Koelsch, 32, said yesterday over the telephone from Columbus, Ohio, bemoaning the prolonged Pirates' losing streak that, with each passing game, delved further into a sad-sack club history.

Fans' fury only interferes with fanaticism so much, though: Mr. Koelsch, who is about to move from Columbus to a project-manager internet job in Orlando, Fla., first will attend the Tigers-Pirates game Sunday . . . wearing his Irate Fans shirt. By the way, he reports that they're also sending shirts to billionaire Mark Cuban -- who some see as the club's savior if only he would buy the team -- and actor Michael Keaton, who criticized the Pirates before throwing out the first pitch at their home opener.

"Our message is, we're very unhappy with the way things are," added Mr. Koelsch, a North Huntington native who, like many of these anti-Pirates Web typists, still manages to attend a half-dozen or more games each season. "We want a change. If they aren't going to give us a competitive team ... sell it to someone who will. Somebody put it up on a [message] board: The Florida Marlins have rebuilt themselves three times [and won two World Series] in the Pirates' time. So don't give us this small-market thing, either."

Mr. Koelsch then half-apologized: "The irate-ness is coming out."

Their Web site grew from a message on a board at another Pirates portal, OnlyBucs.net. Pennsylvania State Trooper Dale Gabriel of Slickville arrived at the idea, Johnstown native George Vuckovich of Ormond Beach, Fla., bought the domain and Mr. Koelsch used his internet background to help get the thing started.

"I think that's a good barometer for how much frustration there is. Over 200 shirts, 10,000 unique visitors -- that's impressive," said Mr. Vuckovich, 29, who owns a company that generates loan applications for financial institutions. The grassroots group aims to gather in Pittsburgh during All-Star week, though those plans remain incomplete.

He said they want to lead a protest more meaningful than a small, in-game walkout once staged by Tampa Bay Devil Rays fans: "Just apply pressure. When we started this, we didn't really think anything would come of it: 'It's a catchy name, maybe get a couple of shirts out there.' We just want to apply attention to the fact that this [situation] isn't right."

Continued Mr. Koelsch, who also lived in Charlotte, N.C., for seven years: "I'm so not a Western Pennsylvanian who says, 'This place sucks; it rains and snows.' It's a great area, and I love it. I'm proud to trumpet that wherever I go. The first thing I bring up is the Steelers. When I bring up the Pirates, people laugh. It's awful. Since Sid Bream slid [in winning for Atlanta the 1992 National League Championship Series], we haven't gotten up."

Such a past has spawned sites by a Lost Pirates Generation, young fans who barely remember those heady early 1990s. John Ciganik, 24, is a former Polish Hill/Greenfield resident and a Slippery Rock senior majoring in both political science and, you guessed it, history. His SellthePirates.com is a modest stop on the internet, a place where he can lash out at ownership. Pat Lackey, 21, similarly finds time amid his Duquesne University biochemistry studies and research work to write for his Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke? site a 600-word essay comparing the Pirates to the cult-movie "Office Space," and so on, at whereisVanSlyke.blogspot.com.

"You run out of things to hope for," said Mr. Lackey, who nonetheless attends as many as 20 Pirates games per season, with his Hermitage family going to about eight as partial season-ticket holders. "I mean, there's got to be a change from the top. They look exactly the same as they looked last year, the last five years and years before that.

"I'm 21. When this year ends, it'll be 14 straight losing seasons. It'll be two-thirds of my life that the Pirates haven't been able to put together a winning season."

Even on the Pirates' official web site, pittsburghpirates.com, the message board was aflame yesterday, virtually speaking. "The fans have been conned for too many years," wrote a fan under the pseudonym Base Ball, on the "It's All About the Lack of Talent" thread. "PEOPLE, wake up and smell the Folger's! Forget about attending these home games."

It's a thread of frustration that also runs through message boards and sites such as HonestWagner.blogspot.com, PiratingPittsburgh.com (also found at Greenweenie.com), Leeenys Mien at leeeny.blogspot.com, the Unofficial Pirates Message Board at Pittsburghsports.net, RomoPhoneHome.blogspot.com and buccoblog.mlblogs.com, where pseudonym Jake filed a 1,000-word rant on Monday, including a photo from the Dodgers' KCAL-TV telecast showing a fan wearing an Irate Fans shirt.

The wearer? The fellow, whose name remains undisclosed, posts on many of these sites as Jollyroger.

Perhaps, as the Irate Fans ringleaders stated in their humble beginning, the mutiny begins online.

Kraig Koelsch, one of the founders of the iratefans.com Web site, models a T-shirt.
Click photo for larger image.
More Coverage:

Dirty dozen: Pirates lose 12th game in a row, 4-2



Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


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