Pirates baseball suddenly serious in Pittsburgh again

Are fans trying to reorient themselves to a winning team?

Matt Light knows only one Pittsburgh. His city has well-regarded hospitals and universities, affordable housing and an abundance of cheap tickets to professional baseball games.

It's been a good life. As an adolescent in West View, he strove to be a class clown. He also attended about 20 Pirates games a year. Turned out, those interests would go hand in hand. When Mr. Light decided to start doing stand-up comedy a few years ago, he didn't have to think too hard about the right topic to use as an opener.

Mr. Light, 24, has a dark edge to his humor. He would have to reel audiences into his routine with something safe that was guaranteed to engage any Pittsburgher. It went something like this:

For Pittsburghers, Pirates no longer a laughing matter

With the Pirates firmly in position for a playoff spot at the All-Star break, local comedians are having to put their Bucs routines on the shelf. (Video by Brady McCollough; 7/12/2013)

Pirates fans optimistic heading into All-Star break

Pirates fans optimistic heading into All-Star break. (Video by Nate Guidry; 7/14/2013)

He walks on stage to minimal applause. Come on, you guys sound like PNC Park! How's everyone doing tonight?! Louder applause. The Pirates have been so bad for so long, the only time the game is exciting for a fan is during the fifth-inning pierogi race. It's the only time your guy has a chance of winning. ... The promotions are stupid, because, whoever that bobblehead is, he's going to be traded next week. ... Here's what they need to do: At the beginning of the game, announce 'FANS, TAKE OUT YOUR TICKET. IF YOU ARE IN SECTION 103, ROW 7, SEAT 3, CONGRATULATIONS, YOU ARE NOW THE STARTING PITCHER FOR THE PITTSBURGH PIRATES!' "

Mr. Light wrote this opener believing that he'd be able to use it into eternity. Pirates jokes have become the lifeblood of Pittsburgh's self-deprecating humor. When in doubt of what to say in this town, grumble something about those lousy Buccos, their lousy owner or two decades of futility, and you'll fit right in. But Mr. Light, a lifelong Pirates fan, has noticed a change in dynamics, and frankly, it's not good for business.

The Pirates are 56-36, firmly in a position for a playoff spot this coming October, and Mr. Light has had to write a new opener.

"I haven't been able to use my Pirates stuff this year," he said, "and it [stinks] because honestly out of all my jokes that's the most reliable. It's like that pain that everybody in the city has, but you can laugh at it now because it's been so long it's pathetic. Now people are like, 'This team's turned it around. This is it.' "

Baseball is suddenly serious again in Pittsburgh. As the All-Star break begins with the Pirates eyeing meaningful September games for the third consecutive season, it is no laughing matter for the North Side faithful.

So many being so eager to take the plunge has challenged folks like Mr. Light, who have made a living on the Pirates as a laughingstock. Sean Collier, a local comedian who works at Pittsburgh Magazine, has been using the Pirates as the closer to his routine for a few years now.

"I have a joke about how the Pirates have made me believe in miracles more than anybody else," said Mr. Collier, 28, "because if I can go to the ballpark for 20 years and think something good might happen, clearly, anything is possible for me."

Mr. Collier is still using that one, but he admits it's no longer connecting.

The citizenry appears ready for one of Pittsburgh's last bastions of ineptitude to fall, and, if it does, here's fair warning: You may not recognize your city.

Loyalty to baseball

Lush green ivy covers the tall red brick wall in Oakland near Schenley Park, helping to create an accurate rendering of old Forbes Field but at the same time camouflaging a key relic of a town's sporting foundation from the near-constant car and foot traffic.

Pittsburgh baseball has a grand history, and you know that when you see 78-year-old Herb Soltman regaling four visitors in what was once right-center field on a recent afternoon. Mr. Soltman was 25 and in attendance when Bill Mazeroski's home run cleared this wall in 1960, leading the Pirates to a World Series championship over the vaunted New York Yankees. Now, Mr. Soltman comes back here every year as president of the Game 7 Gang, to relive a time when the Pirates, not the Steelers, were the top source of civic pride.

These men came to the wall as part of a pilgrimage, a four-city baseball road trip. They hailed from Virginia, Ohio and Arizona, and they felt lucky to meet Mr. Soltman, who has defined himself by the unbridled happiness he felt as a much younger man.

"Isn't that cool!" Fred Hill said to Mr. Soltman, who was flipping through a photo album. "Is that Mazeroski?"

The middle-aged men are excited about the Pirates' recent success and, despite being Cubs, Braves, Indians and Diamondbacks fans, will be rooting for Pittsburgh in the coming months because, hey, what a story!

Back in the day, though, the Pirates didn't need anyone's sympathy. Nationally, they were about the only thing anybody knew about Pittsburgh other than it was a murky gray steel town with a sorry professional football team.

In Western Pennsylvania, Pirates fandom meant more than cheering the hometown team. The blue-collar men who settled here after traveling from faraway lands used the Pirates to feel American.

John Stanko's grandfather, Alex Crouse, immigrated from Ukraine and worked in a coal mine outside of Latrobe in the 1950s. He didn't speak much English, but he'd learn to understand the cultural language of choice.

"I remember him sitting on the porch outside with a fly swatter and the radio on, listening to every pitch of every game," said Mr. Stanko, 63, pastor of the Allegheny Center Alliance Church on the North Side. "That's what he lived for."

Richard "Pete" Peterson's father was a car mechanic by trade, his mother a waitress. His family didn't have much living on the South Side, but they had baseball. The sport provided them with generational heroes: Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, then Bill Mazeroski, and, eventually, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.

"For working-class families, the Pirates sort of defined the character of the city for us," said Mr. Peterson, who has written several books about Pirates history. "That gave us a focus for our lives."

Mr. Stanko and Mr. Peterson came up in different parts of the city but shared a rooting experience: Knowing from year to year that your favorite Pirates would be there. Yes, the only big trades in those days involved your buddies and a pack of baseball cards.

The Pirates were dominant in the '70s, right along with the emerging Steelers, bringing home World Series titles in 1971 and 1979. In the '80s, though, free agency began, allowing salaries to start their exponential climb. The Pirates drafted Barry Bonds and built a winner again under manager Jim Leyland from 1990-92, but everybody knew 1992 was going to be it for Bonds -- and, likely, winning.

When Sid Bream's slide completed the Braves' ninth-inning comeback over the Pirates in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series that fall, Mr. Stanko, then 42, stood in front of the television set and cried.

"Baseball may never be back in Pittsburgh," Mr. Stanko remembers saying.

Never mind that he was a man of faith.

Creating separation

No matter how big a Pirates fan you were, there came a point when you had to think about self-preservation. No, this would not be the year, nor the next, nor the next. There would never, ever, be a year.

When Pittsburghers took themselves out to the ballgame, they went thinking more so about peanuts and Cracker Jack and, once the team moved into PNC Park, that majestic view of a city on the rise.

"With the Pirates, you had to divorce yourself," says Steve Hansen, a former Pittsburgh radio disc jockey who lives on the North Side. "They're still your team, but you have to divorce yourself from caring too much, because then that makes you a loser. You kid about it. They were a joke because that's how you maintained sanity in the relationship. I like them, but I know that they [stink]. It's OK. I'm not a loser. They're a loser."

They were the ones who had to grab the national spotlight all those years by performing the absurd, like then-Pirate Randall Simon bumping a woman dressed in a sausage costume with a bat in Milwaukee's Miller Park in 2003, or, years later, by losing to those same Brewers 20-0.

There were some fans who just couldn't cut the cord, no matter how hard they tried. Matt Wein, 30, of Squirrel Hill would walk away from the team for weeks or months but always came back, not fully invested but somehow unable to remove himself from the inevitable further wreckage of his soul.

Mr. Wein was old enough in 1992 to know what winning baseball felt like.

The Pirates got their hooks into him more than the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Penguins and the early Bill Cowher Steelers.

"I've long said that, before I'm an American or Jewish or anything else I'm a Pittsburgher," Mr. Wein said, "and second to Pittsburgher is I'm a Pirates fan."

Mr. Wein has bled so much that he's become protective of his pain. He wants people to know that he's been loyal through it all, not some bandwagon jumper. A few years ago, he bought the jersey of former Pirate pitcher Ryan Vogelsong, a failed pitcher in Pittsburgh during 2001-06 who cruelly went on to help the Giants win a World Series in 2011, because wearing it would show the authenticity of his sadness.

"The thing I've come to enjoy about being a Pirates fan is that you're a member of a very small group," Mr. Wein said, "and there's an exclusivity to it. By wearing a Ryan Vogelsong jersey around, I get the most fantastic looks. I was a Pirate fan before it was cool."

Even in the leanest years, there was a unique enjoyment to being a Pirates fan. Mr. Wein came to care more about the intricacies of the game than the actual results -- "If I were a person who let the Pirates losing just ruin my day, I would have killed myself years ago," he joked -- and often took satisfaction from the smallest of victories.

Long-suffering Pirates fans, in this weird way, had the opportunity to gain a greater perspective on life by simply finding a way to appreciate their lemon that would never make lemonade.

"It's made me a little bit more optimistic," said Mr. Collier, the comedian. "If I lived in Boston, and I bought tickets to a game, I would be expecting them to win, and I would be [mad] if they lost if I spent that money. But being a Pirates fan, for the majority of my life, if I'm being honest with myself, I'm walking into the park thinking that they're probably going to lose. If they win, that's like a bonus for me. I think that's the joy of loving a bad team."

Change on the way?

There is no joy in Mudville, though, as Ernest Thayer pointed out in his classic 1888 poem "Casey at the Bat," nor in any other 'ville that is cheering a team playing under the weight of expectations.

With this intrepid bunch of Pirates reaching the best record in baseball halfway through the season at 21 games over .500 on June 30, their fans are having to remember what was meant by the phrase "agony of defeat."

"It's really disorienting," Mr. Hansen said. "Because with the Pirates, summertime rolls around, and it's a much more social experience than a baseball experience. There's no urgency. And now it's, like, real baseball, and hits and runs have consequences. I have to really reorient myself.

"When you're playing for something, the pitch comes, and you hold your breath. It's a ball, it's a strike, you relax for that second, and you're back at it. For 20 years in Pittsburgh, it's never been like that."

For those like Mr. Hansen, it is reorientation. But for the city's youth, it's simply orientation. If you're younger than 27 or 28, you've probably never known what it's like to cheer winning baseball here.

Andrew Goleman is 21 years old, a native of Squirrel Hill and a student at Temple University. He was born a few months before Mr. Bream's slide. His family had season tickets at Three Rivers Stadium but stopped once the team moved to PNC Park and continued the losing. Still, he never stopped caring, never stopped hoping to say those four special words and mean them:

"This is the year," Mr. Goleman will tell you now.

Say that he's right. Would one year of playoff baseball turn off the nozzle on Pirates jokes, or would the well stay full until the franchise maintains a solid footing?

"If they can sustain and compete for a stretch, it will change the culture of a generation," said John Supp, 43, who hosts several large Pirates tailgates a year. "You will see a Pittsburgh where you don't hear those jokes or grumblings. As long as the gap between this and the next cycle isn't 20 years."

Pittsburgh has never had all three major professional sports teams playing at a high level at the same time. Mr. Goleman would like to see it. Now.

"I can't imagine it, how electric the city would be," Mr. Goleman said. "It really can be one of the best sports cities in the world if the Pirates can start winning."

This afternoon at PNC Park, they'll get another chance, one of 162, and if the Pirates lose to the Mets, you're going to feel something stirring in your gut. It's not going to be laughter, not anymore.

Correction, July 14, 2013: Pie Traynor's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published July 14, 2013 4:00 AM


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