The Next Page / Pirates fans declare: Why we care

Prompted by the PG's Dejan Kovacevic, long-suffering fans submit testimony for their seemingly irrational passion


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MIAMI -- Today, here in the same state where the Pirates' spring training offered the first hints that 2010 would be the abysmal failure it became, it will end. The franchise's worst season in a half-century finally, mercifully will end.

And yet, there are many who stuck it out.

There is no more tired cliché in sports than when a team official, coach or player exclaims that their fans are "the greatest in sports." The fairest judgment on such a thing is left to the marketing and branding types. But know that, from a historical standpoint, no one can compare with those who have followed the Pirates. Not just through this season, but through all 18 in the longest losing streak of any of the four North American major professional sports. Sure, the Chicago Cubs have gone a century without a championship, but two decades without a sniff of mediocrity?

The other day, at our online "PBC Blog" at PG+, Mike Freidman of Washington, D.C., wrote to me for one of our regular Q&A sessions to ask this simple question:

"Reading your blog, Q&As, other sources, it is clear that Pirates fans still care about the team. Why?"

I began to answer, rattled off a few points, then essentially punted it over to our commenters. They did not disappoint. Here are excerpts from their entries. [Click here for the original post.]

-- DEJAN KOVACEVIC, dkovacevic@post-gazette.com

Embedded in my very being

I care because the Pirates are in my heart, soul and DNA.

They are the team that my dad loved until the baseball strike of 1994 broke his heart. They were my main connection with my grandmother, who would wake me up at midnight once per year to qualify as a night owl with the Gunner.

They showed me Roberto Clemente, who seemed bigger than the other players on the TV to a 7-year-old's eyes in the 1971 series. They showed me the most entertaining and usually frustrating team of the 1970s, the Lumber Company. They drew my dad and me together when he threatened to beat up the Quebecker who turned off 1979 World Series Game 4 to watch hockey night in Canada.

With endless free tickets available from an employer and friends who worked for Mooch O'Toole in the 1980s, I learned to love watching baseball in a near-empty Three Rivers. They brought the ultimate near-miss crew with Jim Leyland.

Then they received the best stadium in the country.

I still have hope. I cheer, I boo -- I still care.

JIM HAUG, Williston, Vt.

In the game, humanity and character matter

I confess to walking past the construction of PNC Park in the fall of 2000, on the way to the Steelers opening game, wondering why anyone would care about a baseball park in Pittsburgh. Now, virtually all of my clothing is Pirates merchandise, I regularly sell my Steelers tickets, and I hope to go to my seventh Spring Training in Bradenton next March.

Growing up, I loved the Pirates, especially the 1971 team, but turned away in the 1980s, having had enough of the drug culture and ambience of Three Rivers Stadium, including the way the ushers and vendors treated fans.

Then, someone gave us tickets to opening night at PNC Park in 2001. Yes, the park is stunning. Not being an overly religious person, I've said I feel closer to God in PNC Park than in church. The blend of the city, connected by bridges over water, to the order of the game is beautiful. In baseball, the rules are so complex that few can recite them, and yet the game is simple to understand. There is a mystery to that.

Since 2001, we started to follow the players, and regularly go to games. Baseball is a sport where you can follow individuals, isolated in specific situations, and see their character. In virtually all other team sports, the individual is somehow lost, even unseen. But in baseball, not only do individuals stand out, but their struggles are something that we can all relate to -- baseball players can only get the best out of themselves if they can address their own anxieties and find ways to deal with failure.

Normal-sized people play baseball with relatively little equipment -- the participants can come from any walk of life. And there is a game almost every day during the season. It is like a relationship. That relationship can be shared with loved ones, so that watching a baseball game can be as much about the people you attend the game with as about the outcome of the game.

Going to several games over the summer, I noticed a younger crowd. I may be overly optimistic, but Pittsburgh has sometimes been a harbinger of the future, especially in sports. Forbes Field was ahead of its time, and the Steelers led the way to the dominance of the NFL. I wonder if the deep support and even love for this perennially losing team is an indicator of how we might be wanting to embrace a gentler future where character matters again and where we are more concerned with beauty, grace and elegance than we have been in recent decades.

JoANN PAUL, Pittsburgh and Arlington, Va.

Part of my life, all my life

I believe that the Pirates -- not all of baseball, but the Pirates -- are simply part of my life. They've been there perhaps since the first baseball game I ever went to: I was a young kid, standing between my parents' seats when something big happened on the field. I turned to my dad and said, "Did you see that man hit that ball?" Big home run by Ralph Kiner. It was a Big Deal. And they've been part of my life ever since.

At this point, if I'm ever asked about who I am and what I've done in my life, the Pirates always come up. It's part of who I am.

MARDA HOOK, Wexford

'We just can't root for anyone but the Bucs'

My Pirates (and Pittsburgh roots) go back as long as I can remember. Although I was born and raised in East Liverpool, Ohio, the only Ohio sports teams we've ever rooted for are OSU and Youngstown State, where I met my wife of 38 years. Pittsburgh was only 40 miles up the river and we felt like Pittsburgh people all our lives with some of my family there as well.

My father, a steel worker in Midland, Pa., took me to the second game of the 1960 World Series. It would be a 16-3 Pirate loss, but he got me out of school, and my second-grade teacher made a big deal out of it. Our four boys have followed suit in rooting for the Pirates, Steelers, Penguins and anything Pittsburgh, even Pitt.

When we moved here to Kentucky in 1998 to pastor a church, we found the area barren of baseball interest. The two closest teams are the Reds (four hours away) and the Braves (five hours), so nobody has ever heard of the Pirates.

We can easily root against the Yankees and Cardinals, but we still can't get excited about the Reds or any other team, other than their going from almost worse to first. We just can't root for anyone but the Bucs, whether they lose 100 or 120 games, and we'll still snarl at the computer when they blow a game or just get blown out. We still get excited like Steve Blass when they win one, too.

JOHN W. EKHARDT, Gamaliel, Ky.

From Panama with love

A couple of days back, when you posted a picture of the last game at PNC Park this season, I responded by saying that the picture was much appreciated by someone like me who is a Pirates fan more than 2,000 miles away from Pittsburgh. As a matter of fact, I've never been to Pittsburgh.

But my following of the Pirates started in 1979 when I was 6 years old and all of Panama (at least it seemed that way to me) rooted for the Bucs because three of our countrymen were playing with the team: Manny Sanguillen, Omar Moreno and Rennie Stennett.

Since then, I've been a fan of the Pirates. Even as other Panamanians have gained more success (i.e., Mariano Rivera), my heart is still with Pirates, and now that I am 37 years old, I am planning to visit PNC Park soon and root for my team.

VICENTE BARLETTA, Panama City, Panama

'It's a gift to be a fan of this team'

I would not miss the last game of the season for any reason. I attended about 22 this year, living three hours away (though three of those were in Ohio). This is my team. When I was in grade school the teachers used to play "We Are Fam-a-lee" on a record player in the cafeteria during lunch. I grew up a fan, at Three Rivers. I came home from college to go to games. For 16 years I lived out West, and my love for the Pirates never wavered. I am blessed to be back in the state, blessed to go through the turnstile at PNC so many times.

The last home game was about the good of this season (there is some) and the future, both. I always cry leaving my last game of a season. I never know who will be back in uniform, who will move on or how "we" will play come April.

It's a gift to be a fan of this team, to believe in them.

ANDREA RICH, Chambersburg

From childhood to retirement: the Bucs endure

The attached photo of my friend Honus and me [above] is evidence of my introduction to Pirates baseball -- Decoration Day, 1939. Venue is the visitor's dugout in St. Louis' Sportmans Park. My dad played pro football and knew a lot of the Pirates.

As a kid I spent lots of summer evenings falling asleep on the front porch glider while listening to Rosey Rowswell read tickertapes when the Bucs were on the road.

My high school years were made more tedious by the performance of the 1952-54 Pirates. (We got over that and we will get over this.) It was very "unhip" to be a Pirates fan in those days.

But then there were fans like my uncle Phil, who would drive his car from Farrell in the direction of Pittsburgh, searching for a radio signal strong enough to get the Pirates game. In the dark on some remote road, there he would sit, pulling for a team to which today's Bucs are often compared.

In 1962 I moved to California because of job opportunities and found it difficult to follow the Bucs. But now, since my retirement 15 years ago, and thanks to the Internet and satellite TV, my wife and I never miss a game. We get to PNC Park every June and will do so as long as our health will allow.

MICHAEL SEBASTIAN JR., Mountain Center, Calif.

From generation to generation to generation

My grandfather actually watched Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, Max Carey and the Waner brothers. His World Series was 1925 when we came from a three-games-to-one deficit to beat Walter Johnson and the Senators. It fascinated me to also hear tales of Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige.

My father had 1960, but he also suffered through the 1952 Pirates. Of course before that he was able to root for Ralph Kiner. He took me to my first game in 1965, Giants vs. the Bucs. There were seven Hall of Fame players on the field that day (Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda; Juan Marichal pitched). How could you not be a Pirates fan after that start?

My daughter was 10 in 1991 and had become a budding Pirates fan. Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke were on her team. She had fallen asleep in my lap when the Braves' Sid Bream slid across the plate in 1992. When I woke her to take her to bed, we cried together when she heard we lost.

My first grandaughter was born 26 days ago. Of course she has a Pirates hat. What a prospect she has to look forward to with the kids. As Dejan said in June, "The future is here." She will have the pleasure of watching Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutcheon, Pedro Alvarez and those to be named later.

It has been said before "the torch has been passed to a new generation." One that is assuredly built on hope and hard work. It is about generations and shared experiences by a loving family.

If you fall in love and you have to question why, then you are probably not. Why am I a Pirates fan? I never had to ask.

CLIFF PROTZMAN, Austintown, Ohio

Just wait until next year ...

I remember my dad telling me how his dad went to the 1927 World Series and realized the Pirates quit after watching the Yanks take batting practice.

My grandfather also saw the Flying Dutchman in the dugout as a coach.

In the 1950s, my dad and grandfather watched a rookie rightfielder make an amazing throw. "Who's that kid in right?" my dad asked. "Name's Clemente," was the reply.

In 1971, my dad went to two World Series games and still has the pair of tickets to the one game he missed.

No Pittsburgh team, even the Super Stillers, could grab my attention like the Buccos. I fell asleep in the snowy stands during Game 3 of the 1979 series, watched the Bucs blow Game 4 and let my brother go to Game 5 -- fearing I was to blame for the team being down three games to one.

I have not been to a game at PNC Park -- my silent protest to the terrible ownership and decisions made. But, I will never stop following this team. It is a part of who I am (even if I live three hours away outside Harrisburg). But I will make it to a game next year ... not because I think Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly know what they are doing, but because it's time to see these young kids start working toward something special.

TIM LAMBERT, New Cumberland


The Next Page is different every week: John Allison, thenextpage@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1915


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