After 20 consecutive years of losing, Pirates fans were several degrees beyond joyful with the team’s performance in 2013. The Pirates not only posted a winning record but won 94 games and advanced to the playoffs in a season beyond the wildest dreams of all but the most crazily optimistic. And it wasn’t just those who followed the team through its long journey of despair that were rallying around this success. It was the entire region. Almost everyone loved the young, upstart Pirates.
The question for today is this: For how long?
This is not about the perpetually disgruntled, who might never allow the Pirates to escape their sharp criticisms until owner Bob Nutting -- believe by some to be the man behind the two decades of losing -- either sells the team or spends like they think an owner should.
No, this is about people who were celebrating the success of the 2013 Pirates. What kind of success will the Pirates need in the immediate and near-future to keep them happy?
Just look around and see how Pittsburgh treats its other teams.
•The Steelers: From 1992 through 2011, 20 years, the Steelers brought an unprecedented run of success -- 16 winning seasons, 14 playoff appearances, four Super Bowls and two NFL championships. But all that winning did was spoil many fans. After two 8-8 seasons, some fans are angry, as though the draft and the salary cap were not instituted to bring down successful teams. Some want Mike Tomlin fired, others think Kevin Colbert should go.
• The Penguins: After some awful seasons in the early part of the century, the Penguins have been to the playoffs seven straight years, to the Stanley Cup final twice and brought home one Cup. But earlier-than-expected eliminations in recent years have brought demands for the firing of coach Dan Bylsma. Even general manager Ray Shero is feeling some heat. Who’s next? Mario Lemieux?
• Pitt basketball: Coach Jamie Dixon is the man behind the Golden Era of Pitt basketball. Pitt has made the NCAA tournament nine times in 10 seasons under Dixon. But postseason success has been scarce and Dixon, too, is under fire from some fans.
The Steelers, Penguins and Pitt basketball share a common thread. Once success is achieved, it is expected and expected in larger measures. It’s no longer good enough for the Steelers or Penguins to make the playoffs. Some fans of the teams consider such accomplishments their birthright. They want championships. And when they don’t get them, they react angrily. Pitt fans might not want a championship, but they want a trip to the Final Four. Once that is accomplished, it, too, won’t be enough.
Are fans wrong to have such expectations?
There’s nothing wrong with high expectations. It’s the behavior that follows a team’s inability to achieve those expectations that is both puzzling and troubling. When personal goals are not achieved -- such as losing out on the better job or when children disappoint -- the reaction from most people is one of understanding and support. Why are teams treated so differently?
Speaking for myself and for many of the people I know well, a competitive team is enough. I would settle every year for what the Pirates did in 2013 and consider myself greedy for asking for so much. Truth be known, I wouldn’t be too unhappy with an occasional 2012, when the Pirates raised hope before collapsing. It was a fun June, July and first third of August.
It’s the same with the Steelers. No, the didn’t make the playoffs. But despite an 0-4 start, they were in the playoff hunt until the final weekend. What’s so terrible about that?
The Penguins are one of the most entertaining and successful teams in the regular season every year. They’ve not been able recently to maintain that success in the postseason. But millions of fans across North America would love to have a team that’s been to two Stanley Cup finals and every playoff since 2007.
I’m not suggesting that all fans or even most fans are this way. But there is a vocal minority, and certainly not a small one, of Steelers and Penguins fans whose expectations are extreme? Same with Pitt, although probably not as many nor as extreme.
Following sports team is supposed to be an outlet, not life-altering. I simply do not get the extremism that prevails among so many.