Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

August in Pittsburgh

In Baseball, Long form on August 11, 2011 at 10:57 pm

No one likes August and I’ve never been to Pittsburgh, so I can’t pretend to know what this must be like.

I can only imagine there are bugs. Big, mean, bloodsuckers that stick to your ankles and wrists and nibble you dry. I bet there’s a smell. Something like rotting mulch rising from the Allegheny—a Western Pennsylvania version of Carolina swamp water—where it isn’t polluted by toxic sludge like the Cuyahoga or rotting trash like the East River, but instead just a natural slime that coats everything it touches.

August heat must blanket PNC Park like a choleric fog, with an Old Testament mandate saying all lite beer must be warm by the time you sit down in its baked, clammy seats. The beautiful view of Pittsburgh’s skyline and the Allegheny River, which overpowered you when you first sat down, can’t matter by the time you hear “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and you stand up for the seventh inning stretch.

I have no idea though. There might not be bugs.

For those old enough to remember Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, the early years of Barry Bonds or even Bill Mazeroski’s World Series winning home run, this season must be even more painful than usual. Eighteen years of mediocrity gets comfortable.

I wouldn’t compare it to the sick, masochistic pleasure Cubs and (unfortunately, even now) Red Sox fans possess outwardly. Unlike fans of those teams, Pirates fans aren’t abrasive pricks, nor do they choose to root for unlikable teams with a knack for attracting blue-chip, underperforming talent. Maybe it’s not my place to judge, as I’ve never met a Pirates fan who was younger than 70.

My grandparents were devout Pirates fans for their entire lives. Since the bulk of my life to date has been framed by Pittsburgh’s mediocrity, I have no knowledge of how they felt about the Bucs when the team actually mattered. What I do know is, unlike Red Sox and Cubs fans, talking about the Pirates was not an opportunity for group therapy. Even when they did broach the subject, it wasn’t as though they were discussing something that had hurt their pride as Western Pennsylvanians who bled Pittsburgh, or a team that failed to meet a platinum standard set by the Steelers.

Instead, they talked about the Pirates the same way you would talk about that personable kid you grew up with who, despite being well-liked and trustworthy, was a renowned dimwit that would never amount to anything other than being the best (failed) musician in town. Exasperatingly lovable, but really not worth wasting conversation over.

In that respect, watching the Pirates this year has been a lot like watching that same hometown twit briefly succeed, albeit only for long enough to get his hopes up. Just a few weeks ago, the Pirates were poised to make that final push into the playoffs for the first time since I was three and Barry Bonds was a renowned stolen base artist. People were talking about the Pirates at the trade deadline as buyers, which is something that, along with the Indians’ recent success, made me feel as though the world had flipped on its axis.

But then everyone realized exactly who they were talking about. And the Pirates realized it too, dropping 10 straight to fall to fourth in their division, four games out of .500.

There is a lot of baseball left this season, but probably not enough to catapult this team back to the top of the National League Central. They just took two out of three from my favorite team, the San Francisco Giants, and I couldn’t even be mad about it; it was the their only two wins in 13 games.

And that sucks. I really wish I could be more eloquent about it, but I can’t elicit the frustration that must well up inside Pirates fans’ chests at the thought of another wasted summer. Even with the Steelers as good as they are, the thought of mentally preparing yourself to cheer for people like Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison after watching a thoroughly enjoyable, talented team crash and burn yet again must be disheartening.

And unlike fans of the Mets or the Cubs or the Padres, Pirates fans can’t take solace in their hometown’s greatness. The lovable loser tag only applies if people go out of their way to visit your city, not if you go out your way to visit theirs. To add insult to injury, Pittsburgh doesn’t even have that added gravitas that comes with being from Detroit or Buffalo, cities people love remembering to forget. It must be like living in the Hyundai Sonata of cities.

As painful as this must be for everyone like my grandparents, who were old enough to have seen Pittsburgh’s glory days, it must ultimately be refreshing to have years of passive attention validated by a team that at least cares. Andrew McCutchen may be one of the best athletes in baseball and the Pirates farm system appears to finally have some talent that will actually pan out. For once, there is actually some sort of tepid hope behind “Wait’ll next year.”

Maybe it’s not bad at all. Maybe PNC Park stays as beautiful as everyone says it is. The river probably doesn’t smell. If there are bugs, they probably don’t make it up into the stands. Even if they did, after a few cold beers you wouldn’t really care.

I wouldn’t know.


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