When you think baseball, you think a day out at the ballpark, eating a hot dog and paying $8 for beer. What’s more American than that?
I grew up playing baseball, from tee ball to Little League. And I really loved it until I was about 12 years old. That’s when I started to realize I wasn’t very good. And two other kids my age were starting to realize that they were extremely good, so naturally they were pitchers. It became terrifying to step up to the plate when a future MLB draft pick was about to hurl a fastball toward you.
So, eventually, I stopped playing. But all throughout my childhood, my parents would take us to Pirates games. We would make the three hour drive to Pittsburgh a few times a year to see the Buccos at Three Rivers Stadium.
When I was born, the Pirates were really good. They made the NLCS three years in a row from 1990-92.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember much from 1992. I was three years old that summer. I just remember something terrible happening on the TV while my parents were watching a baseball game. Little did I know just how important that game would be. I don’t have any memories from that game, but I still hate the Atlanta Braves because of it.
The baseball memories that I do have growing up were all about how fun Pirates games were. My Dad would always find a way to snag box seats. But my memories were all from things that happened in the stadium and not on the field.
I remember the time I met some random, apparently-famous, person in the hallway, but I didn’t know who he was. When I got back to our box seats, I asked my dad, “Who’s Willie Stargell?” My Dad howled. He still tells that story every time we go to a game (Only, he forgets to leave out the fact that I was like 10 years old).
I don’t remember anything that happened on the field. I don’t remember cheering a home run. I don’t remember cheering a win. Maybe I just had a terrible attention span, or maybe the Pirates were just that bad. Probably a little of both.
The end result was that I barely cared about baseball by the time I was in high school and college. Sure, PNC Park was beautiful, but the team was worse than ever.
I saw how excited my friends from Philadelphia got when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. They even had a mini-riot on Pitt’s campus. But I just didn’t get into it.
Then, 2011 happened.
The Pirates started out playing decent baseball, as usual, and toiled in mediocrity throughout April and May. I knew it would be my last summer in Pittsburgh, as I had accepted a job in Madison. So I started going to more games to get as much Pittsburgh in as possible before I moved.
But something crazy happened while I was at the games, though. People started to care about the outcome on the field. It was late June, and the Pirates had a winning record!
“Could it be!?” everyone though. It had been 18 long years of losing baseball, but this team showed signs of life.
Then, the Phillies came to town for a weekend series, and everything I ever thought about baseball changed.
I went to the game with one of my best friends. He loves his Phillies, and we made a tradition of going to Pirates-Phillies games. He was always super competitive about it, but I didn’t care – it was the Pirates, I just wanted to have fun, and maybe get a little drunk and see some fireworks.
The game was sold out, so we got standing-room only tickets. The Pirates were four games over .500 and the crowd was abuzz with excitement. Everyone expected a four-game sweep from the Phillies, which would have sent the Bucs back to the losing side. But the Pirates won the first two games of the series before this Saturday night matchup. Half of the crowd was from Philadelphia, since it was a weekend series, and they were mixed in with the Pirates fans.
“Could it be!?” everyone thought, sometimes out loud.
The game was pretty back-and-forth. The Phillies took an early lead, but then the Pirates scored a few to take control. With each sway in momentum, the crowd swayed, too. The Phillies fans would get super loud, then the Pirates fans would drown them out. The Pirates eventually took a 6-3 lead into the 9th inning. I started to lose my voice cheering so loud to try to drown out the “Let’s Go Phils” chants from my friend.
Chase Utley took the plate with two outs and two men on base. He could tie the game with one swing. And every Pirates fan was expecting exactly that. He smacked a fly ball deep to center field, directly toward us. Half the crowd raised their arms in excitement, while half the crowd winced and held their breath.
The crowd roared louder than I ever heard a baseball crowd roar. I got goosebumps when I heard that noise.
At that moment, I realized just how much fun being a baseball fan can be.
That excitement continued throughout the summer. I experienced similar moments at PNC Park when I watched the Pirates beat the Red Sox, and when they took down the division-leading Cardinals.
“Could it be!?” everyone thought.
Make that 19 straight losing seasons.
Pittsburgh fans got a little taste of success in 2011, but they got even more in 2012. By this point, I had moved to Wisconsin and my only chances to see the Pirates in person were at Miller Park or Wrigley Field.
I went to several Pirates-Brewers games in Milwaukee, and the tailgating at Miller Park is unrivaled. It truly is a great time, but the Pirates could NEVER win a game at Miller Park. I called it the “House of Horrors.” During one game, AJ Burnett had a no-hitter through six innings, and the Pirates were still losing somehow. Then, of course, they lost in the bottom of the 9th thanks to a walk-off home run.
I had a little better luck at Wrigley Field, and Wrigley truly gives you that great baseball atmosphere, but it just wasn’t the same as being in Pittsburgh.
So I booked a flight back home and planned a big tailgating event for a Pirates game. It was late July and the Pirates were in first place. Yes, you read that correctly. Late July. Pirates. First place.
The game was sold out, the Pirates won and the atmosphere from that Phillies game the previous summer paled in comparison to a house packed with passionate Pirates fans who were finally invested in the team. Again, I got chills when the crowd roared for the last out. And the camaraderie and happiness I felt while I waved my Jolly Roger flag was something I’ll never forget.
In early August, the Pirates were 18 games over .500.
“Could it be!?” everyone thought.
And this time, the Braves didn’t even have anything to do with it. The Pirates just simply collapsed. They finished two games under .500. That’s 20 losing seasons in a row.
“Here we go again,” fans thought as the Pirates stormed their way to the best record in baseball in early July. The Bucs were the first team to hit 50 wins in the 2013 season. The pitching staff had been incredibly solid, and the hitting was coming along.
Still, fool me once…
I was wont to buy into this summer’s squad. The 2012 wounds still hurt deep. The team was so close to ending this wretched streak, and instead they let it hit 20 years. Two decades. In Abraham Lincoln speak, that’s a score.
But unlike 2012, where the Pirates built a decent record then tried to hang on to it, this year’s Pirates keep building onto that record. They’ve been at least 20 games over .500 for most of the past month. And fans are finally buying in.
All you needed to do was watch the Pirates-Cardinals series from last week. It was a rare five game series, with a rare double-header. The Bucs took four of the five games from the Cards and the crowd at PNC Park was purely euphoric. Just look at this photo.
Unfortunately, I was traveling last week, so I missed most of that series. But last night, I was finally home and was able to sit down and watch a game. The Pirates overcame a 3-run deficit and earned a walk-off win…thanks to a pinch hitter.
I still can’t believe how exciting this season has been. The Pirates have completed 25 comebacks! That’s almost 40% of their 68 wins!
And listen to me…I’m spouting stats about the Pirates season. I even paid way too much money to be able to watch games from Wisconsin. I’m now officially a baseball fan.
Am I a bandwagon fan? Maybe. But it took one exciting summer in 2011 to show me how fun baseball can really be. It’s not just a day at the ballpark with my dad. It’s a great game, with many intricacies. And when it’s played well, there are few places I’d rather be than at an exciting ballpark with a raucous crowd.
So, Thank you, Pirates, for teaching me to love baseball again, just like I did when I was a kid.
And I think it’s safe to say that we won’t be seeing losing season No. 21. That number is reserved for someone special.