Monday, October 14, 2013

Raisin' It!
I know I always start posts centering about sports by saying it's not really about the sports.  This one really is just about the sports.  Because, while baseball has never been my thing (hitting a ball I guess is just not as interesting as hitting one another), I have always loved baseball stories.  They seem to touch the best of us as a country.  What's the saying?  Mom, baseball and apple pie.  And while this is not a story about a baseball movie, it could be one.  Maybe it will be someday.  I would like to write the screenplay for it actually - I've even daydreamed about how I would begin it.  Unfortunately, it wouldn't have the ending I had wanted, but it's still a pretty good story.  Problem is, I would need a collaborator because baseball has a poetry that one can only release if one knows and loves the sport.  It's the song of a hundred summers, of the smell of hot dogs, sweet cotton candy, and fresh dirt and grass.  It's the memory of lazy summer afternoons spent at the ballpark.  And it's the story of the Pittsburgh Pirates and their city in 2013.

To really start at the beginning, you'd have to go back 21 years.  That's the last time the Pirates had a winning season, let alone made the playoffs.  But I wasn't around, so we'll skip ahead.  To 2011 when I first got here.  I knew about them of course.  I saw the t-shirts when I was here in 2007:  "Pittsburgh Pirates:  Re-building since 1992".  After the Pens and the Steelers both won championships in 2009, that was joined by "City of Champions...and the Pirates".  I actually liked that one a lot and considered getting it more than once.  I had heard the songs and listened to the grumbling about the ownership; it was hard not to know how bad they were.  But you noticed something as spring rolled around.  People started sporting their Pirates hats and shirts.  One night as I walked Cheyenne home right at dusk, I did a little survey.  Six out of eight houses (where I could see in their windows to know what they were watching) had the baseball game on.  It would seem that, sorry as they were, people were doggedly determined to stand by their team (although they were very vocal about letting the team know that the general school of thought was that a Little League team could beat them).

But I wasn't the only newbie in town.  Manager Clint Hurdle began his first year with the Pirates that spring.  And a funny thing happened.  They had a mid-season surge and actually battled briefly for first place in the division.  Then they collapsed.  But they got a taste of winning and began last year determined to finish what they started.  For a long while, it looked like they would.  The word playoff began being used with Pirates in the same sentence - and not as a butt of a joke.  Then they collapsed again and not only missed the playoffs, but tacked up yet another losing season.  Yet the fans stayed true.

They were slow to come to the ballpark, but the TV ratings were strong early this season.  Gradually, the momentum was just too much to ignore, and the fans returned to the stands.  For my part, the forced frugality of the season kept me from all but one game, but I watched.  A lot.  Half a century of holding baseball in the same esteem as watching paint dry had been chipped away over three seasons.  I get it now.  I get the connection the fans have with the players - because you know them better.  It's a 162 game season with players pitched (pardon the pun) in singular battle against an opposing pitcher.  You see their faces.  You learn their stories.  And the stories are often interesting.  Like every sport, some are good people.  Some aren't, but you fall a in love a little with the good ones and even sometimes with the bad boys.  And there were lots of good stories about the Pirates that deserved to be heard outside the city limits.

So I was there, glued to the TV when they secured the win that guaranteed they would at least avoid a losing season.  And I was there when they secured a winning season, then a playoff berth.  Then the wild atmosphere when they brought playoff baseball to PNC Park for the first time in its existence in a one game wildcard playoff against the Reds.  And I was watching or listening to all of the series with the Cardinals.  And I cheered when they won, and shared their disappointment when the Cardinals staved off first elimination and then took the series.  I teared up when I saw relief pitcher Jason Grilli, the hurt of the loss so clear on his face, when the Cardinals clinched the series.  But I was thankful.  Because they returned winning baseball to this city that I love so very much.  And they returned my respect for the sports fans here.  They proved to me that people here will stand by their team for as long as it takes.  No matter what.  A Pittsburgh sports fan/Star Wars nerd I follow on Twitter summed it up the best actually:

So I can't do it the poetic justice this season and this team deserves, but I would have been remiss not to address it at all.  I hope someone with a deeper love of the game is penning a great story of this season that captures all the magic of it.   Because it's not just the tale of mom, apple pie and baseball, but of redemption and renewed hope.  Somewhere Roberto Clemente must be smiling down on these guys.

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