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Tough being a Pirate in a Steelers' town

PITTSBURGH -- There are worse things than being a Pittsburgh Pirate these days. You could be a Kansas City Royal. You could be a pooper scooper for the Budweiser Clydesdales. You could be the guy who updates Larry Brown's résumé.

The Pirates can't catch a break. They've got the Adriana Lima of stadiums -- gorgeous PNC Park -- but the worst record in the National League. They've got the All-Star Game coming to town for the first time since 1994, but no player worthy of an All-Star ballot vote. They've got 4½ months left in their season, but already this city is fixated on the only gold and black that matters: the Steelers.

"Pittsburgh is a football town," says Pirates outfielder Jeromy Burnitz. "Here, everybody is a Steelers fan first. Or a Pirates fan … if [we're] any good."

Burnitz, who ends every other sentence with, "But what do I know -- I'm only hitting a buck-eighty something," is absolutely right about the Steelers. Confirmation comes from Pirates first baseman Craig Wilson.

"It's a Steelers town," says Wilson. "I guess the best way to change that is to win."

Wilson says this as he sits in front of his locker, thumbing through the latest issue of ESPN The Magazine. When I mention that I work for the Worldwide Leader, he says, "Oh, really?" and then tosses the magazine to the carpeted floor. Smartass.

Wilson is wearing a T-shirt that reads:

    I can only please one person a day.
    Today is not your day.
    Tommorow's not looking good, either.

You've got to like a ballplayer with a sense of humor. If you're a Pirate, you need one, preferably the size of Will Ferrell's. After all, this franchise hasn't had a winning season since 1992, hasn't won a World Series since 1979, and hasn't put a dent in Steelers mystique since Sister Sledge was belting out, "We Are Family."

"I think it's going to take time," says outfielder Jason Bay, "although no one wants to hear that."

No one wants to hear it because the Pirates have the 26th-lowest payroll in the big leagues. Jim Tracy is their third manager in the last six seasons. And good luck finding a Pirate among the MLB leaders in anything. Entering Tuesday night's games, shortstop Jack Wilson was the only Pittsburgh player ranked in the top 100 (42nd, to be exact) in batting average. No Bucco was in the top 100 in hits, or in pitching victories.

So I ask Bay, who was an All-Star last year (but, sigh, didn't play), who he'd choose to represent the Pirates come July 11. Remember, every team has to have at least one representative.

"Right now, probably Jack Wilson," Bay says.

Wilson's response?

"Right now, I wouldn't send anybody," he says. "None of us are doing that great of a job. None of us really deserve it. I don't think any of us deserve it."

It can't be fun to be a Pirate in a Steelers' town. Part of it is the Pirates' own fault. "We've lost for 13 seasons, is that what it is?" says Wilson.

Yes, that's exactly what it is -- with this season shaping up to be another forgettable Pirates summer. They began Tuesday 13 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central Division. That's even worse than the Florida Marlins, whose payroll is only slightly larger than what Girl Scout Troop 115 grosses in sales of Trefoils.

Meanwhile, the big, beloved Steelers win games. More important, they win championships, most recently, Super Bowl XL. Lombardi Trophy No. 5 will soon have its very own glass case at the team complex, separate from the other glass case that houses the four previous Super Bowl trophies won by the Steelers.

Pittsburgh wants to have the Steelers' love child. When quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returned recently from visiting his family's native Switzerland there was a local Pittsburgh TV camera crew waiting at the airport. Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward can't swing a Terrible Towel without hitting a Steelers fan who wants his autograph. And isn't that the just-retired Jerome Bettis doing beer commericals with Burt Reynolds?

"In this town if you're a Steeler, you're a god," says reporter and talk-show co-host John Shumway of Pittsburgh's KDKA radio (which happens to be the Pirates' flagship station) and KDKA TV.

Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor couldn't fill his car tank at a south side Pittsburgh gas station without getting recognized. Steeler autographs signings at a local Wal-Mart produced lines that almost circled the massive building. And don't even get the TV types talking about the impact of the Steelers on their stations' ratings.

"You could show Ben Roethlisberger taking a [pee] and your ratings would go up," says another prominent Pittsburgh TV sports anchor.

Ask the locals what would draw a bigger crowd -- a Steelers' training camp scrimmage at Latrobe, Pa., or a Pirates' regular season game that doesn't feature a bobblehead giveaway -- and it isn't even close. The Steelers win that one, too.

A few days ago I spent the morning at the Steelers' training facility. There were camera crews galore. Editors called reporters with feature ideas. The arrival of Ward caused brief seismic activity.

And this was the day before a May minicamp session started. Just think what will happen when Roethlisberger shows up with a wedge of Swiss cheese.

Then there are the poor Pirates. I drove from the Steelers' complex to PNC Park and found a parking space about 100 feet from the statue of Honus Wagner. One local TV cameraman roamed the Pirates' clubhouse. So quiet was the place you could hear crickets chirp.

The Pirates won that evening. Down, 5-0, to the Marlins after the top of the first, Pittsburgh finished with a 12-9 victory. Burnitz drove in two runs. Bay had four RBI. A crowd of 24,990 attended the game, thanks to the Zach Duke Bobblehead promotion.

Of course, they could have sold out the place had the Pirates' marketing department made one small, but important concession.

Bill Cowher Spittle Night.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.