Pittsburgh Pirates still my team
Grudge over blown play almost 20 years ago sustains fan through losing seasons
There are worse things than being a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. I just can't think of one.
They've already had a seven-game losing streak. They were outscored a zillion-to-3 or something in a weekend series against Milwaukee. They're on track for a record 18th straight losing season. The franchise's luck is so bad we've had the only man to throw 12 innings of no-hit ball in a game and lose (Harvey Haddix) and the only pitcher who has ever claimed to toss a no-hitter on LSD (Dock Ellis, not a real M.D.). Even Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who thinks he can turn anything into stacks of gold bricks, took a look at buying the Pirates and said, "Nah."
Ever wonder what it's like to be a native Pittsburgher rooting for one of the worst franchises in sports? Let me tell you, it's a mixed bag. We're like long-suffering Cubbies fans. Just without the sense of humor. We have the same free-floating anxiety as Mets fans, but without the sticker shock. I like to think we have a special kinship with the Kansas City Royals faithful, too, who live in a sort of small-market parallel universe over there in the American League, knowing our paths are never, ever destined to cross for anything important like -- stop, you're killing me! -- a World Series.
To cope during the Pirates' recent losing streak -- a Mona Lisa even by their lofty standards -- I did what I always do when times are tough for the Bucs: I blamed Barry Bonds.
You probably know what I'm talking about: Oct. 14, 1992. The last time the Pirates were relevant. Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves. Reliever Stan Belinda on the mound for us, sort of a poor man's Kent Tekulve.
Pirates starter Doug Drabek brought a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but the Braves' Terry Pendleton smacked a leadoff double, and then slick-fielding second baseman Jose Lind booted a grounder. Next Sid Bream, the sleepy-eyed first baseman the Pirates didn't re-sign two years earlier, coaxes a walk. (That should've been a bad karma alert, but it was 1992 and no one talked like that yet. Not even Tim McCarver.) Enter Belinda, who gives up a RBI sac fly to Ron Gant and a walk to Damon Berryhill, which loads the bases. Pinch hitter Brian Hunter pops out to the shortstop. Now here comes infielder Francisco Cabrera. He slaps a two-out, two-strike single to left field and Barry Lamar Bonds -- our Gold Glove outfielder, our last honest-to-God Pirates superstar -- charges the ball and eyes Bream lumbering around third like some swaybacked nag in the $3 claiming race. And Bonds rears back and throws.
In the mist of my memory it seems Bonds was no more than 40 or 50 feet off the infield dirt as he sent the ball blurring toward home plate on a trajectory that would've been just great if he were aiming for the guy holding the radar gun behind home plate or the freaking hot dog vendor who stopped in his tracks to watch, rather than throwing to get Bream out.
Sid scored the game winner in a cloud of dust, knee brace and all.
I was sitting in a rented vacation condo in Charleston, S.C. (don't ask) and knowing Bonds had just ignored my window-rattling command to "THROW ... HIM ... OUT!" I screamed as if I'd been scalded and fired a throw pillow at the television. Then another.
(No, not my beer. What are you, crazy?)
Bonds left that offseason for San Francisco, where his pecs and hat size commenced growing precipitously, along with his home run totals.
Just our luck. We had Bonds before BALCO.
The Pirates had lost their second straight NLCS in seven games to the Braves, the Buffalo Bills of Major League Baseball, and failed to prevent that infernal Tomahawk Chop from really catching on. Sorry, world.
The Pirates haven't finished above .500 since.
But I'm handling it. Really.
You have to be resilient when you root for the franchise that presented the sports world with both the Mendoza Line -- baseball's infamous standard for hitting futility named after Bucs infielder Mario Mendoza -- and Randall Simon, aka The Weiner Whacker.
You remember Simon. He was the Pirates' first baseman who interrupted the always-scintillating sausage race between innings at a 2003 Milwaukee Brewers game by leaning over the dugout railing with a bat and walloping the Italian Sausage in the back, causing it to topple sideways into the Hot Dog, which brought both of them Cuisinarting down. For that he was arrested and suspended three games.
This is not the future I foresaw for my team when the 1979 "We Are Family" Pirates of Willie Stargell upset the Baltimore Orioles. This was not the rooting life I contemplated when the 1971 Pirates team led by Roberto Clemente and Steve Blass shocked an even better Baltimore team in seven games, and I got to see two of those wins from a seat high in the upper deck at Three Rivers Stadium with my grandpap.
Clemente, who is still the most beautiful baseball player I ever saw, was the MVP of that '71 series, and he played with a sort of perfectly calibrated passion and grace and ferocity I've never forgotten. Pittsburgh was a different place then, still all steel mills and shot-and-a-beer bars on the South Side, and I remember how the crowd's roars were just different for him. I can still see that high leg kick Clemente took when he hit, and I can still see him taking balls that ricocheted off the right-field wall and wheeling and firing a one-hop strike to nail some fool baserunner who tried to advance from first to third on a single. When he died just 15 months after that World Series in a cargo-plane crash carrying relief supplies from Puerto Rico to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, I was only 12 and I cried for a week.
I don't cry about the Pirates anymore. I grouse. It's much healthier. I live in New York City now, but my little sister still goes to games at PNC Park, the prettiest field in the big leagues, and every so often we commiserate about how a lot has changed for the Pirates and how nothing has changed at all.
A constant churn of GMs and players has cycled through town. The Pirates have been bad in the draft, bad at making shrewd trades, and an almost nonexistent presence in the high-end free-agent market. They regularly have one of the game's lowest payrolls. The losing has been so long and uninterrupted that Jason Kendall, a singles-hitting catcher whom the Bucs did squander a $60 million contract on -- why ask why? -- used to greet new teammates by saying, "Welcome to hell."
But so far this year, by some magical sleight of hand that's hard to explain even with the Elias Brothers Metric of Mystery or Bill James' Vortex of Doom algorithm or whatever brain twister those sabermetricians use, the Pirates began this week with a 10-15 record. This despite having been outscored by almost 90 runs overall this season, despite fighting the Astros for dead last in the National League in team batting, despite being dead last in team pitching and next-to-last in runs scored.
Can they stay even this close to .500? You be the judge.
The other day, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat writer Deja Kovacevic, whose work often has the perfect deadpan comedic timing the Pirates deserve, reported that when recently called-up starter Jeff Karstens got rocked by the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday, Pirates manager John Russell had this assessment:
"Jeff made some mistakes and they hit them."
In particular ...
"When I elevated, they hit them," Karstens said.
After 18 years of watching this, you know what I say, don't you?
Barry Bonds, this is all your fault.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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