Thursday, March 04, 2010

This is the year I follow baseball

I've been getting exasperated at all the baseball talk on Twitter this week.  It's just spring training, for God's sake! The games don't count!  Yesterday I threatened to live-tweet the Steelers' arrivals at training camp and the tackling dummy drills in July as payback.

Then I reconsidered.  Many, many of my friends are huge baseball fans.  And I am not.  Why should I be annoyed?  They're just excited that their favorite sport is back, even if they're playing meaningless games.  Live and let live.

Then a Twitter conversation earlier today about the viability of the Pittsburgh Pirates 2010 roster and their chances for improvement made me think about my own lack of devotion to my hometown team and baseball in general.  I realized that I couldn't explain myself in 140 characters. 

I didn't grow up as a baseball fan.  Johnstown, PA is well within Steeler country and so I became a Steelers fan at an early age.  My parents watched or listened to the Steelers games every Sunday.  I can count on one hand the number of times my dad and I threw a ball in the yard, and most of the time when we did it was a football.  I idolized Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and Lynn Swann.  As for baseball, I knew who Willie Stargell was (I even shook his hand once) but I barely knew that the Pirates existed.  I never played Little League.  I never wanted to play and my parents didn't see any need to push me.  Baseball just wasn't on my childhood radar.

In middle school I used to get free tickets to Pirates games from my school in exchange for earning good grades.  (I was a massive geek then, just as I am now.)  My mother would drive us to Pittsburgh on Friday nights after work and with Pittsburgh's notoriously bad traffic we'd usually get to the stadium sometime in the 3rd inning.  Our seats were always in the 600 level, seemingly miles away from the field.  I had only the faintest idea who the players were or how baseball games worked.  Since this was the mid-'80s, the Pirates were rebuilding.  Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Mike LaValliere, and Andy Van Slyke were all playing for the team, but they weren't stars yet.  We saw a lot of crappy Pirates losses.  By the 7th inning the game was already out of hand, my brother and I would be making fun of the morbidly obese peanut vendor in our section and my mother would be ready to leave.  I don't think I saw an entire game from start to finish until 7th or 8th grade. 

By the time I graduated from high school and went to Georgetown in the fall of 1992, the Pirates had become a contender in the NL East and had made two trips to the NLCS.  All of Pittsburgh knew that the the 1992 Pirates were our last chance for a World Series appearance for a long time.  My freshman year roommate was a guy from Atlanta named Mark.  We didn't get along, and the 1992 NLCS between the Braves and the Pirates didn't help our relationship.  Everyone on the 1st floor of Darnall Hall watched Game 7 of the NLCS in the lounge.  When the Braves' Francisco Cabrera got the game-winning hit and Sid Bream scored, everyone in the room cheered for the Braves.  I was alone in my suffering as I watched the Pirates react, unable to believe what had just happened.  To add insult to injury, Mark led a victory parade up and down the hall.  The Pirates broke my heart that night.

Since 1992, the Pirates have given me few reasons to hope for another appearance in the NLCS.  There have been five-year-plans that have lasted for eight.  There have been bad trades and terrible free agent signings.  Ownership has failed to show anything resembling a commitment to putting a winning team on the field.  The Pirates moved into a gorgeous new stadium in 2001, among the best in baseball, yet the product on the field has been mediocre and sometimes atrocious.  I've had no incentive to follow the team.  I even bought a Mets cap a few years ago when they were hot and I went to a few games at Shea.  I considered giving up on the Pirates and going all-in for the Mets.

But I refuse to abandon my hometown team.  I can't deny being a Pirates fan any more than I could deny that I love Mahler's symphonies.  And now that I have baseball writers, bloggers, and fans among my friends, I don't want to be left out of the sports conversation all summer.  So this season I'm going to make a real commitment to following baseball.  I can't promise that I'll love it the way so many of my friends do.  But I'll try to watch games with more than just a casual interest.  I'll keep track of how the Pirates are doing, even if they swoon in the middle of the summer.  And when I go to Pittsburgh in August for a game, I'll know who the players are, how well they're hitting, and what the pitchers' records are.  This much I will do.

OK, baseball: are we cool?  As for the Pirates: don't disappoint me again.  I'm not asking for a World Series ring.  I'll take a .500 season.

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