Here we are almost in June and the Pirates are mired just a tad short of mediocrity. And that, considering Pirate play in recent years, is not necessarily a bad thing.
For long suffering Pirate fans, mediocrity has become synonymous with success. Myself? I came to the Pirates late. The first Pirate game I saw in Pittsburgh was in the last full season before they closed down Forbes Field, and the only reason I went was because they were playing the Mets, and at the time I was something of a Mets fan.
Actually, born in Brooklyn, I had started life rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Those were the days of Pee Wee Reese, Carl Erskine, Preacher Roe, and Roy Campenella. The first games I ever saw were at Ebbets Field when roasted peanuts still came in little brown paper bags and the Cokes were poured from tanks carried on the hawker's back. The pregame show was something called "Happy Felton's Knothole Gang." It was hosted by the eponymous Felton, a chubby cherub in a Dodger uniform. He would invite one of the players out to the right field bullpen where he would be asked to give some instruction in a baseball fundamental to a young boy dressed in a team uniform from the PAL (Police Athletic League) or perhaps the Catholic Youth League. The right field box seats were the place to be for every kid that managed to get to the ball park for batting practice.
It was the time of your life when you lived and died with the team you rooted for. Of the three teams in New York, the Dodgers were the most hapless. Hapless but loveable. The Yankees were a corporate machine: they won so often that winning meant nothing to them. Their fans were obnoxious gloaters. The Giants played dirty: they threw at your chin; they hid in the centerfield scoreboard, and stole signals. Their fans were disreputable. The Dodgers? They were the Bums, but they were our Bums. They may never have won the World Series, but if Mickey Owens hadn't dropped that third strike, who knows. I cried when Richie Ashburn crossed home plate and sent the Whiz Kids to the Series and the Dodgers to the golf course. It just seemed like Bobby Thompson come again.
When Walter O'Malley packed up the team and moved to L.A., I was devastated. I felt betrayed. I lost all interest in baseball, and that lasted until the Mets were born. Shea Stadium was just a few miles from my house. It wasn't much like Ebbets Field, but Gil Hodges was playing there, as was Don Zimmer, Charlie Neal, Clem Labine, and Roger Craig. You could forgive them for Richie Ashburn. You could even forgive them for Casey Stengel. O'Malley be damned, the Mets were the Dodgers reincarnated. Wasn't Roger Craig the best 20-game loser in baseball? The hapless Mets were simply the hapless Dodgers reborn; they were the loveable losers.
I had a team to root for again. The only trouble was that it didn't last. In 1966 I left New York City for a little college town west of Buffalo, and the only major league baseball available came by way of Cleveland. The Mets may have been doing well, but you couldn't tell that by any of the local media. The Mets were New York City, and New York City was "city non grata" in most of the rest of the nation. So I while I was still a nominal Mets fan, baseball wasn't the passion it had once been.
Then I moved to Western Pennsylvania. It was 1968 and by then the Mets were no longer the loveable losers. By then they had pitchers like Tom Seaver and Tug McGraw, and if Cleon Jones was the only .300 hitter in their lineup. With pitchers like that, how much hitting did a team really need? So when in September of 1969 the Mets came into Pittsbugh for a three game series, a friend, another relocated New Yorker, and I drove down to see the Mets beat the Pirates 1-0. It was nice to root for a winner, even if one is only a nominal fan.
It was nice, but the old passion wasn't there. The Mets were a long ways away, and the Pirates were close by. And when you can go to Three Rivers Stadium and see Willie Stargell bash those tape measure home runs and Roberto Clemente throw from right field with the same rifle arm that Carl Furillo had in Brooklyn, when you can watch Dave Giusti come in and save game after game … well, it doesn't take all that long to develop a new passion. For quite a few years that passion was rewarded. The Pirates were a team to reckon with, but more important they were fun to watch. I guess that once that passion is kindled, it takes an awful lot to smother it.
I guess that even 17 losing seasons might not do it.