Thursday, February 12, 2009

Baseball Starts Back Up Today: Pitchers and Catchers Report

Why am I so excited for baseball? That was the question posed to me this morning by one of my roommates when I gleefully told him that pitchers and catchers were reporting for our Buccos today. I really had no answer to that question. I mean, in the other sports I absolutely dread the thought of crappy teams and losing seasons. In other sports, I typically can tell when miserable teams are on the field (or court or ice) and I do my best to avoid getting too attached to those squads.

When the Pens missed the playoffs in the years B.S. (Before Sidney), I had little hope for most of those seasons, and while I followed hockey as much as any Burgher and student-rushed more than a few times, it wasn't because I really believed in those teams and they were a distant second to the Steelers from October through January. And by the time the NFL seasons wrapped up, the Pens were dunzo in the standings from 02 until 07 and it was hard to view them as much more than a holdover until baseball.

When Pitt football crapped the bed the past few seasons, I may have attended all their games and watched the road games on TV no matter what bizarre weeknight the Big East had them play on, but it was never a big deal to me. I love Pitt football, but I could tell those teams were fundamentally flawed and weren't going anywhere so I never got too attached until I saw the brilliance of Shady McCoy emerge last season.

Some might say this makes me a front-runner. I couldn't disagree more. In no way, shape or form have I ever abandoned a Pittsburgh team, not even when Matt Cavanaugh called for back-to-back passing plays on 3rd and 4th down late in the game from inside the Navy 3 yard line last season with the game on the line and Pitt needing a touchdown after Shady had run for roughly 5,000 yards in the game did I give up on a Pittsburgh team. But there is a difference between not abandoning a team and developing a close connection with a team. If you were able to develop a close connection that made you want to watch every game with Dick Tarnstrom and the 04 Pens and think about how those guys project into the future and every win made you think the team was building off of something, then my hat's off to you. You are a more devoted Pens fan than I. Not until the Pens got Sid or when Mario played the occasional game in those dark years did I go out of my way to watch the Pens, and I was often downright terrified to think about the team's future given that their franchise also doubled as the owner and one of the most injured players in NHL history. From Sid's rookie campaign on, I've been attached to each Pens team. Even that lousy first year that enabled us to get J-Staal. I bet I student-rushed 20 games that season. The connection to that losing team is how I've felt about basically every Pirates team since I was old enough to comprehend their ineptitude. But that initial attachment to the Pens wasn't because of an attachment to hockey or to the team. It was because of Crosby. Only after I saw the brilliance of Geno and J-Staal and the development of the Flower and Gonch getting his legs back did I come to appreciate this team.

Even after that (I hope) logical explanation some probably still are judging me. Especially some of the Pens fans I've seen at the Igloo of late. And I just can't let that stand. You know what? It's time for a quick rant. Just a warning, you may want to skip this next paragraph, but I need to write it.

Start Rant
Some of these older Pens fans seem incredibly irritated by the younger fans whom they view as just "bandwagon hoppers" who now fill the arena. Look, I understand how proud you are to be a fan since 1975 or what the hell ever, but what's with the resentment of people who are new to Pens fandom? Yes it's very cool and very admirable you stuck by the Pens during their dry run, but Hockey is one sport that sure as hell can't afford to turn any fans away, even if it is in a strong hockey market like the Burgh. I just don't get the perspective that fans in their early-mid 20s are all bandwagon fans because they weren't watching and going to games before the Pens were good a few years back. Uhmm...why the hell would we have gone to many games? I mean I've gone to more games than most my age but I'm sure some will look down their noses at me because I wasn't willing to devote 82 nights a year to watching EdZo fail miserably at installing the left wing lock while the league spiraled down the tubes and many thought it would go completely under. The NHL had a dreadful business model and a dreadful product in the early 00's and the Pens had a few dreadful teams and yet they still charged a butt load of money for tickets. Somehow everyone forgets all this. And now that the team is playing to full houses in the Igloo and there is youthful support of the squad, that's supposed to be a bad thing? Something's not adding up here. The Pens are basically the only youthful success in this old, old, old city of ours. Again how is that a bad thing?
End Rant

Aaaaaaaand we're back to the story: For some reason, baseball is different for me. Always has been. I don't know why. It was my favorite sport growing up, I played it in high school, and on beautiful days shortly after winter (like the past Tuesday and Wednesday) I really, really want to go out and shag a few flies and hit the batting cages. No matter how far into the season it is, I follow the Pirates no matter their record or how many dozens of games they are out of first. What can I say? I'm a sick, sick human being.

In all seriousness, how many college-age students or slightly younger in the Pittsburgh area can you say you know are Pirate fans? My guess is the number is hovering slightly above zero. And of those how many are legit die-hards? That number has to be so low it might even be negative. When your local baseball squad sucks for well over a decade, young impressionable fans start bailing when they get old enough to realize just how much of a trainwreck the organization is. I've always been tempted to do so, but never could actually do it. A few times I've even gone so far as to pick a new team to root for, but my heart was never in it. If that team was playing the Bucs, I switched sides within 2 seconds of the game starting. So finally I just stopped trying to switch allegiances. I'm stuck as a Pirate fan for life, no matter what. No question its been a maddening upbringing, but it's not been all bad.

I like to think that it's maybe kept me a bit grounded as a sports fan. At least that's one rationalization I use. I've been blessed with being a fan of the best franchise in all of football, watching back-to-back Stanley Cup titles come to town in my first two seasons as a Pens fan, watching countless transcendant talents in football and hockey, and following one of the best college basketball programs as it built itself from the ground up. Having the Buccos crap the bed every season and make gawd-awful decisions gave me a perspective on how the other half lives.

And so, another season of Pirates baseball is about to commence, and once again I will search high and low for reasons for optimism. And I will be there for my 14th opener out of the last 15 (PNC Park's first season is my only miss) and I will get every scouting report possible on whatever prospects they inevitably get for deadline deals, and when they finish this season at 70-92 or something like that, I will pinpoint any progress certain players have made and I will try to factor in the up-and-coming prospects and when they might be able to help out and when the earliest we could expect a winning record might be.

Yup, it's a very interesting existence being a Pirates fan, especially when baseball is the sport you are most attached to and have the most experience with. As maddening as it is and as much as I hate what the Pirates have done to me for the last 16 years, nothing can stop my massochistic side from going back for more. And so I look forward to a season of cheering on Wilson, Sanchez, Snell, Maholm, McLouth, and Doumit while hoping for the best from Morgan, the brothers LaRoche, Gorzelanny, and Duke and waiting for reinforcements to arrive in the form of McCutchen, Tabata, Alvarez, and Lincoln.

At some point this weekend, I'll be back with some more Pirates stuff. Until then

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