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Cursed: Yinz and Losses in Pittsburgh

Is this the end of 20 years of ignominy for the Pirates?

Somewhere around midnight, as Francisco Cabrera lined a baseball into left field and Sid Bream chug-a-chug-chugged around third base and then spilled underneath the tag of a catcher nicknamed Spanky, thereby euthanizing a generation’s worth of baseball in Pittsburgh, my friend JB briefly lost control of his faculties. It was a Wednesday night, October 14, 1992, Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, bottom of the ninth, and JB stood alone in a dorm room the size of a walk-in closet, brandishing a 7-iron for channel-changing purposes (his remote control was broken). As soon as it was over, as soon as Bream scored the winning run for the Braves and completed a three-run comeback, JB took aim at a bottle of Rolling Rock and perpetrated a senseless act of violence against what was then western Pennsylvania’s finest pale lager.

Still, it’s what happened next that JB cannot explain, except to say that he is a Pirates fan. He knew that the pitcher who had given up the final hit, Stan Belinda, grew up in a town not far from the college he attended, and so some deep-seated sense of rage and helplessness drove him to pick up the white pages, turn to the B‘s, and find a listing for Belinda in Port Matilda, Pennsylvania. JB dialed the number, and a woman answered.

“When Stan gets home,” he said, “you tell him we’re proud. Real proud.”

He hung up, feeling satisfied, feeling as if he’d somehow exorcised the demons that had welled up inside him, and that he’d done it without resorting to profanity or overt threats, and that this blast of withering sarcasm spoke to the heartbreak of an entire city. This was the end for the Pirates, and everyone knew it, and JB was merely channeling that frustration: The left fielder who had airmailed a wayward throw toward home plate in an attempt to nail Bream, one Barry Lamar Bonds, had no intention of re-signing in Pittsburgh. The starting pitcher in Game 7, Doug Drabek, would soon be gone, too. The franchise — having lost three straight years in the NLCS — was on the verge of a death spiral, and the sense of resentment about this missed opportunity was palpable in a region that prides itself on the transformative powers of its sports teams.

Maybe that’s what drove JB to pick up the phone that night; I don’t know, and I honestly don’t think he knows, either. What JB could not have realized is that this sense of impotence about his hometown baseball club would endure into his late 30s.

Anyway, a few seconds after he hung up on the Belindas, JB’s phone rang.

“Did you just call here?” a man said, his words brimming with a rage of their own.
These were the fledgling days of *69, and JB, jarred back to reality, promptly freaked out. He said no, hung up, and then left his phone off the hook for the rest of the evening. “I guess,” he told me, “I had more snark than balls.”

It is easy to blame the Pirates’ 19 consecutive losing seasons — a record for any professional sports franchise in North American history — on the lingering inequity between large- and small-market franchises. But in Pittsburgh, there is a stunning thread of ineptitude that has carried over through multiple ownership groups, through countless bad signings and lopsided trades and mystifying draft picks and a move to one of the most picturesque stadiums in the major leagues. These foibles are encapsulated in a shorthand that diehards have transformed into a covert language of the accursed: “Operation Shutdown”1 and “Bottled-Water Gate”2 and “Sausagegate,” not to mention the varied fiascos associated with names like Jeromy Burnitz (one in a long line of disgruntled veterans to pass through town), Dave Littlefield (the comically inept general manager), and John Van Benschoten (one of many failed pitching prospects).

There was the Aramis Ramirez trade and the Matt Morris trade and the Chris Young trade; there was that time Oliver Perez landed on the disabled list after kicking a laundry cart and there was that time Ian Snell asked to be sent to the minors. There were failed marketing slogans (“We will … ,” whose open-ended ellipsis allowed fans a repository for every frustration — as in, “We will … bypass Matt Wieters in the 2007 draft in favor of Daniel Moskos”3) and failed mascots (a foot-tall leather camel named Doug, who briefly occupied the clubhouse in 2000) and failed draft picks (“We feel comfortable projecting him as a no. 3 starter,” Littlefield said after choosing Bryan Bullington with the no. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft — ahead of seven future first-round All-Stars). There were the “Freak Show” Pirates of 1997 (total payroll: $9 million), who nearly won the division despite finishing four games under .500 and starting Kevin Polcovich at shortstop, and there were the 2000 Pirates, a squad that owner Kevin McClatchy forecast to win 90 games (they lost 93). There were 89 losses under Jim Leyland and 93 under Gene Lamont and 100 under Lloyd McClendon and 95 under Jim Tracy and 105 under John Russell and 90 under current manager Clint Hurdle last season.

“There was one point when I considered jumping ship as a fan,” says Pat Lackey, a member of the Lost Generation of Pirates fans who haven’t experienced a winning team since the Weekly Reader was their primary source of information. “They weren’t really terrible yet, but those Cleveland teams were awesome. And somebody bought me an Indians T-shirt, and I wore it to Little League practice one day. The coach said, ‘What is this? You’re a Pirates fan!'”

Lackey was 7 years old on that October night in 1992 when Bream scored the winning run. His parents wouldn’t let him stay up until midnight to watch the finish. He leaped out of bed the next morning, found his father in the bathroom shaving, and asked, “Did we win? Did we win?” And the look his dad gave him was the first in an interminable series of disappointments.

He was too young to comprehend that this game was a watershed for the franchise. At school that day, a friend made a disparaging remark about Belinda and Lackey replied, “We’ll just go back and win it next year.” Years later, for his own fulfillment, he started a blog called Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?, inspired by the charismatic center fielder who, after Bream crossed home plate, sat down in the grass with his cap tipped over his eyes like a man on a bender. On the blog, Lackey has encapsulated nearly every Pirates game in the mid to late 2000s; until recently, it was a Dostoyevskian chronicle of despair4 that he’d thought about giving up on multiple times. Last year, the Pirates’ record went above .500 around the All-Star break, landing the team in unfamiliar territory: first place. But, just as quickly as they rose, the team fell to pieces in the second half of the season. Over the winter, Lackey focused on his Ph.D. studies in biochemistry and barely thought about baseball at all.

That collapse brought to mind all sorts of questions about recidivism and self-abuse, but even though Lackey lives in North Carolina now, something wouldn’t let him stop blogging. Something kept him coming back to Pittsburgh, to the one professional sports team in the City of Champions that existed, for his entire adult life, as little more than an afterthought.

There is no place in America quite like Pittsburgh, if only because of the way people talk. This is a city that popularized the phrase “jagoff,” which I can tell you from firsthand experience is as satisfying a road-rage insult as any two-syllable term in the English language. This is a city where a pair of morning DJs made a living for many years by brilliantly mocking the collective voice of their own fan base. This is a city where “yinzer” — the term for a hard-core Pittsburgher, derived from “yinz,” as in “Yinz wanna go dahntahn and drink some Ahrn City” — is tossed about with both pride and revulsion, in the same way “hipster” is utilized in Brooklyn. Put it this way: All those years of Rust Belt struggle made the people of this town pretty self-aware about how they are perceived.

Pittsburgh is a football town first, of course, and its relationship with the Steelers (“Stillers”) is well chronicled. The Penguins won their first Stanley Cup with Mario Lemieux in 1991, at about the same time the Pirates began their post-Bream tailspin, and so for many years, there was hardly a need for the Pirates to exist except in that slim window between the Stanley Cup playoffs and the first day of Steelers training camp. Even in the early 1990s, they could not sell out playoff baseball games and an All-Star Game at (the admittedly cavernous) Three Rivers Stadium; before PNC Park was built on the North Side waterfront in 2001, there were recurring questions about whether the Pirates might leave town altogether.

“Before the 1970s, this was a baseball town,” says Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. “A dedicated, serious baseball town.”

Bill Mazeroski

Baseball in Pittsburgh dates back to the 19th century, but the first turning point came in 1909, when Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss, a Kentucky bourbon distiller, built Forbes Field in Oakland, an up-and-coming section of the city being developed by Andrew Carnegie. He believed his park could appeal to a more upscale clientele; his critics labeled it “Dreyfuss’s Folly.” But Forbes Field sold out on Opening Day, and the Pirates won the 1909 World Series, and 51 years later, in that same ballpark, Bill Mazeroski drove a 1-0 pitch from Ralph Terry over the left-field wall to win Game 7 of the World Series over the Yankees. It is a moment they still commemorate every October 13 by playing the broadcast of the game over a loudspeaker at the site of the outfield wall of Forbes Field.

That sentimental attachment to sports is what carried Pittsburgh through the lean times. When the city began to redefine itself as the steel mills moved out, the Steelers were a model NFL franchise, but there were enough people who remembered the Mazeroski home run or the Roberto Clemente years or the “We Are Family” World Series champion Pirates of 1979 that Pittsburgh refused to completely let go of its relationship with baseball. In order to maintain their status as a first-class city, they needed a baseball team as much as they needed a world-class symphony. And so they never fully gave in to apathy: The failures of the Pirates have always bothered people, even as those failures have dragged on for a generation. There is a reason all the sports teams in Pittsburgh wear black and gold; in some way, they are inexorably linked, and so the Pirates’ mounting losses contrasted with the comeback of Pittsburgh itself over the past two decades. Here was this beautiful new ballpark, in this revived North Shore neighborhood: Why can’t we get the product right?

“People care enough to get mad about the things that went wrong,” Madarasz says. “That’s Pittsburgh — we try and we try and we try, until we succeed.”

On that night in 1992, as JB brandished a short iron in his college dorm room, the only Pirates pitcher with a disease named after him positioned himself in a locker room lined with plastic sheeting and stocked with champagne. The Pirates led 2-0 going into the bottom of the ninth in Atlanta, and Steve Blass was a color commentator on the Pirates’ radio and television networks. He stood alone in the visitors’ clubhouse, microphone in hand, and watched the inning unravel. And then he stood in a broadcast booth for the next 20 years and watched the franchise unravel.

There may be no one in Pittsburgh who understands the psychology of snowballing defeat more vividly than Blass: In 1972, he was an All-Star pitcher with the Pirates. Then he lost control of his ability to throw a baseball, for reasons that never fully revealed themselves. He wasn’t the first one to experience this syndrome, but he became its namesake (Rick Ankiel, Steve Sax, and Chuck Knoblauch have all suffered from Steve Blass disease in the years since) and its most famous sufferer after Roger Angell profiled him for The New Yorker in 1975.5 He transformed himself into a nimble broadcaster, witty and self-deprecating and stubbornly old-fashioned (“What the hell is BABIP all about?” he asks me at one point),6 and he insists that he still adores his job, despite bearing witness to years of ignominy.

“There were nights when I’d think, ‘I don’t know if we’re awful, but we’re playing awful,'” he says, sitting with me in the press box at PNC Park. “When you get beat 12-1, and you’re never in it, and you’re watching them play catch-up ball every night … night after night, year after year … “

Blass has lived in Pittsburgh for 40 years, and he credits the city with rescuing him. Nineteen seasons of defeat is nothing compared to the couple of years of hell he went through at the end of his career. Bad decisions, bad luck, bad management: All of the above have afflicted the Pirates, but Blass refuses to ascribe it to mysticism or voodoo, because he’s been down this psychic road before.

“It’s not a curse,” he says. “It’s baseball.”

Hopefully,” Sid Bream is telling me, “a little bit of the Bream curse can be gone soon.”

Before Bream became an Atlanta Brave, he was a Pittsburgh Pirate, and he imagined he would be a Pirate for years to come. He arrived in the city in 1985 just as a cocaine scandal swept through the Pittsburgh clubhouse, implicating a barbecue chef, a freelance photographer, and the man who played the Pirate Parrot mascot, and leading to a series of trials that forced players like Tim Raines and Keith Hernandez to detail their drug habits to the nation. It was a dark moment for the city, and for baseball itself; in the wake of it, the Pirates chose to remain in their founding city rather than relocate, and acquired a group of young prospects in order to rebuild the franchise. By 1990, that team — with no starter older than 29 — won the National League East and lost in the NLCS to the Reds.

“The next day, I remember management said, ‘Bream is our first priority to sign for 1991,'” Bream says. “I assumed I would get a multi-year contract of some sort. But their negotiations weren’t even close to market price. So Atlanta gave me a good contract, but my wife and I still were having a very difficult time leaving Pittsburgh. After we said yes to the Braves, we stayed up all night long, and I cried my eyes out. I called my attorney and said I wanted to stay in Pittsburgh.

“We tried to go back to the Pirates. We said, ‘We’ll take your offer if you give me a no-trade clause.’ Because what would stop them from signing me and then turning around and trading me to the Braves with that contract? And they said no.”

McCutchen

And so Bream left for Atlanta. When he hit a grand slam against the Pirates in 1991, he says, it was the least enjoyable grand slam he’d ever hit in his life. In ’92, when he crossed home plate in Game 7: “I was just doing my job.”

Bream’s career ended after the 1994 season. He is calling me from his home, from a place called Zelienople, which is 30 minutes north of Pittsburgh. He always knew he’d move back, and Game 7 did nothing to change that desire. Every day, when he goes out in public, he hears from at least one person about that odyssey from second base to home plate on Cabrera’s single; oddly, the man who inserted the dagger into the franchise is still largely beloved in Pittsburgh, because the people understand that it is not his fault, because the people understand that Sid Bream feels the same pangs and aches that they do.7

“Money’s always been an issue for the Pirates,” he says. “I might burn some bridges, but when a city builds a ballpark for you and you’re not willing to do a whole lot to put a winner onto the ball field? The players know when you’re trying to win and when you’re not trying to win.

“But I hope they go out and win the Central Division this year.”

When I visited Pittsburgh in July, the Pirates were clinging to second place in the division, a game and a half behind the Reds. Barring a monumental collapse, they will finish this season with a winning record for the first since 1992, and as I write this, they continue to hover on the cusp of their first playoff berth since 1992. At PNC Park, I watched them lose two games in a row to the struggling Cubs; Lackey told me that many of his blog readers started to freak out following those defeats, and that he spends much of his time now reassuring fans who tuned out the Pirates for most of their lives and are spoiled by the success of the Penguins and the Steelers.

There is a freshness to the crowds at PNC Park that arouses both hope and cynicism. It is clear that many of them had never been to a game before this season — “WELCOME TO THE BANDWAGON,” one yinzer’s T-shirt read — but the Pirates are slowly winning back their trust. Seeking to avoid the mistakes of the past, they signed their best player, Andrew McCutchen, to a six-year deal in the offseason, and McCutchen has rewarded them with an MVP-caliber season. Their second baseman, Neil Walker, is a gregarious local kid who sobbed on his couch at age 7 the night Bream scored the winning run. “I guess I have a better understanding of what this area’s been through in the past 20 years,” Walker says. “This is what we’ve been hoping for.”

Pirates Illustration

The 2012 Pirates are an endearing collective of youngsters and veterans, of reclamation projects like A.J. Burnett (who, at age 35, is arguably having the best season of his career) and homegrown talent like Pedro Alvarez (a streaky power source who is seemingly learning how to hit one at-bat at a time). While pitcher James McDonald has struggled recently, he is still having a breakout season, and the bullpen and back of the rotation, stocked with veterans like Erik Bedard and Kevin Correia, have been good enough to keep the Pirates in most games. Closer Joel Hanrahan has both a closer’s beard and demeanor, and has made two straight All-Star Games.

They are imperfect, and their batting order (with the exception of McCutchen) does not strike much fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers, but they are winning games and have embraced the frat-house ethos of a winning club, flashing each other the “Z” symbol inspired by a bubble-wrapped cultist named Zoltan from the movie Dude, Where’s My Car?8

The Cubs series also marked the start of Steelers training camp, which has traditionally signified the end of baseball season in Pittsburgh. It was a milestone Pirates manager Clint Hurdle noted in his morning press briefing,9 and after the Pirates beat the Cubs in an afternoon game to avoid the sweep before one of the largest day-game crowds in years, Hurdle said he was actually looking forward to getting stuck in traffic on the way to the airport.

This team, Hurdle insists, is not out to contend with history anymore. “You rip the rearview mirror off, man,” he says.

In September, when (and if, always if) the Pirates win their 82nd game of the season, a couple of things might happen. The first is that my friend JB, who has been flipping the bird to the Port Matilda highway exit as a spiritual release anytime he drives back through central Pennsylvania, may finally let his anger go. The second is that a man named Tim Crouse may engage in a solitary prayer ritual in Columbus, Ohio.

Crouse grew up sitting in the cheap seats at Three Rivers; on that night in 1992, he sat by himself in the dark, in an armchair situated about two feet from the television because the rest of his family had gone to bed. He was 16 years old, and the next morning in the hallway at school, nobody really spoke. He has never gone back and watched the ninth inning since.

Crouse lives in Columbus now. He, like Pat Lackey, is a member of the Lost Generation, one of those Pirates fans scattered across America who has spent the past 19 years feeling lonely and disconnected. A few years ago, his brother-in-law, as a taunt, gave him a baseball card, an Upper Deck commemorative shot of Bream’s foot touching home plate while the Pirates’ catcher, Mike LaValliere, lunges at Bream’s thigh. He keeps it in his wallet as a reminder.

“I’m just a really optimistic guy by nature,” he tells me. “I don’t think I ever really got close to giving up on them.”

Since he left town, Crouse’s city has evolved, even as his baseball team has struggled to keep up. The transformation that Midwest cities like Cleveland and Detroit are trying to muddle through has already taken place in Pittsburgh. This is largely because of the fortune that industrialists like Carnegie and others endowed to local institutions; Pittsburgh is no longer one of the largest cities in the country, but it is a pioneer of Rust Belt urban renewal.

If the Steelers represent the city’s ties to what it used to be, it is not hard to imagine that the Pirates can become the embodiment of the new Pittsburgh, an extension of the aspirational ethos that led Barney Dreyfuss to build Forbes Field. There is no reason to endure history anymore, which is why, when (and if) the Pirates win their 82nd game, Crouse plans to remove the baseball card from his wallet, whisper some sort of invocation, and then set the damned thing on fire.

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