* * *
You’re not supposed to go to a carnival to feel miserable. And yet here I am, surrounded by thousands of baseball fans whose team has caused them two decades of pain. They’re here – at a carnival – to sit down, cross their arms, cock their eyebrows, and wait for their team to tell them next year will be different. Some part of each of them will believe it, but a bigger part won’t. They’ll go home distrusting the motives of the men in charge, questioning the talent of many of the players on hand, and wondering what they did to deserve a generation of awful play. They’re not supposed to feel miserable, just as you’re not supposed to go to a baseball game to feel miserable. And yet that’s exactly what many fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates say they do.
* * *
December 14, 2012 is warmer than it should be, one of those late-autumn days where you can pretend it’s mid-March. And in Pittsburgh, it might as well be. The Steelers are still in playoff contention, but they’re in the midst of a disappointing 8-8 season. The Penguins are caught up in the NHL lockout, their players banished to sparsely attended practices at Southpointe. And today, baseball is in the air. Or something like it, anyway.
I stand in line at PirateFest, the Pirates’ offseason festival, surrounded mostly by adults who wear their team’s gear but exhibit no real excitement. At 4:00, the doors open, and we spread through Pittsburgh’s convention center like a puff of smoke coughed into a room. Many line up to collect player autographs. Others glance at booths where middle-aged men sell baseball memorabilia and younger ones hand out 2013 schedules for the Bucs’ minor-league affiliates. The Pirates give out free calendars in plastic bags, which most guests probably don’t need but carry around awkwardly. There are T-shirts and game-used jerseys hanging from makeshift cubicle walls, and if you wander to the far end of the convention floor, you can find weirder bits of Pirates-related flotsam, like ancient unopened cereal boxes with Roberto Clemente’s picture on the front. Children climb on enormous inflatable floats and eat free hot dogs. ROOT Sports and 93.7 The Fan, which carry Pirates games on television and radio, respectively, broadcast from the event. Players and announcers occasionally stroll by, usually with fans stopping them every few steps.
The line to get in was long, but the convention floor is huge, and the event isn’t yet nearly at capacity – it won’t fill up for another couple hours, when the nine-to-fivers arrive. A makeshift stage, where the Pirates’ front office will later answer fans’ questions, is now empty. A salesman from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review offers free copies of that day’s paper, trying, perhaps a little too zealously, to get the attention of passers-by. Batting cages, bounded by black netting, go unused. The room feels like an airport at 5:30 AM – it’s quiet, and sparsely populated, but it’s clear that will soon change.
* * *
I am 33 years old. I’ve been writing about the Pirates since I was 24. I arrived, fresh-faced, from the minors almost nine years ago, and now I’m a crusty vet with a slow bat and a one-year contract. Most of the players who walk by are younger than I am. The Pirates were already in the midst of their 12th straight losing season when I started writing, and at least right now, they’re still losing.
Writing began as a hobby, and now it is work. Well, sort of. I still like it, but I have to think of it as a job. Otherwise, I’m just a 33-year-old driving three hours to catch glimpses of a bunch of rich 26-year-olds I watch on TV.
There are, of course, many Pittsburghers for whom a winter baseball carnival can simply be a winter baseball carnival, or for whom a night out at the world’s most beautiful ballpark can be uncomplicated fun, even if the home team loses. But there are also plenty who take all the losing seriously, and for whom the idea of a Pirates-themed celebration is an oxymoron. These are, naturally, the people most likely to come to PirateFest.
We love to pretend the Pirates make us miserable, but they don’t, really. We have some semblance of free will. To a serious baseball fan, changing one’s rooting interest or giving up on the sport entirely feel like unnatural acts. But they do seem like legitimate responses to true misery. Some fans have drifted away over the years, with serious fans becoming casual fans, and casual fans becoming non-fans. But there are still thousands who stick around.
It is 2012. The Pirates have had 20 straight losing seasons. A 20-year losing streak is difficult to put into perspective, in part because no other major American pro sports team has ever had one. With their 17th straight losing season in 2009, the Bucs topped the 1933-1948 Philadelphia Phillies for the longest such streak in history. Since then, they’ve been in a league of their own. The Pirates tantalized us by competing well into the summers of 2011 and 2012, only to fall apart each time, nurturing their streak nearly to drinking age. And so here we are, celebrating a team that has been losing since before some of its minor-leaguers were even born. It’s party time in Pittsburgh.
* * *
I’m at PirateFest, in part, to talk to serious Pirates fans I wouldn’t find on the internet. I’m thinking these people are mostly older, which might be wrong, but when you’re trying to talk to random strangers, you have to have some sort of plan. I’m feeling apprehensive about approaching people – I’m not particularly outgoing, and anyway, PirateFest has just opened. I figure that if you’re going to stand in line to enter a carnival, you probably have better things to do immediately after you enter than to talk to some blogger.
That turns out to be wrong. The first fan I interview is a 70-something retired steelworker named Robert who I find sitting by himself near a concession stand. He seems ready to pounce, as if he’s been waiting years for someone to ask his opinion of the course the Pirates have charted.
I ask if he’s interested in seeing Pirates president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington answer questions later that evening.
"No," he says, flatly. "I can give the same answers they give. It’s all P.R."
He then launches into a long list of grievances against the Pirates’ front office.
"They just cannot evaluate ballplayers. They drafted a catcher, [Tony] Sanchez, number one three years ago. What happened to the guy?" Robert asks. The Pirates selected Sanchez fourth overall in 2009, and he’s still in the minors.
"Their biggest weakness is catching," he continues. "They could have had Mark Wohlers [Matt Wieters] about three or four years ago."
Coonelly and Huntington hadn’t yet been hired when the Pirates passed on Wieters in 2007, but I’m in no mood to stop Robert, who opines about the quality of shortstop play throughout the National League before bashing the front office yet again.
"The good players they got weren’t signed by this regime," Robert says. "[Andrew] McCutchen, [Neil] Walker, and the third baseman [Pedro Alvarez] were all signed by [Dave] Littlefield."
Littlefield, Huntington’s predecessor, did draft McCutchen and Walker, but Alvarez was Huntington’s first pick in his first draft in 2008. In fact, Alvarez, who was represented by the ultra-aggressive agent Scott Boras, was the sort of expensive, high-upside draft pick that Littlefield never would have selected.
Robert is, in a way, very well informed – he can recall specific details not only of games and Pirates players (which you’d expect from a fan who’s been a season-ticket holder since 1994, as Robert has), but also of draft picks and bits of Pirates news that happened away from the field. He also plainly cares deeply about the team. Whenever he makes a mistake, though, it’s at the expense of the front office. And note the misplaced fascist/authoritarian connotations of the word "regime."
None of this is accidental. Pirates fans are an argumentative bunch, constantly branding one another "apologists" or "yinzers" and characterizing Huntington and Coonelly as despots, as if they came to occupy their offices on Federal Street as the result of a military coup. (An objective assessment as of December 2012 would have suggested that, for all of Huntington and Coonelly’s faults, they merely were average executives not quite up to an incredibly difficult task. They weren’t exactly Chairman Mao and Idi Amin.) As I speak to more fans, I will find that, if I’m having trouble getting an interview subject to open up, I can simply ask what he or she thinks of the Pirates’ front office. Often, I find myself in the midst of a rant, and I know that eventually I’ll be looking awkwardly to the side, trying to find the right time to turn off the recorder and say my goodbyes.
Later, I speak to Simon, a former government employee now in his 60s who’s clinging to his season tickets, he says, despite a lack of interest in the current team.
"It’s not the modern-day Bucs," he says. "You can see the alumni members, radio crews, nice guys." Simon also cites the Pirates’ Field Days, in which season-ticket holders can take batting practice and shag flies on the PNC Park grass, as a reason he keeps buying.
Still, he often finds the ballpark experience itself depressing. "You go to PNC Park, Phillies, Cubs … there are more [fans of visiting teams] wearing their colors at PNC Park than Pirates fans wearing Pirates [colors]."
Of course, there may be some Pirates fans not wearing their team’s gear. "I was ready to break out my colors last year," says Simon. But he ultimately decided not to. "I got these new logo leather jackets, hats. They ain’t earned it."
For the most part, PirateFest is good, clean fun, and an outsider might be able to spend a half hour strolling about without realizing there’s a problem. It’s as close as many fans will get to some of their favorite players, who participate in game-show-style entertainments, sign autographs, and mill about the convention center floor wearing their Pirates jerseys over casual button-down shirts. The previous year, Bucs backup catcher Michael McKenry eagerly greeted fans at the door as I entered. He was so short that it took me a minute to realize who I was suddenly talking to, and it was a pleasant surprise once I did. Pirates fans have never really blamed the players, at least not on a personal level, for the way the last two decades have gone, and PirateFest offers a great opportunity for fans to meet them.
This evening, even the Q+A session with Coonelly, Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle turns out to be mostly polite, as it usually is, even though one of the papers has published a list of accusatory questions for fans to ask. It’s difficult to be impolite in front of a thousand people. But beneath the event’s surface swims anger and frustration and pain. And when the fans finally file out of the convention center tonight, they will head home not only with positive memories of shaking hands with Hurdle or Neil Walker, but also with a peculiar blend of hope and suspicion and bitterness that grows riper with each passing year.
These are the Pirates’ most loyal customers. And for once, they are about to be rewarded.