Pittsburgh is a city known for many things: Steel, bridges, and exceptional major North American sports franchises — well, except for one. Fans in Pittsburgh have become used to seeing professional sports teams prevail on their watch. The Pittsburgh Steelers are nothing short of a dynasty, while the Pittsburgh Penguins continue to pave their way through the National Hockey League.
More than that, I get the feeling that fans in Pittsburgh prefer their team to mimic the heartbeat of the city: Tough, gritty, strong. Just a bunch of dudes doing their job and doing it the right way. Don’t get me wrong, even for those teams to be successful, it takes at least one major star athlete to catalyze the whole enterprise: The Steelers have had Big Ben since the mid-2000s and Sidney Crosby has been at the helm during plenty of Pens runs.
So I’m left to wonder, with so much success in Pittsburgh, what keeps fans of the other teams sticking around for the Pirates? For one, I speculate that it’s because fans in Pittsburgh are passionate, loyal, and sometimes ravenous. That’s both a blessing and a curse. To care about something so incredibly is a feat that could perhaps be considered rare in human nature, but it makes for a stressful existence year in and year out and for the duration of the year. But my second point is that because the other teams are so successful, perhaps mediocrity isn’t so hard to put up with when you know you have outlets elsewhere.
We’ve seen success for the Pirates fairly recently when they made the playoffs three consecutive years in the mid-2010s, but they weren’t able to translate it into much more than a brief appearance in early October. But before we proceed further, I think it’s important to define what success is because it must be true that success is relative; one organization’s success isn’t another organization’s. Before we can decide how Pirates’ fans should move forward, we must first know what success means to us.
Let’s start with what other organizations consider success. The New York Yankees have gotten to a point where they refuse to get out of bed for anything less than a World Series championship. American League East division titles don’t mean much to them — it’s the expectation. Likewise, National Championships is what matters to the University of Alabama football team. While winning the Southeastern Conference is nice, it’s expected in Tuscaloosa. Those are two examples of the top of the top, the teams which expect nothing less than the ultimate payout.
Now, let’s move onto the middle tier. The Michigan Wolverines can’t seem to get over the hump in the Big Ten any longer. They’re constantly Ohio State’s doorstep and even when Michigan is expected to be competitive, something happens and they fall short. So, if they won the Big Ten outright? The fan base would collectively release their breath they’ve been holding. Make it to the NCAA Football Championship game? Watch out. What about the Utah Jazz? They’re frequently in the NBA Playoffs, but they aren’t very frequently considered odds on favorite. They’re generally a four or five seed with the expectation being they might take a series. But if they made the Finals? That would send the fanbase into a frenzy.
Now, for the bottom tier. These are teams that struggle to consistently reach a significant level of competitiveness. They’re generally middling to bad and are often found in smaller markets. Fan bases are usually passionate, but they’re sparse. Perhaps the Memphis Grizzlies fit into this tier, since they usually can’t make the playoffs or they squeeze in as an eight seed. This is also where the Pirates fit in, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
For the Pirates to contend, it seems like a flurry of perfect combinations have to come into place. Firstly, the team must draft correctly and develop those players. Then, they have to pick up reclamation projects, as we’ve heard so often, or outsmart the competition, like the Tampa Bay Rays seem to do. Then, when the team coalesces over the course of four to six years since the process began, the front office must attempt to supplement the roster with some decent talent, but not expensive, high level talent.
With that said, fan expectations for the Pirates should never — never — be World Series or bust, even when the team is good. What about pennant winners? Probably not. Even when the teams were good in the mid-2010s, it felt like we were taking it a game at a time with a focus on the division. There was never anything that seemed guaranteed, like there often appears to be with eventual pennant winners. Don’t get me wrong, those can be organizational goals and expectations, just not fan goals or expectations. That sets yourself up for a disappointment, and when you’re a fan of Pirate baseball, you already know that feeling all too well.
So, perhaps the expectation on a good year is to simply make the playoffs, whether that’s as a division winner or Wild Card entrant. With the looming possibility of expanded playoffs as the new normal, this goal could become much more attainable. But falling into the trap of requiring your team to win championships or it’s not worth it is a bad place to be. I’m of the belief that plenty of team in every sport aren’t going to win a title in my lifetime. Unfortunately, the small market Pirates might be one of them.
But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be miserable being a fan. When the Pirates are decent, there’s a lot to root for and it’s great to have to take it game by game instead of being a Dodgers’ fan, just waiting for the regular season to end so they can begin their trek to the World Series again.
Under this mode of thinking, if the Pirates capture a series in the playoffs, we’ll all be ecstatic. It will finally begin to feel like it was all worth it. If they win the pennant? We’ll lose our minds. If they win a title? Pittsburgh itself might implode. Taking the Pirates as they are, which is a generally young group of guys trying to figure out Major League Baseball, and enjoying them going about their business could make fandom an enjoyable enterprise instead of the suffering pit of despair many of us think of it now — especially if those guys mature together and make a run at something special.
I’m not telling you how to be a fan. Do whatever you’d like. But it took me time to realize there’s more to sports than hoisting a trophy at the end of it — enjoyment can often be found in the journey as much as the destination.