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Reelin’ in the years: Pirates’ edition

I often find myself asking the somewhat existential question, “What does it mean to be a Pittsburgh Pirates fan?” Perhaps in the context of sport, this question is too self-aware and I would be better off simply discarding it. With that said, I appreciate efficiency and so, if my leisure activities, e.g. watching the Pirates, isn’t an efficient — or even acceptable — expenditure of time, then what am I doing?

Firstly, I think of the alleged goal of all sports teams: To win a championship in their respective sport. It’s safe to say that the Pirates primary goal year-in and year-out isn’t to win a World Series. How could it be? They haven’t been in a position to be legitimately competitive since 2013-2015; before that? Well, I think we all remember the years before...

I, then, wonder: Is my personal fandom goal to witness a World Series victory? In some ways, yes, and I suspect many of you would answer the same way. But I’m then reminded of a certain Steely Dan chorus: “Are you reelin’ in the years? / Stowin’ away the time / Are you gathering up the tears?” You get the point. Could any of us really set our sights on the World Series when there’s always so much work to be done? If so, then I imagine we’re chewing up the years as they come and spitting them out; we’re fast-forwarding through time, in a sense, because so many years are bridge years to what comes next. 2021 will be no different; the same goes for 2022 and 2023. Beyond then? It’s too hard to tell at this point.

It’s clear, then, that we can’t be fans in the same way fans of the New York Yankees are fans, or the Los Angeles Dodgers. Those fans expect their organization to be vying for a championship each year; and largely, their team is in contention. Not so in Pittsburgh. Should we be fans in a classical sense then? (The same question can apply to many other organizations in all of sports.) That doesn’t seem a viable option for those stuck with the Pirates. Instead, shouldn’t we be fans of the process with the ultimate hope — not goal, necessarily — being to win a World Series?

Any of you could counter-argue that my usage of “hope” and “goal” is a subject of semantics; that I’ve drawn an arbitrary lexical line in the sand, to which I would say, “You’re absolutely right.” Still, I think they require their own distinction. Each organization will tell you their goal is to win a championship; each fan will tell you it is their goal to witness a championship. That’s still compatible with what I’ve laid out.

Many utilize their downtime away from work and family to deride sports moves they don’t agree with because, ultimately, they want to see their team win. Yet, in doing so, we’re pulling away the top layer of sports and what it’s supposed to be: Enjoyment. Many of you are beholden to the Bucs, as am I, but let me ask you this: Are you having fun? Do you enjoy this? It’s clear that railing against the organization isn’t going to change who the owner is and how they operate their business. Instead, it leads to a lot of heartache — sometimes individualized and sometimes collective — with every botched draft pick, traded asset, or underwhelming addition.

We’re supposed to be having fun; many of us ostensibly are not. It’s certainly well within your rights to allocate your energy regarding your sports teams in any way you see fit, but I want to remind everyone that this game is meant to entertain in some form or fashion. If it’s not entertaining anymore, pick it up again when it is. To many, baseball has veered left into a boring product thanks to the reliance on the so-called three true outcomes: Strikeout, walk, and home run. If you take that and compound it by also having a terrible baseball team, the fun is sapped entirely.

If your fan-goal — not hope — is to see a World Series, then good luck to you. That’s a surefire way to eternally proliferating disappointments. If the payoff comes, it will be sweet, assuredly, but short-lived and fleeting because a few months later the season begins again and, in all likelihood, another team will come calling for the Commissioner’s Trophy. For that reason, I think it’s in our best interest to root for the process; to root for storylines and individual players; to know that the ultimate hope may never come, but that we must accept it in order to enjoy what it is we’ve got.

I said at the beginning that this question had a somewhat existential premise, and I suppose here’s where that reveals itself in earnest: Never did I mean to lecture anyone on fandom, but the impetus for writing this piece on this Christmas Eve afternoon and seeing it go live on Christmas morning is the understanding of a fleeting existence, in every sense, and we might as well spend our time enjoying our interests instead of growing angry, disheartened, and upset over them.

If your counter to that is, “I will enjoy it if they’re good,” to that I say two things: 1) Continue on however you see fit; but 2) Will you, really? It’s widely acknowledged that the Pirates could’ve done more when they were competitive in the mid-2010s and, instead of remembering all the good, we dwell on the bad. I understand the frustration, but if the only way to ever be truly satisfied with your sports’ teams is to see them win a championship, sports — an enterprise meant, in some way, to be enjoyed leisurely — will only cause anguish and suffering.

Like I said, this is supposed to be fun. So, I will try to enjoy the process and, in a climate where many like to call out others for anything, it’s okay to step away from a bad team and return if/when they’re good — that doesn’t make you a bad fan. It makes you normal. Happy holidays, everybody.