“Why do you like the Pirates? They suck.”
I’ve heard this question countless times throughout my life when the topic of my fandom is broached. This question, while true for the majority of my life, ignores some very crucial pieces of information: the Pittsburgh Pirates history, a series of (unfortunate) events and my father.
The notion that I had any say about whether or not I became a Pirates fan holds no water. Of course, like many, it was bestowed unto me. Sure, I lived in central Ohio, which meant I could’ve had a pick of Cleveland or Cincinnati, but it was never really an option. And yes, a Larry Walker jersey shirt was a part of my life for a period of time, a relic of my parents’ Colorado days. But my team was always mine, will always be mine.
There’s a saying that’s something to the effect of, “When a student is ready, a teacher will appear.” Being an English teacher, this phrase appeals to me. But I know that the phrase doesn’t necessarily mean an actual teacher; it could be a sign, a moment, a cosmic alignment that we mere mortals fail to truly grasp.
But I’d like to amend the phrase to fit another significant portion of my life: “When a fan is ready, a team will appear.” And so it did.
Unlike the attempt at poetic musings of the previous paragraph, my team did appear, certainly, but I know where from: my dad.
When my dad was growing up in southern West Virginia in the ‘70s, he needed a baseball team. He had an older brother who he apparently considered versed in the subject and asked him which teams were good (a reasonable starting place for a child). One of the teams listed played ball in Pittsburgh.
Sure, it was geographically close to my dad, but I don’t think that had much bearing on his decision. No, the impetus for choosing the Pirates specifically out of a list of good teams was never made clear, but it happened all the same.
And so, thus transpired the series of events that led to my fanhood. The determinist in me says it was always going to be this way; I was always going to like the Pirates because my dad was always going to like the Pirates because he was always going to ask the question about which teams are good, and he was always going to choose the Pirates. There’s surely a romanticism about that notion, but baseball is nothing if not romantic.
So when poet and writer Donald Hall spent a portion of Spring Training with the Pirates in Bradenton in 1973, my six-year-old father was engaging in a new experience of his own: baseball fanhood. In Hall’s work, there’s references to Manny Sanguillen, Bob Robertson, Richie Hebner, Richie Zisk, Dock Ellis, Steve Blass, and, of course, Roberto Clemente, who was recently departed.
In reading interactions that Hall had with those players, I couldn’t help but smile. I smiled because they were references to players who I’ve come to know so well, partly by osmosis, partly by digging into the research, numbers and videos myself.
At one point, Hall references fathers playing catch with sons, which is also the name of his book of essays where the line can be found, and he remarks that that’s what baseball is. There’s a love to it, a care; it can be hurtful, challenging, downright damned dirty and mean, but it is an art, a romance, a microcosm of life; simply, it is a bond.
So those thoughts push me back further. My grandfather on my dad’s side, born in 1929, had an allegiance to the Dodgers, but was eventually overtaken by an interest in the Reds. I was fairly young when my grandfather died and, like many kids, failed to have the most optimal relationship with my grandparents because I was busy playing outside, playing games and being a kid. But there is one moment that sticks out to me, but not for its magnification, nor for its particular remarkability.
I was sitting at my grandparents’ house one summer afternoon. As was his wont, my grandfather was rocking away in the living room, the Reds broadcast on television. I remember him telling me how he thought Jeff Keppinger was pretty good, and something to the effect of he’s not sure why he doesn’t get more playing time. Whether or not that recollection is even true, I can’t say. But does it matter? It speaks to the bigger idea that a simple, singular moment can have – it just so happens that many of mine are predicated around baseball.
In John McCollister’s “Baseball Book of Why,” the very final question of the book reads thus: “Why is there no such thing as the ‘best game every played’ in Major League Baseball?”
By this point in the book, I’d been gearing up for a tidbit of history, perhaps a factoid to support the idea of McCollister’s best game ever played. Instead, I was greeted, happily and mistily, with this nugget:
It was played on June 24, 1947, between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field. The Dodgers won the contest, 4-2. Rookie Jack Roosevelt Robinson scored the tie-breaking run with his first-ever steal of home plate off pitcher Fritz Ostermueller.
Why is this, for me, the best game ever played? The answer is simple: It was the first Major League Baseball game to which my father ever took me.
And now I think of those words as the 2023 season looms just ahead. My son, who’s nearly two-and-a-half (where does the time go?) will trek up to Pittsburgh with me for the first time this summer. He won’t remember it, but, unbeknownst to him, he’s about to embark on a journey that his patrilineality is attempting to pass down to him.
It’ll be Sesame Street Day at PNC Park, and although I suspect my progeny will be more enthralled with Elmo, Big Bird and their cast of friends, I will be all the while thinking about how special the moment is for me; and perhaps one day, how special it might be for him.
So, yes, baseball – and, specifically for me, Pirates baseball – is a Fam-A-Lee affair.