Monday, June 28, 2010

The Emotional Toll of Being a Pirates Fan in Pittsburgh

Bob Smizik continues to troll the hearts and souls of Pirates fans in this city (Ohlendorf Pitches Well; Deserves Defeat) and my recent addition to the network has inspired me to write about what it's like to be a fan of this team in this city where Smizik's baseless vitriol embodies the views of oh so many.

And so. on the day before a series against the cubs during which we will hopefully get at least one win, I present to you:

The Emotional Toll of Being a Pirates Fan in Pittsburgh

If you're grown up being taught to feel a certain way about something, it becomes a kind of bedrock opinion that is very hard to change, or even summon the willingness to do so. This unfortunate truism can be found in such diverse circumstances as Bigotry, the Catholic Church in the era of Galileo, and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Many Pittsburghers grow up hearing that the Pirates suck, and have sucked for a very long time. They hear that the ownership is to blame. Due to a seemingly-endless succession of losing seasons, there is little reason for anyone to question the prevailing logic, and their informed opinion is only as deep as years of sensationalist attention-getting headlines in the sports sections of our local newspapers. One can't blame them; The Penguins and the Steelers have been very good (less so in the past year, but still), and 2 out of 3 isn't bad. When you see a wreck, you slow down to see what happened, but you don't often park and get out to determine the exact cause.

Still, though, hating on the Pirates has become a sort of local tradition, even if you don't know or care why they happen to suck. It's another way of two people affirming the fact that they are Pittsburghers. Like mentioning Primanti's, or mimicking Yinzer accents if you live in the East End.

A friend of mine's recent Facebook status update:

"So, the signs on busses said "let's go pens" for at least a week after we were already out of the playoffs. now they say "let's go bucs".... hard to tell which is more absurd..."

Admittedly, this is an extreme example. This guy has never gone to a Buccos game in his life. I'm kind of surprised he even knows that "Bucs" stands for "Pirates". But my point is this: being a Pirates fan means that a lot of people are going to instinctively think you're an idiot for reasons that ironically go a long way towards making them idiots themselves.

Anecdote 1

I went into a store in the Strip District that is staffed by hardcore Steelers and Pens fans this past winter, shortly after the latest Rothlisberger fiasco. Needless to say, they were angry in that special Pittsburgher I Heart Casual Violence kind of way.

And there I was, wearing a Pirates jacket. During the off-season, no less. Before I had even approached the counter, I heard one of the guys behind the counter say to his co-worker: "Dude, that guy's actually wearing a Pirates jacket...." He wasn't whispering, either.

My hackles raised momentarily, but I figured that there was no way these guys were going to belittle a customer. And even if that didn't bother them, this was a time when everyone was giving the Steelers a hard time. The same had been true for the Penguins until fairly recently, and besides, Pittsburgh is a dyed-in-the-rust underdog city if ever there was one. No way these guys are going to criticize my choice for getting behind an unpopular team.

As soon as I got to the counter, the irate employee standing there wasted no time: "Are you actually a Pirates fan?"

"Yes I am", I replied. I tried not to sound defensive when I said it; I wanted it to come across as natural, like if he'd asked me whether I were a fan of, say, hot dogs. I wanted to make it seem like he was being the weird one.

His response: "Ha!"

I ran through a list of exciting young players that are worth following, but as he rang up my order it became clear that he wasn't listening. After all, I was contradicting years of Post-Gazette editorials, as well as probably his mom, dad, brother and several of his friends. It wasn't an issue of him being right or not. I was telling him that the earth was flat.

"You know what one of the big problems is with the Pirates that no one ever talks about?" He finally asked. "No good pitching."

Of course, many people talk about what a huge problem this is. That's a fairly broad topic; I mean, if you discuss a baseball team's performance, everything you say is going to fall roughly into the primary categories of hitting, fielding, and pitching.

Once again, I started saying names like Evan Meek, Joel Hanrahan and Octavio Dotel. His response: "Whatever". He handed me my change and I walked out knowing I had just made a depressed Steelers fan briefly happy at my expense

Anecdote 2

Fast-forward to two weeks ago. I went into a local non-Starbucks coffee shop with my sister. I was wearing one of those free t-shirts given away at certain home games that now comprise 75% of my wardrobe. The guy behind the counter was skinny, young and bearded. I immediately prejudged him to be a hipster, which put me somewhat on guard and may have played a role in what happened next. But then again, probably not.

I gave him my order.

He said: "You a Pirates fan?" No edge to his voice. Like asking about the weather. Perfectly pleasant.

I glared at him and spoke as if I expected my next words to be comprised of entirely of four angry letters: "Yeah."

Don't get me wrong: I didn't go full psycho. Only perhaps a quarter psycho at the most. The store didn't get quiet and look at me. However, my response startled me because he was genuinely being friendly and I had unexpectedly copped an attitude. After he handed me my coffee, I told him that I was sorry if my response had sounded kind of...strangely aggressive? He laughed it off, but admitted that there had been a hint of that in my response.

"You don't get it," I said. "At this point, when someone asks me that question I expect to be harassed. Being a fan of this team has changed me, man. I used to be such a nice guy!"

That's not necessarily true, but my point remains: your skin thickens when you root for the underdog. That's on the whole a good thing, however, because until the Buccos start to steadily improve, there are unfortunately a lot more people like guy from anecdote one than guy from anecdote two.

Thanks to people like Bob Smizik and their attention-starved headlines, of course.


  1. awesome, wonderful and witty... great post bzepp... i look at the way the pirates are losing as playing Smizikly. unlike bob, however, the pirates look to have a future.

  2. What a great post! Every word rings true.