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.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Why I hate Bob Smizik

When did Bob Smizik lose his journalistic integrity? Is it the result of 17 consecutive seasons eroding the rational part of the brain? Will nearly two decades spent documenting failure result in a kind of dull rage that overrides all of one's own standards of excellence?

I have neither the time nor inclination to read back through Bob Smizik's writings in an attempt to discover when he and reality shook hands and said bye-bye, but it really doesn't matter because the particulars don't change the fact that it has happened. Yet still he writes: a man blinded by anger who still has something of a stage to lend him a thin veneer of credibility.

Huntington Trading Report Card: F, Smizik's latest critique of the Pirates, is little more than a diatribe taking advantage of local Anti-Pirates sentiment in order to...what, exactly? Send out periodic hate beacons to the Pirates for 17 years of soul-sucking defeat that he had to cover? Or maybe he just writes what he knows people will read. No matter that any of them could have written the exact same thing; they don't write for the Post-Gazette.

I first grew to dislike this man when he bashed Extra Innings host Rocco DeMaro in 2008. I won't attempt to recap that particular incident because it makes me too angry to be concise and because Matt Bandi of Pittsburgh Lumber Co. already wrote a great article debunking Smizik's accusations back in 2008 ("Attacking Accurate Reporting With Inaccurate 'Facts'"). Suffice it to say: Smizik doesn't like DeMaro, and he won't let the intended focus of his article prevent him from implying it with the subtlety of a Fourth of July Carson Street bar crawl.

The Huntington article fails for similar reasons: Smizik has an agenda like Quasimoto has a hump.

Smizik Says:

Huntington took the job in late in the 2007 season and pretty much began shredding the roster.

I like to imagine the process by which Smizik decided on the use of the word 'shredding'. He could have said that Huntington traded almost the entire batting order and it would have been valid and credible in that whole "here's the facts, think for yourself' way.

But 'shredding'? Shredding is something bad guys do. Freddy Krueger shreds. Jason Vorhees shreds. When you were a little kid, the monster in your closet liked to shred. And apparently Huntington as well.

Smizik says:

All of them except Torres, who retired, and Chavez and Snell, who recently were sent to the minors, are still in the majors.

This is where Smizik loses the plot completely. Smizik is trying to argue that virtually all of the 2007 trades were mistakes, and that many of those players should have been retained or traded for better players.

Now there are ways of arguing this point, and if I were to write something critical of Huntington it would no doubt focus on several of these trades as well.

However, anyone who knows a thing about the concept of trade value and what has become of those 2007 players couldn't possibly take Smizik seriously after reading this. More amazingly, Smizik actually discusses the trades on a player-by-player basis. In many instances, he skews facts in ways that really kind of blow my mind.

Smizik says:

* Paulino is starting for Florida and batting .309 (all statistics through Wed.).

Jogging Ronny hated being in Pittsburgh. He wouldn't be batting .309 here because his laziness made starting him impossible. How does one discuss Paulino and not acknowledge this? No amount of skill will make management put up with a lazy player.

* LaRoche has 10 homers and 50 RBIs, tied for fifth in the National League, for Arizona.

LaRoche's average is conspicuously absent because it's around .259. I have always liked Adam LaRoche; he was unfairly criticized in this city. The fact is this: LaRoche is a fantastic impact player for a team with a solid batting order who needs a guy to get hot towards the end of the season. As one of the only power bats in an offensively-weak lineup, however, he is too streaky and struggles too much during the first half of the season. LaRoche is a good player, but he's just not what the Pirates need right now.

* Sanchez is batting .317 for San Francisco.

When he's not on the DL for a recurring shoulder injury.

* Bautista leads MLB with 20 home runs with Toronto.

Yes, trading Bautista for since-released Cruz was not a good move. However, I would argue that Bautista's bat has come as a surprise to just about everyone. Did the Twins expect Garrett Jones to hit 21 home runs at any point in his career ever?

* Bay and Morgan are having disappointing years but starting for the Mets and Washington, respectively.

As of now yes. Morgan is getting benched more and more frequently as a result of ever-decreasing productivity.

* Hinske is batting .314 in a part-time role with the Braves.

* Wilson and McLouth are having disappointing years with Seattle and Atlanta but were starting before going on the disabled list.

This is ridiculous. Wilson has recently stated that he is considering retirement due to a recurring hamstring injury, and Nate McLouth has been hitting under .200 this season. "Disappointing years" really doesn't cover it.

Let it be said that I don't hate Smizik for his hatred of the Pirates franchise. After 17 years, it is more than understandable. I also don't expect him to be non-biased; he is providing commentary, which is expected to be biased. However, I take offense to a deliberate manipulation of certain facts and complete omission of others in an attempt to prove a point.

Is there a way to validly argue that Pirates Management has been unsuccessful? Yes. I won't agree with most of it for my own fact-based reasons, but it can absolutely be done. However, this is classic spin city; an ode to ignorance and nothing more.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

6-19-10, 6-20-10: vs. the Cleveland Indians

Way too many of these people were Cleveland fans. They were to leave very disappointed, however. Before leaving straight for the knuckle-whitening log jam of traffic that caused us to miss the top of the first, I was made aware of the fact that The Indians have never won a series here. And despite 12 straight losses preceding this series, this still holds true.
Firstly, Jeff Karstens. Someone owes this guy an apology; he was merely given an invitation to spring training, and yet following the Kevin Hart, Daniel McCutchen and Charlie Morton...set backs, he is for all intents and purposes our fifth starter.
He recorded his second quality start in a row, and fittingly earned the first win a starting pitcher for the Pirates has seen since something like May 18.
One might look at the statistics of his start and think it not so great, but they're just not aware of the nuances of Jeff Karstens' pitching. Karstens doesn't struggle. When he's got it, he'll give a team an ample chance to win. When he loses it, however-and it seemingly has nothing to do with pitch count-he gives up big hits. No second-guessing it; we're talking home runs. It happens all of a sudden (fifth inning in this game) and then you know it's time to take him out. In this regard, Russell might have waited a bit too long to pull him, but whatever. Karstens never gave up the lead.
If there is one Pirates game I would have loved to have attended in the last few years, it would have been Karstens' near-perfect game in Texas last year.

Karstens in the fifth. See that facial expression? He knows when he's done, and that's an admirable quality for an athlete to have.
I've got a signed Karstens baseball and I'm damn proud of it. What a work ethic-he knows he isn't the greatest pitcher ever by any means, but he also knows he is a godsend to a team like the Pirates. Is he always great? No. But when he is, he's awesome. And he can come in and pitch in any situation. What would we have done this season without him? 13-game losing streak at least, for one.
David Huff, Cleveland's starting pitcher. Once great, now less so. I have to thank Cleveland for exhibiting problems similar to the Pirates. It's a nice change of pace to see someone else's starting pitcher struggle. s

Lastings Milledge had a huge 4-rbi night. I'd love to see him start getting those home runs; the sparks of greatness are too frequent to ignore.
Showboating on second base after his third hit. Normally I'm not a fan of showboating, but in Milledge's case I love it. He's an underdog on an underdog team, and his obvious pent-up enthusiasm very much captured the atmosphere of a team finally breaking an epic losing streak.

Here, Milledge hands Pedro Alvarez's baseball bat to the ball boy. This is significant because Alvarez happened to get his first major league hit tonight.
The swing that did it.
I had heard that the sound of Alvarez's bat making contact with a ball was unique. We all heard that sound tonight.
It sounded kind of like hitting a cabbage with a crowbar.
McCutchen had another amazing night, making it safely to base on every at-bat.

It is of course great to watch McCutchen getting hits or running bases, but equally thrilling is watching him work a pitcher from an 0-2 count to a walk. Consummate MLB player.

An amusing sequence. McCutchen slides into third on a triple he'd hit....
Only to realize a little too late that the third baseman had fanned the ball. Almost saw an in-the-park home run.
Walker went one for five, but played more amazing defense, as is his wont.
And he successfully stole second after a botched attempt last night.
He also found himself in a run-down, an event I've been waiting to photograph. He hung in there long enough to allow Jones to advance to second.
A night of many firsts. For a while now, I have been waiting eagerly to photograph a bat broken by a pitch. Not only did Karstens provide me with this...
...But this here is the crown jewel of my efforts so far. Yes, the bat itself is somewhat out of focus. It was a night game and my lens costs under a thousand dollars, however, so all things considered, I am still thrilled to have captured this moment.
Short Stop Donald fouls a ball off his face. He was fine. Here is the split-second before impact.

Relief pitcher Sipp.
DJ Carrasco, one of four pitchers we saw in the sixth inning.
It's hard to say who was the biggest star of this game, but Meek continues to be a god amongst men.
He hasn't allowed a hit in 12 consecutive innings, if memory serves.
After several rough appearances, Octavio Dotel did a hell of a job not allowing any runs. He walked a guy, but Dotel likes to keep it interesting.
After the bitter weeds of failure, we at last taste the oh-so-sweet fruits of victory.

Crosby once again started as short stop while Cedeno remained in the time-out chair following emotional outbursts of an undisclosed nature.
Random photo.
And shots of success!
Shots of success!
Shots of success! Also, the Phillies apparently continue to struggle.
Shots of success! Sucked to be a Cubs fan tonight, as well.

I have no photos of the Sunday game because it was father's day and I thought I'd take a reprieve so as to watch the game with my dad like normal people do. Also, I forgot the camera battery in the car. So here are my thoughts:

-Brad Lincoln showed definite signs of improvement today. 3 earned runs through six innings, with his efficiency and command improving as the game went on. It took him about sixty pitches to get through the first three innings, and a little more than twenty to get through the next three. Lincoln struggled at AAA at first, so I am very pleased to see him adjusting at the major league level.

-Still no Cedeno, and the first official report from the team confirming his 'emotional problems'. He really loved that pierogi dude, I guess.

-Milledge was unable to get a hit against a right-handed pitcher, which continues an unfortunate trend of his. However, he got a successful bunt that advanced a runner who would eventually score off of Alvarez's sacrifice fly, and as such continues to contribute offensively. That home run is coming, I can feel it.

-Brendan Donnelly was amazing in relief. No outs, runners on second and third, and he manages to preserve the 3-3 tie. Beautiful stuff.

-Octavio Dotel got two strike-outs in his second consecutive awesome closing appearance. If ever there was a man who thrives in stressful circumstances, it's Dotel. When the tension is thick enough to cut with a knife, he uses it to butter his toast. I don't care if that's hyperbole, it was exciting, Goddamn it.

Perfect day.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


That pierogi was the root cause of the problems all along, like hiding a Yankees shirt in Fenway Park. However, now that pierogi is gone to clog the arteries of maybe the Astros or the Orioles or something. The curse is over and things are gonna change. I can feel it.

6-18-10: vs. the Cleveland Indians

Paul Maholm turned in a pretty good start that was ultimately marred by a disappointing 7th inning in which a succession of Cleveland batters scored four runs off a series of singles seemingly guided by whatever malevolent force has caused the one-run ball games to turn against us. How's that for a run-on sentence?
Carmona was only a hair better than Maholm, but with the way the Buccos have been doing, that is unfortunately more than enough for a win.

Walker reacts to a strike.
Maholm hits Peralta with a pitch.

He would go on to get a 1-rbi double off of Maholm, which as it turns out was far more damaging.
Alvarez has still not managed to get a hit, but defensively he has been impressive.
Neil Walker hit an early single, only to blow it with an ill-advised attempted steal of second. I'd love to know what happened here; he was out by about three feet.
If ever there was a photo that summed up the current state of the team, this would be it. Embarrassment, dejection, blown opportunities, bewilderment. But don't worry: the banana is still very green, people.
McCutchen was visibly perturbed by the blown steal. This gesture towards the dugout is fairly easy to interpret.
Maholm exhibits a classic baseball demeanor of stoicism that manifests as vaguely pissed-off. He comes across this way regardless of how he is performing. In this game, however, I could swear he looked a little more vaguely pissed-off than usual. Like here.
Or here, where he apparently called a batter out on a strike he had previously thrown.
Doumit made no defensive blunders today. Except for this one, but no one really picked up on it. Yes, a routine throw to the pitcher was botched when the ball seemed to drop right out of his hand.
An interesting play; Duncan forces Cedeno off the basepath.

Doumit pursues a ball.
Didn't get this out, however.
Maholm got a decent applause as he left the pitcher's mound. A win (or at least a no-decision) would have been preferable, but these days a starting pitcher takes what he can get. It was a real pleasure to see him pitch this game; it's been a long time since I've seen a pitcher start so well.
Doumit makes an out at the plate! An iffy appearance by Hanrahan, who allowed one inherited run and threw a wild pitch.

When I saw that Milledge was being benched for Ryan Church, I was angry. Milledge struggles against right-handed pitching, but he's been our most consistent hitter these last few days and I believe earned the chance to start this game. Nevertheless, Church got a clutch hit that brought us one run from tying the game yet again. I maintain that Milledge would have homered, however.
Walker holds the runner at third.
Jones gets a run.
Church's expression as he returns to the dugout. Staring down the barrel of merciless mathematical regression.

There's my displeased Tabata shot.
Dotel was effective tonight. Sloppy (as evidenced by this near-disaster) but effective.
As he left the pitcher's mound he was not shy about having a religious moment.
That transitioned into yet another look of guarded frustration.