Thursday, August 16, 2012

Pittsburgh's Soul: Steelers Versus Pirates

I have a confession. I'm not a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. While I am at it, I don't root for the Pens. Prior to marrying a Burgh gal, my only connection to the city was my die hard allegiance to the Steelers. I was born in a small city (Erie, PA) with no professional sports franchises. One could pick from the nearby cities of Buffalo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. But that's not why I'm a Steelers fan. I'm a child of the 1970s and tabbed teams that were dominate during the decade. In baseball, I follow the Dodgers. I can't shake my interest in the Boston Celtics. I'm crazy for the Habs. I'm a front runner, sometimes called a bandwagon fan. I started with all winners and stuck by them.

I've also picked my hometown, which is Pittsburgh. I'm a geographer, a connoisseur of place. Pittsburgh is special. It is a winner, even when its teams are losers. That brings me to the following brilliant essay about Pirates fans:

In September, when (and if, always if) the Pirates win their 82nd game of the season, a couple of things might happen. The first is that my friend JB, who has been flipping the bird to the Port Matilda highway exit as a spiritual release anytime he drives back through central Pennsylvania, may finally let his anger go. The second is that a man named Tim Crouse may engage in a solitary prayer ritual in Columbus, Ohio.

Crouse grew up sitting in the cheap seats at Three Rivers; on that night in 1992, he sat by himself in the dark, in an armchair situated about two feet from the television because the rest of his family had gone to bed. He was 16 years old, and the next morning in the hallway at school, nobody really spoke. He has never gone back and watched the ninth inning since.

Crouse lives in Columbus now. He, like Pat Lackey, is a member of the Lost Generation, one of those Pirates fans scattered across America who has spent the past 19 years feeling lonely and disconnected. A few years ago, his brother-in-law, as a taunt, gave him a baseball card, an Upper Deck commemorative shot of Bream's foot touching home plate while the Pirates' catcher, Mike LaValliere, lunges at Bream's thigh. He keeps it in his wallet as a reminder.

"I'm just a really optimistic guy by nature," he tells me. "I don't think I ever really got close to giving up on them."

Since he left town, Crouse's city has evolved, even as his baseball team has struggled to keep up. The transformation that Midwest cities like Cleveland and Detroit are trying to muddle through has already taken place in Pittsburgh. This is largely because of the fortune that industrialists like Carnegie and others endowed to local institutions; Pittsburgh is no longer one of the largest cities in the country, but it is a pioneer of Rust Belt urban renewal.

If the Steelers represent the city's ties to what it used to be, it is not hard to imagine that the Pirates can become the embodiment of the new Pittsburgh, an extension of the aspirational ethos that led Barney Dreyfuss to build Forbes Field. There is no reason to endure history anymore, which is why, when (and if) the Pirates win their 82nd game, Crouse plans to remove the baseball card from his wallet, whisper some sort of invocation, and then set the damned thing on fire.

Emphasis added. Pittsburgh boomed while its Pirates imploded. The Steelers and Pens found success in the Paris of the Rust Belt. Pirates fans didn't have anything to hang their caps on. Like the Burnt-Orange-at-Birth Browns fans, they looked forwards. They didn't quit. They couldn't quit. Something about Pittsburgh demands you never quit.

In Pittsburgh, the past is a foundation. It isn't an albatross. What are legacy costs in most cities, serve as assets in Pittsburgh. Visiting the region last weekend, I see that this urban gem is still a secret. I gave a guided tour to my Cleveland Rust Belt Chic counterpart. It still felt parochial, not cosmopolitan. But Pittsburgh is a paradox. It is an Appalachian city with a sense of parochial cosmopolitanism, Hillbilly Urbanism. Anyone from elsewhere in the postindustrial landscape can blend in seamlessly.

During the Super Era in the National Football League, the Steelers are symbol of stability and success. During the same period, the Pirates are the picture of spectacular collapse. The latter best defines today's Pittsburgh. Once the Pirates end the season above .500, you can come home.

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