The Pirate Child

First of all, if you are not a baseball fan, please humor me for a few moments. Surely there is something from your childhood--an experience, a hobby, a passion of some kind--so precious to you that you cannot imagine growing up without it. It's part of who you are, your history and your identity.

Then imagine that it disappears, becoming a source of pain, disappointment or embarrassment, or getting buried so deeply by the passage of time that it doesn't even feel like it ever really existed.

For me, this was Pittsburgh Pirates baseball. I was a Pirate child.

I grew up in the 70s, and more than anything else--from the time I was a little boy--I loved baseball, and particularly, the Pittsburgh Pirates. My first game ever, at the age of 6, was Game 5 of the 1971 World Series. I don't know why my dad got tickets--he wasn't even a fan--but he did, and my two brothers and I missed school to watch Nelson Briles pitch a 2-hit shutout against the Baltimore Orioles in the cavernous Three Rivers Stadium. It was like entering Oz. I was hooked.

The next year, as my card collection was growing even faster than I was, I was sitting in the left field bleachers, enjoying my friend Kim Steiner's 7th birthday party, as Roberto Clemente stood proudly on second base, enjoying his 3000th hit. Even at age 7, I understood the significance of his accomplishment and the nobility of his character. I learned the agony of allegiance quickly when a wild pitch cost the Pirates the pennant that year against the hated Reds, and learned it even more deeply when I heard the devastating news a few months later, while putting away the Christmas tree on New Year's Day, that Clemente's plane had disappeared off the coast of Puerto Rico.

I cannot separate my childhood from the Pirates. It was a glorious time to grow up in Western Pennsylvania. The Pirates were really good, winning the division six times in the face of worthy rivals such as the Big Red Machine and the Carlton/Schmidt/Bowa-led Phillies. Their team boasted such iconic stars and zany personalities as Steve Blass, Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Dave Parker, Manny Sanguillen, and their gravel-throated narrator, Bob Prince. I loved the Steelers and their four Super Bowls, but nothing, NOTHING, was more important to me than the fortunes of my beloved Buccos. As the decade drew to a close, and Stargell's arcing home run fell into the bullpen at Memorial Stadium, giving the Pirates a fantastical come-from-behind World Series victory and second championship of the decade (1979), I was in heaven, my life and meticulously-kept scorecard complete at the impressionable age of 14.

That night, basking in the glory of my hero's greatest moment, I did not know--could not possibly have known--how badly things would unravel and how misery and humiliation would replace pride for a very, very long time.

The Phillies won the World Series in 1980. Stargell retired in 1982. In 1985, the city was humiliated by drug trials involving in-stadium cocaine purchases by numerous members of the team and even the team mascot, the Pirate Parrot. By the late 80s the team faced a changing economic landscape, and fears of a departure to another city were real. There was a brief respite in the early 90s--three division titles--but that period ended with a crushing, pennant-losing bottom-of-the-9th single to left in Atlanta, and the free agency departure of stars Bonds and Bonilla. My oldest son, Jonathan, could hear my agonizing wails from inside his mother's womb.

That night, I knew it would get bad, but I had no idea how bad. Beginning in 1993, the Pittsburgh Pirates embarked on a period of ineptitude unprecedented in professional sports history. One bad season turned into two, into five, into 20. There were bad drafts, horrible trades, inexplicable free agent signings, bored managers, poor effort, and the most inept period of upper management in the history of upper management. Every spring I pinned my hopes on self-deceiving propaganda--a litany of players so bad it produces retrospective groaning laughter--and every year my hopes were crushed, usually by the middle of May. Twenty consecutive losing seasons culminated in legendary late-season meltdowns the past two years that left me without the heart to carry on.

Early this season, after a miserable opening week and a team batting average of .100, I shared my anger on Facebook. I couldn't go through this any more. I was finished. For real this time. I had been the hopeful, loyal apologist and optimist when none could be found, but I'd had enough. I no longer wanted to be associated with losers. These weren't the Cubs, and they weren't loveable. They were the Pirates, and they humiliated me and all who followed them.

From that very moment, things changed. The team began to win. They won big games. They climbed in the standings. They won with spirit and style. They pitched better than anyone, hit just enough to be dangerous, and out-managed most. They developed a team chemistry second to none. Now it's September 2nd, and the Pirates just won two out of three from their competitive rivals in front of sellout crowds. They have a legitimate MVP candidate (Andrew McCutchen), a roster filled with true big-leaguers, and a real chance to win something. They are only 3 wins away from ending "The Streak" and are actually tied for first place. Now I watch the games at night on my iPad, and chat about them with my boys, now all older than I was when the Pirates last won anything, in hopes that it's not too late for them to rewrite their Pirate memories.

The Pirates are formidable; they've won a lot of games, and they've won me back (it wasn't hard--I'm so easy). I feel like I felt in 1978, the year before the Pirates won the World Series, when the baseball universe was filled with anticipation and good cheer. I feel like a child again.

I hope whatever you have lost from your childhood--joys and memories buried by failure, misery, humiliation, embarrassment or just the passage of time--springs back to life and makes you feel like a Pirate child again.