Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An Open Letter to the Pittsburgh Pirates

My first baseball card was Roberto Clemente. I declared that he was my favorite player. My second baseball card was Willie Stargell and I declared him to be my second favorite player. When it was pointed out to me that they played for the same team, I declared that team to be my favorite team. Then I asked what team they played for. Of course the answer was the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was the spring of 1971 and I was 5 years old. That was my first exposure to Major League Baseball. The Pirates went on to beat the Orioles in the World Series and my team loyalty was solidified.

In 1979, I was 13, and I spent my summer touring the United States with a group made up largely of teens from the New York area. All I heard about was the Mets and the Yankees. As we drove from one city to another, we had a lot of time to listen to baseball (remember radio?), read newspaper accounts of the games, study box scores, and memorize statistics. That was probably the first year in which I really began to follow and understand baseball’s nuances and the meaning of some of the statistics. And, of course, the Pirates once again beat the Orioles to win the World Series.

People often ask me how, growing up in Indianapolis, I could be a Pirate fan instead of a Reds fan or a Cubs fan or even a White Sox or Tigers or Cardinals fan. I simply smiled and relayed my story.

I tried to tune in to WGN or WTBS when the Pirates played the Cubs or Braves. When I was in college in Chicago, I worked hard to go see the Pirates whenever they visited Wrigley Field.

In 1990, I went to Cincinnati to watch the Pirates play the Reds in the NLCS. I wore a Pirates cap and jersey (an unruly Reds fan through my cap over the railing to the lower deck…) and proudly cheered on my team, much to the dismay of the Reds fans all around me.

In 1992, I visited Pittsburgh to watch the Pirates play the Braves in the NLCS. My seat was in straight-away center field, third row from the top of the upper deck. Yet I was thrilled. It was the playoffs, I was in Pittsburgh (for the first time ever), and I’d even managed to drag my girlfriend (now wife) along. Everything in the world was right (except that she still hated sports).

But then the Pirates lost and from there my loyalty has been severely tested. I’ve stood with the Pirates through thick and thin (mostly thin…). I watched as players like Jason Kendall, Jason Bay, Aramis Ramirez, Brian Giles, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth, and now Adam LaRoche, not to mention a number of other players, were traded or sold. With almost every deal, fans heard about the quality of the young prospects that the Pirates received for the “name” players who were being traded away. That may be true. But the fact is, the Pirates have not been in the playoffs since 1992; for that matter, they haven’t had a winning record since 1992, haven’t finished better than 3rd since 1997, and have finished last or next to last 7 of those 17 seasons (and they’re currently in last again).

I don’t know if any of those trades was good or bad. What I do know is that it is becoming harder and harder to be a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Part of cheering for a team is having players to cheer for. It has become almost certain that any Pirate player to develop a name or positive reputation will be traded or sold for “youth” but as soon as that young player begins to develop he too will be sold or traded. Thus, we fans have no stars to root for and a team that can’t win. To add insult to injury, each year when I tune in to the All-Star Game, I can’t help but notice the number of players who once wore a Pirate uniform.

I’m told that the owners of the team are making bucket loads of money, and of course that is what they should be doing. But from where I sit, two states away, looking back to the glory days of the ‘70s and early ‘90s, I see a team with ownership that doesn’t care about putting a winning team on the field. Other “small market” teams, like Minnesota and Milwaukee have managed to be competitive. Florida has one two World Series and expansion teams Tampa Bay, Colorado, and Arizona have all been to the World Series more recently than the Pirates. Even the Cubs have become competitive in recent years. But not the Pirates. And Pittsburgh’s other teams, the Steelers and Penguins have been able to succeed despite being in a small market.

What prompted this letter? I got a press release email from the team telling me about today’s trade of Adam LaRoche. Again, I don’t know if this was a good trade or a bad trade. When I read the stats of the players obtained for LaRoche, I am far from impressed (“hit .253 with 14 doubles, 24 RBIs and 21 runs scored with Double-A Portland” and “5-4 with one save and a 3.35 ERA in 18 appearances (12 starts) this year for the Single-A Greenville Drive”). I have no doubt that should either of these players develop, they too will be traded away.

So what is left for me to root for? A losing team without stars. Why bother? I’ve given the Pirates 38 years of my loyalty and I’ve been a devoted fan. For the last 17 years, I’ve cheered for a loser. Do the math: For nearly half of the time that I’ve been a Pirate fan, the team has hasn’t had a winning season! I don’t want to say goodbye to baseball or to the Pirates. But at some point, I’m going to have to say enough is enough. Maybe it is time to turn my attention to a team that really wants to win. Or maybe I should simply turn my attention to another sport entirely. As I watch my son play soccer, I’m learning to appreciate it more and more. Maybe I’d be better served following MLS than MLB. I’ve tried to get my son interested in baseball and the Pirates, but I don’t know how to do that, especially with a team perennially in last place. And it is hard to look at the way the Pirate organization is run when the best thing that I have to compare it to are the Indianapolis Colts; the differences couldn’t be more stark.

I love my Pirates, but I want to root for a winner or at least a team that looks like it’s trying to be a winner. Right now, that doesn’t describe the Pirates.

So, I’ve taken the step of sending this letter to my team in hopes that maybe, just maybe, someone in the organization will remember that without fans … well, that ways lies darkness.

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