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Began In '96

82!

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By Eddie Small

For those who have rooted for the Pirates over the last 20 years, win number 82 means a bit more than normal.

My entire relationship with the Pirates can be summed up pretty well by one game I went to in June of 2005.

They were facing the Yankees, which would normally be cause for nothing but despair. But on this particular night, I had hope. The Pirates were still hovering right around .500 (not a big deal for most teams, but akin to the second coming for Pittsburgh fans), while the Yankees had been playing uncharacteristically poor ball for most of the season. The pitching matchup was Pirate Mark Redman — a mediocre journeyman who was nonetheless having a dominant first half — versus over-the-hill Yankee Kevin Brown. Plus, I was only 16, so qualities like optimism and positivity were easier to come by in general.

And for most of the game, it seemed like the Bucs might actually reward my faith. They staked out an early lead, and although the Yankees chipped away at it as the innings wore on, my team was still up by one come the bottom of the ninth.

Jose Mesa, the closer at the time, got Derek Jeter on a groundout. Then Bernie Williams walked. And then Gary Sheffield grounded into a double play, and the game ended, and the Pirates won.

Except that’s not actually what happened.

Although replays would show that Sheffield was clearly out at first, the umpire called him safe. So there were two outs instead of three, and then Sheffield scored to tie the game on a double by Jorge Posada, and then Jason Giambi hit a monster shot in the bottom of the 10th, and the Yankees won and made the playoffs, and the Pirates went on to have consecutive losing season number 13.

To recap: brief moment of hope, followed by crushing disappointment, followed by more losses than wins. This is virtually all that has happened between my favorite team and me since I was four.

Until this year. 

Monday night, for the first time in 20 years, 3.5 presidential administrations, and 937 bad trades (ok, fine, that last number might be a tad low), the Pirates clinched a winning season. They have 18 games left after another win last night, and if they lose all of them, they will still finish the season at 83-79, and I will still be happy.

I know that probably shouldn’t be the case, given that an 18-game losing streak would be awful even by Pirates standards. But I can’t help it. Ever since I started caring about this team, I always said that I just wanted them to break their infamous streak, and that would be enough.

And now they have, only instead of limping to an 82-80 finish on the last day of the season like I always pictured, they hit their mark in early September while in the thick of a playoff hunt.

So while I mostly feel rapturous over the end of a prolonged and notorious era, a small part of me is just confused. Because after two decades of constant ineptitude, I am not really sure how to root for a competitive baseball team.

This is something I didn’t even realize until the summer, when friends of mine who had grown up rooting for the Yankees or Mets or Phillies or any team not in the midst of the longest losing season streak in American professional sports started asking me questions about what appeared to be very strange topics.

They wanted to know how other teams in the National League Central were doing. They wanted to know who I hoped to see the Pirates face in the playoffs. They wanted to know whether they would switch to a three-man rotation during the postseason.

And my answer was always the same: I don’t know. I can’t think about any of this because the Pirates are still in the middle of a hideously embarrassing streak, and until that ends, how am I supposed to focus on anything else?

Their skeptical and surprised responses helped drive home not only how unique trying to root for the Pirates has been since 1992, but also how under-the-radar they have managed to be in their incompetence. Unlike the Cubs or the pre-2004 Red Sox or the post-119 loss Tigers, the dismal state of the Bucs never seemed to become a national embarrassment. Sure, people knew they were bad, but most never seemed to grasp how bad. They didn’t get that a losing season wasn’t just an off year but part of an ostensibly endless stretch of futility.

This may be because Pittsburgh is a small market. It may be because, even during their heyday of Clemente, Stargell, and pitchers (supposedly) throwing no-hitters on LSD, they were still playing in the shadow of the much more popular Steelers. Or it may be because the general populace was just more concerned with events such as the election of the first black president or the premiere of Independence Day and never had time to care too much about how the Pirates were doing.

So apart from an occasional flare-up of media attention after a 13-game losing streak or a 20-0 loss or a Randall Simon sausage beating incident, the Pirates mostly suffered in silence between the debut of The X-Files and the debut of “Gangnam Style.” And maybe this was abetted by fans like me who were too young to know any better and just quietly accepted that this is the way things worked for Pittsburgh baseball.

But you know what? That doesn’t really matter anymore, because the streak is over. And having to wait so long just makes it feel that much sweeter.

I’m a pretty fast learner (although I didn’t figure out that the first letter in the Disney logo was a “D” until halfway through college), so it shouldn’t take me too long to figure out how to root for a baseball team that’s actually doing well, one whose goal is the playoffs rather than 82 wins. After so many years spent wandering in the darkness, it’s still hard for me to determine whether this season is just a fluke, a la the 2003 Royals, or whether this is something I can get used to.

But maybe part of rooting for a competitive team means not having to look ahead to next season for hope while this season is still going on. Maybe it means just enjoying watching your team play instead of obsessing over an arbitrary number. Maybe it meansgasp— enjoying baseball!

So hey, let’s go Bucs. Just wait ‘til this year.

Eddie Small is a contributor for Began in ‘96. He has also written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Observer.