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Began In '96

The last laugh

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By Michael Bennett

It’s been a long time coming, but the Pirates are finally in the playoffs and the entire city is behind them.

It had become a bit of a running joke at PNC Park: answer a trivia question about Pittsburgh Pirates history, and you could win an authentic Pirates winter jacket — or you could trade the jacket for what’s inside the box of mystery.  

Not once, in my long-running memory of PNC Park outings, have I witnessed someone choose the jacket.

Why, after all, would you ever need a winter jacket sporting the logo of a team that hasn’t played an October ballgame in two decades? And so as the crowd groaned with curiosity about what could possibly be in that small wooden trunk, contestants never failed to pass up a jacket valued at $150 for something as worthless as Frogger for Atari, or a warm bag of lettuce. At some point, you find yourself asking which one is the bigger joke: the box of mystery, or the jacket.

Yet here I am, writing this on Sept. 30, 2013, with all intentions of heading down to the Pirates’ clubhouse to purchase an authentic black Pirates jacket.  Tomorrow is Oct. 1, I’ve got a standing-room ticket to the first playoff game in PNC Park’s history, and would you believe it? It could get a little crisp down by the river.  

We’ve heard plenty about this Pirates team already. You already know that Andrew McCutchen is an MVP-worthy all star in centerfield, and that A.J. Burnett has revived himself out there on the mound.  You’ve read about General Manager Neal Huntington turning what was the worst team with the worst farm system in baseball into a playoff contender in just six years.  

But do you know how many kids grew up going to Pirates games only for the giveaway Brian Giles lunch box? Or hoping that Kris Benson might strike out a whole six batters? For my generation, going to the game to see a Pirates victory was asking too much. We rooted for the small things, like hoping Dad would buy me cotton candy, or that the Pirate Parrot would visit my section. If I was lucky, Sauerkraut Saul might win the Great Pierogi Race.     

For 20 years, the only sense of pride I had for the Pirates was what I inherited from my family. I would see pictures of my grandfather standing next to Willie Stargell, grinning ear to ear. I would hear stories of him running down to Forbes Field with a dollar to get into the bleachers, and all I could do is take his word that, deep down, Pittsburgh is a baseball town.  

Speaking for a group of young adults like me, who have no memory whatsoever of playoff baseball in Pittsburgh, my grandfather was right. The city has collectively embraced the pride that we’ve known was there all along. The kind of pride that would motivate me, year after year, to argue that 2009, or 2010, or 2011 would finally be THE year. The pride that would get me red-faced mad if someone claimed that Huntington wasn’t doing his job, or that owner Bob Nutting would never shell out to resign McCutchen.

That’s all, mercifully, in the past. What’s important now is that I have playoff game to attend tomorrow, and that maybe, this time, someone will choose the jacket.  

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Michael Bennett is a contributor for Began in ‘96 and writes on hip-hop and culture at Poetic Justice.