I got a rueful chuckle from a sports page column written last week by Andy Stine, the sports editor of the Courier-Express.
Andy declared himself a “free agent” baseball fan. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ recent trades of Gerritt Cole and Andrew McCutchen for comparative peanuts struck him as a gimmick to get out from beneath their hefty salaries – and proof that Pirates’ owners don’t care about winning league championships or playoff games or getting to the World Series, let alone winning it again for the first time since 1979, almost 40 years ago.
Andy could be buying Pirates tickets and wearing black-and-gold within a few years. At least, I hope so.
I have been where he is.
Back in 2015, I repudiated my 60-year-long fan-affair with the New York Yankees.
In that year, the Yankees retired the numbers of admitted drug user Andy Pettite, good-but-not-great outfielder Bernie Williams, slightly above average catcher Jorge Posada. None are Hall of Fame players, or even close.
This was simply an occasion for another “day” to trade on past glories and fill empty stadium seats.
I got tired of the hucksterism, the gimmickry to fill seats rather than rebuilding a baseball team into a contender.
“I quit!” I declaimed, in the same stentorian clangor used by Andy.
I promoted the Pittsburgh Pirates from my No. 2 team, the close-to-home squad I had always liked since childhood trips to their old Forbes Field stadium. I donned the Bucs’ black-and-gold. I switched from MLB-TV viewings of the Yankees on my computer to Gameday Audio radio broadcasts of the TV-blacked out Pirates.
I rooted. I cheered. I enjoyed the Pirates, then up-and-coming with Starling Marte, Josh Harrison and others complementing Cole and McCutchen.
I bought Pirates’ shirts, hats and jackets – which came in handy as “Y’inzers from Da Burgh, huh?” conversation starters during midwinter trips to Florida.
I delighted my oldest son, a Pirates fan. I disgusted two other sons, who remain Yankees fans.
But I cheated.
I used commercial breaks in Pirates’ games to sneak over to the Yankees’ in-game displays. Each morning as I flipped through my online copy of the Courier-Express, I lingered on the Scoreboard page to peruse the National League standings and track my Bucs ... and then, with nobody else looking, checked the American League standings for my Yankees.
Lifelong fandom dies very, very hard.
When I first started rooting for the Yankees, to the great pleasure of my Uncle Flat, a Yankees fan, and to the disgust Dad and my other uncles, who detested the Bombers and loved the Pirates, Giants and Cubs ... why, back then, Bill Dickey, a Hall of Famer, was the catcher. Dickey’s last year was, my goodness, 1946. I was little more than a toddler.
After Dickey came Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, a long drought, and eventually, Joe Girardi and Jorge Posada. The least among them were perennial All-Stars, the best became Famers, with their own Monument Park plaques and retired numbers – and that was just the catchers.
DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Bauer, Mattingly, Jackson, Guidry and, of late, Rivera and Jeter. I had been hooked.
So, though wearing Pirates’ gear and memorizing Buccos’ batting averages and pitching saves, I saved my most emotional reactions for the Yankees.
Last year, the Yankees won me back. They contended. Rebuilt around young sluggers and good defense, they surmounted questionable pitching to actually contend in the playoffs. Ownership redeemed itself with its investment.
Will the Pirates’ ownership do likewise?
I like the Pirates, always have – except for 1960, when they astonished the baseball world by beating the Yankees in the World Series, condemning this then-college freshman to an entire year of campus ridicule.
I have attended far more Pirates games than Yankee games, because Pittsburgh is closer and getting companions to make the trip is easier.
I share Andy Stine’s angst at the recent Pirates’ trades.
But hope springs eternal. I hope to see a new young crop of Pirates perhaps push the Bucs past St. Louis, Chicago and even Milwaukee to sit atop the National League Central.
I’ll always like the Pirates.
But with the Yankees, it is love.
For lifelong Pirates fans like Andy, “free agency” might bring them to another club for a few years, because we all still love baseball even if we dislike our childhood team. But like the former boyfriend watching his ex-lover at a summertime parade, the lure of unrequited love strikes deeply.
Being a Pirates fan transcends Cole and McCutchen. It goes back, through Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez, to Jason Kendall, Brian Giles, to Stargell, Parker, Van Slyke, through Groat and Clemente to Kiner, even Wagner. It gets into the bloodstream.
As “The Terminator” Arnold Schwarzenegger famously prophesied, “I’ll be baaack.”
And so we will – if they rebuild, and contend, and play the game we have loved all our lives.
January ebbs. February beckons. Spring training starts in two weeks. April, and spring, cannot be far behind.
Hope springs eternal. “Next year” could become, “This is the year!”
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