The Pittsburgh Pirates lost, 5-4, to the Colorado Rockies Monday evening at Coors Field in Denver. I only have basic cable, so I couldn't watch the game unfold live. However, when I checked the Pirates' website afterwards, I was pleasantly surprised to find this highlight. Yes, it was a pretty dramatic home run by Pirates' third baseman Pedro Alvarez that tied the game in the 9th inning, but as I said, the team eventually lost, so the excitement quickly faded. But what really struck me about that highlight was the footage of all the Pirates fans in attendance and their chants of "Let's Go Bucs!" as they stayed to support their team even after a 53 minute rain delay.
Seeing the Pirates fans sort of take over Coors field reminded me of all the times that Steelers fans have taken over road stadiums throughout the years with their vocal support and by waving their Terrible Towels in unison.
Monday evening in Denver wasn't the first time that Pirates fans have come out in pretty decent numbers to support the Buccos in foreign ballparks this summer. At 51-40 and one game out in the National League Central Division, the Pirates are having their best season since 1992. For those of you who don't follow the Pirates at all, they currently hold the North American record of most consecutive losing seasons by a professional franchise at 19 straight.
The Pirates had a brief cup of coffee as contenders last season before the bottom fell out. But while they were still contending in June and July, fans, hungry for a contender after so many hopeless seasons, flooded PNC Park in record numbers night after night.
With MVP and Triple Crown candidate Andrew McCutchen leading the way, there are tangible reasons to suggest that the 2012 team can contend all the way into October. And maybe that's why you see hundreds of Pirates fans suddenly showing up to support the team on the road.
And maybe that further underscores the counter-argument to the sentiment that Steelers fans travel well. It's not necessarily that they travel well, it's that there are thousands upon thousands of proud transplant Pittsburghers living in other parts of the country who have never forgotten their roots and what it really means to be a Steelers fan.
And if you have strong ties to the City of Pittsburgh, it more than likely means you have strong feelings for all the sports teams from your hometown.
Many people may not even know that the Pirates were once one of the premiere teams in all of baseball, home to some of the greatest players who ever put on a baseball uniform. And before the Steelers and football became the team and sport of choice in the 1970's, the Pirates and baseball were the biggest deal in Pittsburgh in terms of sports.
Maybe older Steelers fans can appreciate what Pirates fans have had to deal with over the past two decades, because, as most of the fans from the pre-Super Bowl days will tell you, the Steelers weren't exactly a revered franchise for the first four decades of their existence. Johnny Carson would tell jokes about them during his monologue, and Pittsburgh was basically the last stop for many has-beens who were looking to earn just one last paycheck.
It seemed like 1972's "Immaculate" season changed everything for the Steelers and the attitude that people had about them. The feverish support by long-suffering fans was almost instantaneous and it really hasn't wavered much since as the 41 straight years of sell-outs have affirmed. To quote Franco Harris: "It was like the fans had waited their whole lives for this."
I was born in '72, so by the time I became interested in sports, a rich tradition had already been established by the Steelers in a very short period of time, and they were the biggest deal in town. Here we are in 2012, and nothing much has changed. The Steelers are still the biggest deal in Pittsburgh, and one of the biggest deals in the NFL. Some of the greatest players to ever put on shoulder pads have played in Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field over the past 40 seasons.
The Steelers hold the record for most Lombardis, and playing on the final Sunday of the season is the goal each and every season. Anything short of that is a disappointment. Non-playoff seasons are unacceptable; losing campaigns a disaster.
The Pirates, on the other hand, have fallen victim to the unbalanced financial climate of Major League Baseball as well as mismanagement by the team's front office over the past two decades. The once proud franchise has now become one of the laughingstocks in all of sports. Comedians tell jokes about them, and for years, aging ballplayers with no other alternatives would come to Pittsburgh looking for one last paycheck.
It's been so long since I've really had a reason to emotionally invest in the Pirates, I almost forget what it feels like. Fortunately, I do have a bit of a reference point from the early 90's, when the Pirates were legit World Series contenders for three straight years starting in 1990.
In fact, in terms of what was going on in a competitive sense during that time in the region, the Steelers were pulling up the rear. Oh sure, they might still have been the biggest news story in town, but while Mario Lemieux was leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to two-straight Stanley Cups and Barry Bonds was leading the Pirates to three straight National League East championships, the biggest stories involving the Steelers were more notorious.
A news headline about the Steelers may have read: "Noll almost resigns. Forced to fire several assistants." Or, "Brister defies Noll. Refuses to 'mop up' for O'Donnell in the blow-out loss to the Oilers."
I wasn't a huge hockey fan at the time, but I loved the Pirates, and for three seasons, they filled the void that the Steelers mediocrity had created. Following a contending baseball team for three summers was some of the most fun I've ever had as a sports fan.
After two decades of losing, it's nice to see the excitement on the faces of Pirates fans everywhere. For the past 20 years, the running joke every summer has been, "Once the Steelers report to Latrobe, baseball season is over."
But I don't think that will be the case this summer. The Pirates may not be the biggest deal in town, but they're becoming one of them, and if they're still in a pennant race in September, the Steelers might have to fight for top billing on September 9th.
I don't know if 2012 will be to the Pirates what 1972 was to the Steelers, but I do know that there are thousands of Pirates fans in the city and across the country just waiting for a chance to show their feverish support for their Buccos. And much like Steeler Nation, we could start to see more of them popping up in ballparks all across the country.
Some of them have waited their whole lives for it. If you were around in 1972 and remember how magical that season was for the Steelers, I'm sure you can appreciate the excitement.