It was the spring of 1991, I believe. The Pirates (a professional baseball team located in the same city as your Pittsburgh Steelers) were about to begin Year 2 of a three-year run of division-championship success that would always leave me in painful agony at the end (although, the first bout of painful agony at the conclusion of Year 1 had not yet trained me to be afraid of Buctober).
Anyway, due to the growing disparity between large and small-market Major League Baseball teams, there was real concern that the Pirates would quickly lose all of the key pieces to what had become a legitimate World Series contender. Bobby Bonilla had one year to go on his contract, and it seemed inevitable that he would leave as a free agent. Barry Bonds had two years left before he was all but gone. As for Andy Van Slyke, the perennial gold-glove centerfielder? He and the Pirates were able to reach an agreement on a new deal that would keep him in Pittsburgh through at least the mid-90s.
I wanted the Pirates to keep all of their stars, but Van Slyke, the funny prankster, the man who attracted all the kids with his “big kid” persona, wasn’t a bad superstar to retain.
Not long after this new deal was announced, I remember seeing this Pirates commercial featuring Van Slyke that included highlights and some “PUMP YOU UP!” music; I got really excited and started dancing along.
I was so happy that at least Van Slyke, to reiterate, a very popular player and personality, would remain a Pirate.
Fast-forward to the present.
If you were in a really quiet place on Friday, you may have heard thousands of kids cheering and dancing around (likely doing some evil TikTok dances) due to the news that the Steelers had unbelievably re-signed receiver—and rock star to children everywhere—JuJu Smith-Schuster to a one-year deal for the 2021 season.
I know I had long-since written Smith-Schuster off as someone who was looking to cash in on his first experience as a free agent.
I was wrong.
The youthful fan in me is excited. I’ve always said that Smith-Schuster has a great opportunity to be the next real face of the Steelers franchise; with his involvement in the community, charity work, loveable personality and, oh yes, the kind of talent that has already made him a damn-good all-around receiver (and when I say “all-around,” I have to include his ability to block), Smith-Schuster has the chance to be this generation’s Hines Ward.
While it still feels like a long-shot, and while I am smart enough to understand that the NFL’s screwy free-agent market is what probably prevented him from getting the kind of lengthy contract he really wanted, I’d like to think his return to Pittsburgh for another year will buy Smith-Schuster some time to work things out with the Steelers and sign that kind of deal with them.
But the adult fan in me—the one who is legally required to worry about things like locker room culture, effort, salary cap ramifications, blue hair and whether or not a player hands the ball to the official after a touchdown—is a little worried about the out-of-left-field Smith-Schuster deal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not worried about three of the five things I just mentioned (I could care less about locker room culture, blue hair and touchdown celebrations), but how will this deal affect Pittsburgh’s salary cap in 2021? I mean, why spend $8 million on a receiver when you’re already pretty flush with talented, young wide-outs, as it is? Why not do what you can to retain cornerback Steven Nelson or sign a center? What about finding a number-two tight end?
Will Smith-Schuster just bolt to another team next season (possibly the Bolts?) if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger retires? Is Smith-Schuster an X receiver or a Y? Should he play in the slot? Will his commitment to fitness be the same as last offseason or, now that he has lots and lots of money, will he spend all of his free-time speeding around Pittsburgh in his new Corvette, Corvette?
Furthermore, should the Steelers have waited until the draft and selected a receiver in one of the earlier rounds? I’ll bet they could have gotten great value in the second round.
Man, adulting is hard when you’re a sports fan.
I think I’m going to take a cue from all the little JuJu fanatics and do the Cabbage Patch Floss in honor of Smith-Schuster’s return to the Steelers.
We love you, JuJu!!!