THERE IS NO specific reason for me to harbour a soft spot for the city of Pittsburgh, for its hills and rivers and peculiar linguistic tics and, perhaps most predictably of all, its ball club. And yet, probably from the first time I heard that the Pirates had once made their home in a ballpark with which I share a name, I have done just that. Forbes Field, I have since learned, was an oasis, a pastoral acreage nestled in the midst of a coal-dusted city, an idyllic ballyard (built 1909) with an iconic Longines timepiece, a cavernous outfield, and a batting cage that remained theoretically in play.[i] And though I have not been able to prove a familial connection to General John Forbes — the Scot who fought for the British army in the French and Indian War, and who named the city of Pittsburgh and for whom, subsequently, the ballpark was named — it seems likely, given that he was from Dunfermline, as was my family, that we are in some way connected. And even if this weren’t so, Pittsburgh — wherein the great wealth of the industrial boom of the early twentieth century resulted in a flurry of monumental building, before the grimy realities of heavy industry and the exigencies of all that Pennsylvania coal making its way up and down the rivers Allegheny and Monongahela and into the furnaces of Carnegie’s mills left the waters of those rivers nigh on flammable and the lungs of most of Pittsburgh’s citizens a shade somewhere between midnight black and pitch, before the great cleanup began and Pittsburgh, somewhat miraculously, managed to shake off its dust and to get to work diversifying its portfolio, so to speak — well, Pittsburgh turns out to be a lovely city.
And what a charismatic team those Pirates have been, for generations, and for many different reasons. Honus Wagner invented modern hitting before he became the most valuable baseball card in history. Bill Mazeroski (by reputation: all glove, no bat) knocked a Ralph Terry pitch out of Forbes in Game 7 of the ‘60 Series, sending the Yankees to defeat. Then you had the Roberto Clemente years. Clemente’s name alone has the power to reduce me to tears for many reasons, not the least of which is the tragedy of his death, on New Year’s Eve, 1972, in a plane he chartered in order to bring relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, just months after collecting his 3000th (and final) hit, but also for the wan cruelties of linear time, which robbed me, born about four years after that night and many miles to the north of Pittsburgh, of the chance to ever see his speed and grace and power in action. Lump in Dock Ellis (whose particular story I will detail in these pages soon), the We Are Family teams of the later ‘70s, Pops Stargell, Dave Parker, the polyester pullover bumblebee uniforms and pillbox caps, Kent Tekulve’s glasses and sidearm delivery and, okay, everything about Kent Tekulve, and finally the oddball assemblage of those last Pirates teams to matter — Bonds, Bonilla, and Van Slyke, Doug Drabek and John Smiley, Jose Lind and his ridiculous grin — just before ex-Pirate Sid Bream and the nascent Braves knocked the Buccos into the Dark Ages and 19 consecutive years of losing.
And, come to think of it, those 19 seasons of futility, the last 12 of them occurring in PNC Park, the prettiest little yard in the Majors, might have added something to the story. Something hard and cruel but also instructive and necessary. They might yet prove to be the middle chapters in a pretty damned compelling redemption story.
But pedaling in reverse for a moment, before we get to these 2012 Pirates, it was Michael Chabon who did the most, after Clemente, to convince me of the Steel City’s charms in his two Pittsburgh-set novels, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys. In the former I found a place of bookstores and record shops and young citizens in polo shirts and foppish hair, and something about a cloud factory, too. In the latter, the green and drowsy corridors of learning. In all, a quiet something, unnameable and yet appealing; a Pittsburghness, having to do with augustness, and then bluecollarness, then near ruin, and now a pleasing intermingling of all these things; the visual evidence of one of these things buried beneath the detritus of another. Of faded signage and crumbling brick and baseball stories and bridges, many bridges, all suggesting the possibility of going there and coming back, there and back, there and back.
And all of these ridiculous impressions confirmed, happily, over a Labor Day weekend spent there a few years ago, under the high, bright sun, the coal barges still rolling down the brown rivers, and the Pirates long since sunk beneath the muddy surface of the NL Central (the Cubs were not kind that weekend). Drinking Yuengling Lager and scarfing Primanti Brothers sandwiches, sitting in the second deck of the last two-deck park built for a big league team, gazing over the wall and across the river and finding, to my surprise, that Pittsburgh was indeed easy on the eyes.
PNC Park was full of Cubs fans that weekend, passengers aboard some travelling caravan of Chicagoans, but scattered here and there amongst them the Pittsburgh diehards were patient, or perhaps browbeaten, the singeing heat of failure showing on their faces like sunburn. In conversation they were stoical, long-eyed realists, but oh how they were hungry. Pittsburgh, I sensed, is one of those towns that holds a latent ability to come together — by this I mean actually nullify cultural and social differences to achieve a feeling of mass cohesion, of in-it-togetherness — behind a team like the Pirates, resulting in scenes very like those you might cull from an old VHS copy of Major League, wherein the whole damned city of Cleveland is losing its collective shit over the suddenly good Indians, only replace Clevelanders with Pittsburghers, of course. A whole city revelling in one of those strange seasons in which grocery baggers and lawyers exchange knowing looks and head nods, look down to see they are wearing the same t-shirts, and so feel warm, gooey kinship for their fellow citizens where before they had seen only differences.
Having been to Pittsburgh, and read Chabon’s descriptions, and establishing these flimsy personal connections to the city, I want badly for this to happen for the people of Pittsburgh in 2012. And what’s more, there’s still a very real chance that it could happen this year.
These 2012 Pirates have achieved, to pilfer a phrase from Chabon, their “floating dirigible of August,” riding in the ornate elevator to the tip-topmost point of the art deco tower where the thing is tethered; they are in contention. They have not (yet?) played themselves out of the mix. They find themselves with, in Andrew McCutchen, an affable, dreadlocked, power-and-average star. In AJ Burnett, a man with something to prove. And in Joel Hanrahan, a good closer. Further down the roster they are a wad of gum and string and pocket lint, a random collection of parts, propelled nevertheless by good intentions and, with no apologies to the seamheads, a lot of heart. Over their stubborn heads hang the NL Wild Cards (two this year, remember; at this writing Pittsburgh is deadlocked with the Braves for top spot in that race, with the Dodgers and Cardinals also hanging around). Much can happen between now and the first week of October, and most of the plausible scenarios are grim for a team that will spend considerable time playing Cincinnati and St. Louis. But they’ve hung in this long, which isn’t nothing for the Pirates, and can still hope to help Bud Selig inaugurate his newfangled one-game Wild Card playoff format. And I can still hope they do it.
I hope for this for all of the aforementioned reasons, and not because of the routinely-cited small market viability/health of the game argument. Yankee victories are, frankly, the tentpoles holding the baseball world aloft, and the majority of the rest of the teams are merely waxed canvas. Any benefits to be reaped from a Pirates run are purely emotional.
But what benefits! We could temper expectations — experience demands that we do so — and rejoice merely that a 20th losing season will be avoided. But step out here on the limb with me a moment, won’t you, and imagine the victory parade winding its way through all 90 neighbourhoods. Imagine fireworks launched in celebration out over the Monongahela and the Point, the sound reverberating off the hills and rolling back into itself. Imagine the lights flashing off the limestone and brick and marble of Carnegie’s old Pittsburgh. The shouts echoing through the empty mills and factories. Imagine the Yuenglings raised and the tears shed. Now imagine it was your town, the place where you’d worked and loved and fought and failed your whole damn life, and that all of these celebratory things were, for the first time in 20 years, still possible for your team come late August. That’d have you feeling pretty damn good right about now, wouldn’t it?
[i] Forbes was “perhaps baseball’s loveliest” stadium, writes Curt Smith in his wonderful Storied Stadiums: Baseball’s History Through its Ballparks.