Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pirates return to glory days... Wait for it.... *17 years later* ...Wait for it...

Old mafia costumes and old Pittsburgh Pirates uniforms; throwbacks to better days for both organizations, long since passed.

Yesterday, the Pittsburgh Pirates suffered their 10th straight loss. I use the term “suffered” not in the sense that it was inflicted upon them so much as that at this point the team seems like a sad, struggling deer hit by a car, then another car, then another car, then it starts raining on it, then another car hits it, then a bus hits it… and so on, and so on.

Their record is now 23-42 so far this season.

I won’t elaborate on the many reasons the Pirates have an abysmal record and haven’t had a winning season in 17 years. There have been enough media, fan, and sports commentator analyses on this to fill a stadium, which, oddly enough, the Pirates still do too. Suffice to say that our biggest problem is that those running the franchise use it as a cash cow and milk the Pirates as a feeder system to send any good players to better teams like the Yankees and Red Sox. You know, teams with winning records who make it to the playoffs and such.

As a result, the Pirates have become the Detroit Lions of baseball. That comparison is only inaccurate in that it is impossible to have a completely winless season in baseball due to the sheer number of games played.

When I was a child, the first sporting event I remember attending was a Pirates' baseball game with my parents and little brother. My mom and dad bought my little brother and me Pirates' baseball hats and black and gold baseball bats. I still have my hat and the initial of my first name is still written under the brim in marker that I used to differentiate it from my brother’s. I was 6.

My parents took me to a baseball game, not a hockey or football game. They did this for a few reasons. First, we didn’t have much money growing up, but for a couple dollars, you could, and still can, take your family to the game.

Second, baseball is a family game. You can take your young children and not have drunk, rowdy fans ruin the experience.

Finally, baseball is the great American past time. After watching that game, my brother and I had to have baseball bats, balls, and gloves. I remember countless hours spent in the backyard throwing the ball around with my dad and brother. When they weren’t around, I threw the ball up against the shed and it would ricochet back into my glove. ...I got yelled at for the marks that left on the shed.

By comparison, I’m a much bigger hockey and football fan, and I didn’t attend my first pro hockey game until I was 10, and my first pro football game until I was 22. They are just too expensive. To this day, I can go to all the Pirates games when they play in DC, where I live, against the Nationals without a second thought on cost. I still have to save up ahead of time if I want to go to a Pens' or Steelers' game.

Your average American family can make it out to the baseball park and afford to see the game. Your average American family can’t afford a pro hockey or football game. Our hardworking families of western Pennsylvania deserve to see their dime well spent when they go to a Pirates game. I don’t mean they need to see wins all the time, but they need to see something impressive on the field, and they deserve to go to a game where “root, root, root for the home team!” means you are cheering for a team that has a chance.

This past October, at a friend’s Halloween party in Washington, DC, I happened upon the oddest costume I had ever seen to date. It was a man in his 70s dressed head-to-toe in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform. It was one of the old timey uniforms too. I crossed the room and walked right up to him smiling.

Me: “HI! Wow you must be a big Pirates fan to wear that here! I'm a fan too and I love your costume. I’ve never seen a Pittsburgh Pirates costume before."
Guy: "Oh this isn’t a costume. It’s actually my old uniform. I used to pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Don Schwall. Nice to meet you.”

I had never before been so proud to be a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. Here I was, honored to meet a man who pitched for my baseball team in the glory days. Here he was, having played for the Pirates from 1963-1966, 45 years later still proudly getting some use out of his old uniform. He wasn’t mocking the Pirates, and certainly nobody was mocking him. He stood tall and proud in his uniform, the way our team and fans used to too.

"Duke" (as he goes by), remembered the days when he used to play for the Pirates; when we used to be great; when we used to be respected. My dad remembers those days too and, growing up, Roberto Clemente was one of his heroes. I don't really remember the Pirates ever being good.

Meeting Duke made me realize that the Pirates aren’t nobodies. We used to be somebodies. And we can be somebodies again.

I want to cry over a baseball game. I’ve cried over a football game before. I’ve cried over a basketball game. I’ve cried over a hockey game. I cried in all of those when hard fought battles ended and dreams (mine, a team’s, a city’s... of winning a game or a championship, or making the playoffs or moving on in them) were shattered. For dreams to be shattered, you had to have a dream to begin with. For far too long a World Series win, a playoff win, or even a winning season, has, for Pirates fans, been an honor we dream not of. I want some baseball dreams, even if only to be shattered.

I’m not looking for a World Series win. The Red Sox and Yankees can have 'em. In Pittsburgh, between the Steelers and Penguins, we’re all stocked up on championships and we’ll keep them coming in. I just want a team I can be proud of; a team about which I can say “I think this is our year!” and ever be taken seriously. I don’t want baseball fans – neither ours nor our opponents – to roll their eyes at the mention of my team.

I’ll never be one of those awful fans who turns on my team. I’ll never call the “Buckos” the “Suckos”. I’ll never boo us or cheer for the other team. I’ll still go to games, decked head to toe in Pirates gear and Pittsburgh colors and cheer for my favorite players, who’s names I actually bother learning (my favorite is Lastings Milledge), despite their high likelihood of being traded away. And I’m not the only one.

The Pirates have got the best fans in the world in the people of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Steelers fans are consistently named the best in the NFL by ESPN and Pittsburgh Penguins’ fans are named the best in the NHL by Forbes Magazine. Neither organization even needs to give these awards, because if you ask just about anybody, they'll tell you the hockey and football fans from Pittsburgh are the most dedicated.

We have one of the most beautiful stadiums in MLB; and it’s practically brand new!

If you build it, they will come. We built you a beautiful new stadium. We built you the best fan base any team could ever ask for. We still fill those stands. We still buy the Pirate gear. We still do this after 17 straight losing seasons.

All we ask in exchange is that those in charge of the Pirates franchise try. Try and build us a sustainable team. Try investing some money into buying us good players we actually hold onto and don’t sell at their first spark of talent. Try and show some, any, appreciation for what this city has given you. We are the city of champions... not just our teams, but our people as well. Start running this team like you give a crap about it. You've got a city and fans who still do.

We don’t want a World Series win. We just want one year to believe – really believe – that this just might be our year.

“I believe. I believe. It’s silly, but I believe.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

NHL playoffs in review: Marian Hossa is a girl's name

Hossa, no matter where your hockey career takes you, this is how you'll always be remembered to Penguins' fans.

It has taken me this long to be able to cope with and adequately reflect upon the NHL playoffs due to the traumatic way in which they unfolded. Like a harshly dumped girl who holes herself up in her room with Ben & Jerry's ice cream, her cat, feel good books like "Eat, Pray, Love", and "Hang in there" kitten dangling from a branch motivational posters, who finally emerges days later ready to write angry, brooding, dark, yet cathartic poetry, I'm finally ready to tackle the NHL playoffs with a blog post.

Now, I'm not one for crying - especially not over boys. But, I will say that I cried over a record number of boys - 34 of them to be exact - on May 12; all 34 of which are members of the Pittsburgh Penguins. And together, on May 12, they faced the Montreal Canadiens in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

If you had asked me up until there was less than one minute remaining in that game 7, when the Pens were down 5-2 and the Canadiens had a power play, who was going to be in the Stanley Cup Championship, I'd have said Blackhawks vs Penguins. I predicted that matchup since the playoff teams were announced.

It wasn't until just under a minute left and trailing by 3 goals and one-man disadvantage that I came to accept reality, and came to cry over boys. Watching the game in DC and surrounded by 3 loyal Pens fans and a bar full of Caps fans rooting loudly for the Canadiens who had defeated their team a series prior, but who despise the Pens more for their constant playoff routing of their team, I must have been truly a sad sight because the Caps fans couldn't bring themselves to cheer or give me a hard time after that loss. I went on crying for a good 5 minutes.

I don't want to sound like a sore loser or anything, but, on behalf of my boyfriend Sidney Crosby, you're welcome for your gold medal, Canada.

With the Pens out, I came to two conclusions. First, the Red Wings' and Penguins' fates are tied together in some sick, twisted universe which cosmically links the two arch rivals. Think of it as Harry Potter and Voldemort. Obviously the Penguins are Harry Potter and the Red Wings are Voldemort.... In '08 the Red Wings and Pens faced each other in the Stanley Cup championship and the Wings won it all in 6 games. That series produced one of my favorite hockey games of all time when the Pens won game 5 in triple overtime to avoid elimination. ...I didn't make it to work the next day.

In '09 the Wings and Pens would again take each other on in the Stanley Cup championship, but this time it would be the Pens who would win, doing so in 7 games, the last of which ended 3-2 and with a barrage of Detroit shots on Pens' goalie, Marc Andre Fleury, the stress of which took years off my life.

This year, in the Western Conference playoffs, Detroit pulled the only upset of the first round; entering as a 5 seed and defeating the 4 seed. The 1, 2, and 3 seeds all won. In the Eastern Conference playoffs. Pittsburgh was the only seed to avoid an upset; a 4 seed triumphing over the 5 seeded Senators, while the 1, 2, and 3 seeds all fell to their lower ranked opponents.

However, both teams would fall in their conference semi-finals. I guess it was time Detroit and Pittsburgh let someone else have a shot at the Cup.

The truth is, in game 7 against the Canadiens, Fleury was just really off his game. He had been on and off, hot and cold, throughout this year's playoffs. The team also didn't have quite the same level of energy in that game as it did in the other matches they played against the Canadiens.

I went to game 5 of that series and sat third row on the blue line in what would turn out to be the last ever Pens' victory in Mellon Arena. [Their new arena, the Consol Energy Center, is slated to open in July.] The seats were so close and amazing that when the puck was shot up and around the glass I could see the ice spinning off of it. The players were life size and only feet away, and I yelled at Sidney Crosby to marry me and allow me to have his babies at least 5 or 6 times. The Penguins' energy and force in that game was palpable and they straight up outplayed the Canadiens. That is what we needed to muster in game 7. We didn't.

Perhaps there should have been some foreshadowing here in that the Penguins' first ever game in the arena was a loss to the Canadiens, and of course the parallelism between the Pens and Wings success in recent years.

The second conclusion I reached after the Pens were eliminated, was that this year's cup match would be between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers. The San Jose Sharks, the 1 seed who would play the 2 seed Blackhawks in the Western Conference final, were overrated as hell and anyone who disagrees is wrong and doesn't know their hockey. Before even watching a game between them, I knew the Sharks were going to be put to shame. I also knew the Flyers would win in the Eastern Conference because they're a much scrappier team, were on a hot streak, and were playing the Canadiens who wore themselves out against the Washington Capitals and Penguins.

The Cup match itself, however, was a more challenging puzzle. The Blackhawks were the better team, but they also possessed they key to their own self destruction; one Marian Hossa. I truly believed that Hossa was forever fated to make it to every Stanley Cup championship ever and lose.

Hossa is known in Pittsburgh and across the NHL as the cup-grubbing ginger who played in Pittsburgh in '08, then turned down a contract renewal with them in exchange for less money and a shorter contract with Detroit, which became his '09 team. Think of him as the Alex Rodriguez of hockey, if A-Rod [See also, Pay-Rod] had actually taken less money to play for the Yankees instead of the Red Sox. Hossa made it to the Stanley Cup match 2 years in a row and lost, the second year after betraying his team to go to their biggest rivals.

In Pittsburgh, it is a truth universally acknowledged that any good Penguins fan in possession of a good hockey knowledge must hate the Flyers as division rivals, and must also hates Marian Hossa. Decisions, decisions... I thought Hossa's fate might do him and his team in for the third year in a row, but all that changed the night before Game 6 of championship round. That night, I had a dream.

I woke up and posted about it on facebook. The time stamp reads June 9, 12:25PM. The post reads as follows:
So I had a dream last night that the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in OT, 4-3. The night before the Pens lost to the Canadiens in game 7 I also dreamed that we lost that game. Sports stress me out. And who dreams about sporting events?? I think most girls dream about like... I don't know, boys they like or unicorns or... something. Not me. It's more like ESPN up there.

In case you weren't following the game [odds are that if you're interested enough in sports to read this far, you have], the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup that night... in OT... 4-3.

Of course I didn't want to see Hossa's grubby hands on the Stanley Cup, but it will make the Pens all the hungrier for victory next year. Let's go Pens. And, as a fellow Pittsburgh fan pointed out, it is better to have one set of grubby hands on the cup than a whole team (read, "Philadelphia").

The way a hot cheerleader in high school might handle a breakup? That's basically how we deal with season ending losses in Pittsburgh. It is a phenomenon with which we're unfamiliar. We have no idea what just happened, but everything is wrong with the world and we're in a glass case of emotion. So, if you'll excuse me, I need to go back to staring at my motivational kitten poster again.

In the meantime, feel free to come to me before you place your sports bets.