Talk like a Pirate

I virtually never travel for my job, but back in 2008, I was given the opportunity to work a promotional booth at a FanFest for an MLB team. Considering how harsh New Jersey can be in late January, I optimistically requested San Diego. Like clockwork, they sent me to Pittsburgh, the equivalent of escaping Alaska for Antarctica.

On top of the single-digit temperatures, the idea of attending a FanFest for a team that hadn’t had a winning record since I was in seventh grade seemed a bit depressing. But honestly, PirateFest turned out to be a really good time, if a little weird.

Staged in a massive convention center, it was a fluorescent-lit baseball-themed carnival, with people meandering around playing games, scrounging for free stuff and waiting in line for autographs. With the Steelers long having been eliminated, there was a pretty good crowd ready to break out the Pirates hat, check out some game-worn Tom Gorzelanny jerseys — and the actual game-worn Tom Gorzelanny, he was there — and maybe eat a hot dog or three.

Our booth was set up with a PowerPoint projection of a trivia game with questions about the Pirates. If someone got one right, and virtually everyone did, we gave them a T-shirt with our web site’s logo on it. And I’ll be damned if people didn’t flock after our perfectly mundane T-shirts like my puppy for a dropped bite of chicken.

I don’t really know a whole lot about Pirates history, but my partner that weekend used to be a beat reporter for the team, so my relative lack of expertise wasn’t much of an issue. This came in handy when Neal Huntington, about four months into his tenure as the team’s general manager, stopped by our booth with his kid, and I had literally no idea who the hell he was. I was about to ask him a trivia question and offer him a T-shirt, but Ed thankfully struck up a conversation about free agency or something and I put two and two together.

It probably won’t stun you that an event this perverse had its share of weirdos. Leaving the convention center one night, we saw one guy completely oblivious — and seemingly quite drunk — as his kindergarten-age daughter wandered off the curb into a busy intersection. Horrified, Ed and I broke into a sprint, got there at about the same time and plopped her back on the sidewalk. The next day, this Father of the Year candidate dragged his kid over and lobbied us for a T-shirt. I think it was the one guy we turned down.

But the majority of the people I met at PirateFest, I genuinely liked. They were engaging, loved talking baseball and viewed me as a kindred spirit, even after I let slip that I was a Mets fan from New Jersey. A little kid offered me his replica Josh Gibson statue, which I still have somewhere. (I traded him a Pirates wristband.) The jerseys most people had on were Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson, which I thought was a little sad, but nonetheless kind of cool. Love the ones you got.

Everyone made me promise I’d come back in warmer weather to see a game at PNC Park, supposedly a jewel of a stadium. I haven’t yet kept that vow — the Bucs were out of town when my then-fiancee and I passed through two summers ago — though there’s always next year.

*****

I don’t get the sense teams make a whole lot of money off these FanFests, rather that they’re designed to drum up interest for the coming season, paying eventual dividends in terms of ticket sales or whatever.

That said, I’m not sure that was entirely necessary — there was a pretty good turnout of die-hards that seemed more than ready to live day-to-day with their terrible baseball team. They weren’t suckers; everyone seemed to accept there was no way the Pirates would crack 70 wins unless Jose Bautista miraculously morphed into a guy who could hit 50 homers. (That would come two years later for Toronto; in 2008 for the Bucs, he hit a whopping 12.)

And yet, amid the congeniality, I detected just a slight air of restlessness, as you might expect from a fan base that hadn’t seen a winning team since 1992. Whoever put together our PowerPoint had included a trivia question asking which player the Pirates had taken in the first round of the 2007 Draft. Virtually everyone would shake their head and mutter, “That freaking Moskos,” or some more profane facsimile. I didn’t understand their vitriol, but whatever, here’s your T-shirt.

At dinner that night, Ed told me all about how the Pirates had passed on catcher Matt Wieters, born and bred to be an All-Star, in favor of doomed reliever Daniel Moskos. It was widely perceived to be a cost-sensitive move, and I quickly understood why that trivia question cut like a knife.

Pirates fans are patient people — they have no choice but to be — but they were nonetheless getting pretty damn sick and tired of waiting.

*****

After 21 years of relative futility — 21 years! — the Pirates have finally fielded a winning team again. Because of where I work, I frequently get asked what I think of their renaissance, and I have to admit I care about as much about them as I do about the fortunes of any sports team, which is to say not much at all.

During the nine years I’ve worked in the industry, the way I’ve come to view sports has changed considerably. Living and dying with a team seems a lot sillier now than a decade ago, when I had fewer bills to pay, meals to cook, errands to run, injuries to heal. I’d still prefer if the Mets someday put together a good team, but it certainly won’t keep me up at night — not when my puppy wakes me up at 6:45.

I tend to think a lot of people take sports — and themselves — a little too seriously. I find the self-important bluster of ESPN for the most part unwatchable at this point, and no brand of any sort should define who you are and what your self-worth is. But I’d be a hypocrite not to acknowledge that I have more than my share of wonderful, vicarious sports memories with teams I had next to nothing to do with.

Over time, what I’ve come to believe is you should simply do what makes you happy, whatever that is, regardless of what people think about it. I mean, I can’t imagine there are many people who share my affinity for movies like this one, or who hang up framed posters of Spider-man in their home.

As such, I can’t help but agree there’s something kind of cool about the Pirates breaking through after all these years, which — for me at least — has virtually nothing to do with the team itself. (Besides Andrew McCutchen and personal favorite Francisco Liriano, I find the Pirates pretty boring.)

More so, I like thinking about the fans who welcomed me with open arms 5 1/2 years ago, and how they must be enjoying having a non-wretched baseball team. These were people who hung in through years of Moskos-over-Wieters follies and 19-inning games lost on terrible calls, who would trudge through the Pittsburgh tundra to some convention center to listen to Ian Snell discuss his offseason regimen. I wonder about the kid with the Gibson statue, now in high school and perhaps thinking, “So this is what this is like.”

When it comes down to it, I still don’t actively care who wins the World Series, or anything like that. The sun comes up the next morning regardless.

But if it does somehow end up being the Pirates? I think I’d be much more than okay with that.

Esoteric

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