PITTSBURGH – Once, Pittsburgh was a great baseball town. In fact, Pittsburgh is a lot like its cross-Commonwealth sister city, Philadelphia, in that sense. Baseball with its rhythms, consistency and old traditions was a perfect fit for cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh because those traits meant something.
But times change and things that were once popular sometimes fall aside. Sure, baseball is still popular in Philadelphia. A team just coming off a victory in the World Series can’t help but be popular. That’s been obvious all summer when fans from the east have traveled all over the country just to say they saw the hometown team in a different place.
Nowhere was that more evident than in Pittsburgh this week where the team’s hotel was overrun with fans, autograph seekers and gawkers hoping to catch an eyeful of the baseball champs. More amazed than perturbed, the Phillies’ traveling party could only curse Pittsburgh’s coziness, proximity to Philadelphia, and magnificent ballpark for folks desire to camp out everywhere the team went.
The difference between the two cities is that in Pittsburgh its football and hockey teams win championships. Aside from serving as reigning champs in both sports, the football team has won six Super Bowls in seven attempts, while the hockey club won its third title last spring.
Oh, don’t think Philly fans aren’t a touch envious. That’s especially the case considering the football Eagles are going on 50 years without a title, while the Flyers are inching toward their 35th straight Cup-less season.
Meanwhile, the baseball team just can’t seem to put together winning seasons or fill its beautiful ballpark. Unless the Pirates go on a historical run, they will finish the 2009 season with a losing record for the 17th year in a row. Nope, the Pirates haven’t ended a season above .500 since Barry Bonds left town for San Francisco.
Remember when Bonds played for the Pirates? You know, back when there were just two divisions in each league and Pittsburgh and Philly played each other 18 times a year. The Pirates were in the NL East back then and featured some really great teams. Bonds’ teams came so close to going to the World Series in three straight seasons with Jim Leyland in the managers’ seat.
Those were hardly the best Pittsburgh teams, though. The 1903 Pirates lost to the Red Sox in the very first World Series ever played, while the 1909 club is regarded by some baseball historians to be the greatest team ever. They won 110 games that season during the tail end of Honus Wagner’s career. Wagner, of course, is regarded as the greatest to ever play shortstop in baseball history. Ol’ Honus retired playing after the 1917 season and died in 1955, but he still olds the Pirates records in games, runs, triples and times on base.
Ask any Pittsburgher about their team and there will be stories about Dave Parker, Dick Groat, Elroy Face, the Waner Bros., Pie Traynor, and, of course, Willie Stargell and the fantastic run in 1979. Of course in the late 1970s there were always those brutally tough games against the Phillies that always seemed to determine which team would make it out of the NL East and into the playoffs.
There’s (rightfully) a larger than life statue of Willie Stargell outside of the ballpark where he seems ready to take a big swing and knock one into the far reaches of a ballpark somewhere. Until the new ballparks were built in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Stargell hit the longest homers in the Commonwealth. That old Stargell Star at the Vet was always a beacon as well as something of a tourist destination.
Of course what the Stargell statue in Pittsburgh does not depict is that whirly bat twirl he performed in the box before every pitch. How many kids from the ‘70s grew up imitating Stargell’s routines?
Moreover, there is a historical marker in a grassy area on the waterfront next to PNC Park pinpointing the approximate spot where the Pirates hosted the first World Series game in a National League city. In fact, Pittsburgh’s baseball history is a year older than in Philadelphia with the Alleghenys/Pirates starting in 1882.
Nevertheless, it’s been a rough decade-plus for the Pirates and baseball in Pittsburgh. Perhaps the thought was the beautiful new ballpark would spur a rebirth of sorts, but when every team has a new stadium or a bona fide historical site in which to play, the cachet and novelty of such a thing wears off pretty quickly.
In other words, there’s only so much a new ballpark can do for a club.
The argument that Pittsburgh is just the 20th biggest media market in baseball doesn’t explain things, either. After all, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Oakland have all made the playoffs in recent years. That means there is no reason why a cash-strapped or smaller market ballclub can’t get it done.
Yet for some reason Pittsburgh hasn’t been able to win and that’s perplexing. The football team in Pittsburgh has won the most ever Super Bowls, while the hockey team is always competitive playing in a building that looks as if it popped out of some sort of futuristic Disney concoction from the late ‘60s.
In the future, man will play sports on ice indoors during the summertime.
With so much going for them such as a picturesque city that enticed the French traders with its lush hills carved out of the terrain by the confluence of three major rivers in one location, it’s a wonder the baseball ops folks can’t get it done. Really, they have it all:
Nice ballpark – check.
Beautiful city – check.
Earnest and diehard fans – check.
Historical franchise – check.
What’s the deal then?
Until the Pirates figure it out, there will be one name that represents all that is good about baseball anywhere.
Certainly everyone knows all the important details of Clemente’s life and career by now, but if not, pick up Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss biography. In the meantime, it’s tough for students of baseball history to walk the streets of the city and not think of Clemente. Simply put, he was more than a baseball player – they don’t name schools, parks and awards after mere ballplayers.
And that’s not just in Pittsburgh. All over the country homage is paid to Puerto Rico’s prince. Some have suggested that Clemente’s No. 21 be retired all over baseball just like Jackie Robinson’s No. 42. It’s not a bad idea since some folks view Clemente’s emergence as a star as a touchstone moment not just in baseball or sports, but in the larger culture.
They say Clemente is as significant a figure as Jackie Robinson. Considering the influx of Latino players in professional ball, they just might be onto something, too.
In baseball the Roberto Clemente Award is given to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team,” as voted on by baseball fans and members of the media. The Phillies’ most recent nominee for the award is Shane Victorino who was born long after Clemente died in a plane crash on a humanitarian mission to earthquake ravaged Nicaragua on New Year’s Eve of 1972.
But Victorino understands Clemente’s legacy and his place in culture. No, he doesn’t sense Clemente’s spirit when in Pittsburgh, but he’s impressed with what he has been able to glean from highlight footage. After all, in some ways Victorino is the same sort of player.
“He played the game hard and had an unbelievable arm,” Victorino said. “He was someone who changed the game. The way he played the game, he could do it all. He wasn’t just good at one part of the game.”
What impressed Victorino the most was the footage from the 1971 World Series where Clemente did everything. His throws from right field and helmet flying off his head as he dug for a triple left undeniable marks on the game and became something more than a MVP-type ballplayer plying the intricacies of his craft. It was fodder for art and culture. In a city that was once defined as the manufacturing center for steel and industry, Clemente was the graceful hero. He was elegant as opposed to the brutish nature of football that now keeps the city rapt.
It’s a shame that baseball is not popular in Clemente’s town, but maybe that’s a good thing, too. Clemente set the bar so high that maybe it will be impossible to match those glory days.
Then again, maybe the best way the modern Pirates can do proper honor to the legacy of Clemente and his brethren is to get it together.