John Steigerwald's Sports Column
How to be a fan of a playoff team
The Pirates are in a pennant race. They were in one at this time last year, and they were in one at this time two years ago. As we all know, they managed to have the two worst collapses in Major League Baseball history. But this year, it’s different. At least, that’s what everybody says.
I think it’s different this year, too, but I’d still like to revisit the subject on, say, Aug. 31.
Let’s assume the Pirates are going to be in the hunt for a division championship or a wild card right to the end of the season. It’s time for the fans to start acting like they’ve been there before, even if lots of them haven’t.
You would have to be at least in your early 30s to have any real appreciation for what it’s like to follow your local team in a pennant race.
If this is new to you or if it’s been so long that you’ve forgotten what it’s like, here are some suggestions from a guy who’s been through 15 or 20 of these:
It’s not about the food, the view or the bobbleheads anymore. It’s about the baseball. If the Pirates are playing meaningful games in September, they’ll be showing up on national TV a lot. Don’t embarrass them with the sight of thousands of people coming across the Clemente Bridge in the bottom of the second inning. The game starts in the first inning and, in a pennant race, highly memorable things can happen in the early innings.
I knew fans had changed a few years ago, when I saw PNC Park emptying out after nine innings of a tie game on Opening Day. It was obvious that thousands of fans had come there for the experience and the game was secondary. They had eaten all the food they could eat and soaked in the view. Who cares about the score? Last Sunday, the Pirates went 16 innings before beating the Cubs at PNC Park. By the time the game ended, two thirds of the fans were gone. The game was delayed two hours and 20 minutes by rain, and it’s understandable that that would cause a lot of fans to leave. But the crowd seemed to keep getting smaller as the game went on. When your team is in a pennant race, one game could make a huge difference and that 16-inning game at the end of June might be the one everybody’s talking about when the season ends. Real fans want to be there for those moments. You don’t walk out on your team in extra innings in a pennant race. You just don’t.
Serious baseball fans have been complaining for years about being surrounded by fans at PNC Park who don’t appear to be paying any attention to the game. Twenty-one years of mostly meaningless games attended by people who are there for the food, the view or to see the other team will do that. It’s a pennant race. As the end gets closer, every pitch gets bigger. Pay attention. If you’re not really interested in the game, give your ticket to someone who will appreciate it.
Try to remember the game is the reason you’re there. It’s no longer about the food. For the last 12 years, the area in front of the concession stands on the first level of PNC Park was as congested as Madison Avenue in New York at Christmas time, no matter what was happening in the game. There was a time when fans, who were there to see the game, wouldn’t dream of being caught in the nachos line while the game was going on. Nor would a real fan make other fans get up in the middle of an inning so he could get a spot in the Clams Casino line. Call a vendor. Eat a hot dog. It’s a baseball game, not a food fair. It will be interesting to see if the lines are shorter if the Bucs stay in the race.
If you’ve lived through a pennant race, you know all about scoreboard watching. For most of the last 21 years, only the bettors would have any real reason to pay attention to the out of town scores. If the Pirates are in a tight race with the Cardinals and/or Reds, you should be as interested in the score that pops up in right field as you are in the score of the game you’re watching. It’s OK to cheer the score if the Reds or Cardinals are losing. Paying attention to the out of town scores could actually distract you from the food and the view, but that’s a good thing.
And last but not necessarily least:
The Pirates are going to finish over .500. They can’t possibly pull off three epic collapses in a row. It doesn’t matter. Five hundred stinks. Shooting for .500 is for losers. It no longer matters how many games over .500 the Pirates are. Stop focusing on it, and stop talking about it. The only thing that matters is where they are in relation to the teams that they are competing with for a spot in the postseason.
John Steigerwald writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.