Plenty of Room on the Pirate Ship

After nearly two decades in solitary confinement, Pirates diehards are welcoming new friends.

Photo by Zach Frailey, Uprooted Photographer. Want this as a wallpaper?

Four years ago, I moved out of western Pennsylvania to North Carolina for graduate school. Because of the wonders of the internet and smart phones, I’ve never had a hard time following the Pirates from 400 miles away. I can watch all of the games on my computer, listen on my phone, and apart from being able to attend Pirates games, I’m able to follow the team as closely as I did when I was a student at Duquesne University. 

The hard part about being a Pirates fan in North Carolina has, instead, been actually being a Pirates fan. The first time I wore my Pirates hat out in public here someone asked me, with a straight face, if the Pirates were still a baseball team. Once a year, the Pirates Triple-A affiliate from Indianapolis comes to Durham, and every year, I go to a game or two with my Pirates cap and a t-shirt on. The lowest point came last August, when the one Indy/Durham I could make it to was rained out and I instead spent the night in a sports bar near the Bulls ballpark watching James McDonald’s Pirates debut. A man in a Nuke LaLoosh jersey came up to me, saw my hat, and just shook his head sadly and walked away. 

Having lived in Pittsburgh for the Penguins’ revival, I figured that a winning club would fill up PNC Park, but I was never entirely sure. Being away from the city and the team and the heart of the fan base made it impossible to know. The last three weeks, though, have been a revelation. 

On the Fourth of July, I made it to what is likely the only Pirates game I’m going to get to in 2011. I’ve been to PNC a million times since it opened in 2001, but I’ve never seen a park that looked like the one I saw that afternoon. Fan after fan after fan sported Walker, McCutchen and Hanrahan shirts. Like a Steelers or Penguins game, everyone was in black and gold and the current players actually out-weighed the Clemente, Stargell and other throwbacks. For three hours, the fans watched baseball—really watched it, hanging on every pitch—and the full house exploded after Alex Presley’s clutch triple and Joel Hanrahan’s easy 1-2-3 save. After the game, I got into my car, turned on sports talk radio, and listened to fans calling in with excitement about the Pirates until I drove out of the range.

Last weekend, a friend of mine in Chapel Hill had a cookout. I went over wearing my Kent Tekulve shirt and trusty Pirates cap and for three hours, people kept coming up to me, asking about the team. "Can they keep it up?" they asked. "Have you been watching?" "What’s gotten into these guys?" "When was the last time the Pirates were this good?" My real friends just asked, "How psyched are you?"

When the cookout ended, a few of us walked down the street to a bar and I was asked a question I never thought I’d hear: "Are you a real Pirates fan or are you just wearing that hat because everyone’s talking about them?" I didn’t even know how to answer. I did a double-take and looked the guy in the eye to see if he was serious.

He was. "Andy Van Slyke!" I responded. We high-fived and went our separate ways. 

This week, I’ve been getting e-mails and Tweets as early as Tuesday from people telling me they can’t get tickets to this weekend’s games. My brother went to Tuesday’s game against the Reds and told me that when PNC Park exploded with Joe Beimel’s bases-loaded strikeout of Jay Bruce, he thought he must be at a playoff game. Everyone has Bucco fever. 

I was recently asked, as a "diehard" Pirates fan, if I minded the way long-lost Pirates fans are leaping back onto the bandwagon with both feet. "You’ve suffered through the bad years, doesn’t it make you mad that the people who gave up on them are coming back so quickly?" It really doesn’t, though. I’ve been in Pittsburgh for Super Bowl championships and Super Bowl losses and Stanley Cup wins and Stanley Cup losses, and my favorite part about it every single time is the way that Pittsburgh comes together in the way that only Pittsburgh can and throws itself behind its teams for better or worse. As the guy that’s always been a Pirate fan first, though, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to see Pittsburgh pack PNC Park almost every night and rally around the Pirates. It’s happening in 2011 and it’s every bit as awesome as I hoped it would be. 

So keep filling up the bandwagon. If you’ve been away from the Pirates for a long time and you’re not sure if you’re welcome back, don’t think twice about it. As a Pirates fan, I feel like I’ve been in solitary confinement for the past 18 years and now that I can hear the warden jangling the key ring, all I want to do is share this team with as many people as I can.

Pat Lackey is a frequent guest blogger for Pulling No Punches. You can find him at his own blog, Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke? and on Twitter @whygavs.

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