I sat on the couch, staring intently at the TV. There are situations in sports when there is almost no hope available, yet for some reason you cling to the impossible. I was trying to find one small ounce of hope. The playoffs are when magical things happen. A comeback was unlikely, but I couldn’t give up hope.
My roommate on the couch next to me gave a small cheer and a fist pump, as if he even needed to modestly celebrate the New England Patriots scoring another touchdown to go up by 21 with two and a half minutes left. The rage slowly built inside of me. Thinking about how he had been talking all week about being a Patriots and Eagles fan, and how he might have a guaranteed championship, like that’s not cheating. Thinking about how the Steelers went 15-1 on the year and looked like locks to win it all, only to lose to the damn Patriots once again in the AFC championship. Thinking about how I had a meeting scheduled that evening at work, and I didn’t want to see anyone’s face for a week. Thinking about how I hated Corey Dillon for running in that touchdown, and how I hated the Steelers even more for not tackling him along the way. True story: I type Corey Dillon here, but it was actually Deion Branch who ran that final touchdown in. For nine years I thought it was Dillon, because I was watching what was unfolding with a building rage, that ended with the following.
That was repeated over and over as loud as I could yell it. I grabbed the closest thing to me. A shoe. I threw it as hard as I could, clanging off the metal dorm room door. I picked the shoe up and threw it again. Screaming, yelling, frustrated. My roommate shut up. Good. I hoped he couldn’t even enjoy the win. His team had won two Super Bowls in the last three years, and he was talking about both of his teams meeting up for one all week. I was a fan of the Pirates, Penguins, and Steelers. The Pirates were a joke. The Penguins were also a joke, and while I enjoyed their Stanley Cup wins, and named my dog Jaromir, I wasn’t at an age where I could appreciate how rare it is for your team to win one championship, much less two in a row.
Then there was the Steelers. Every year they lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship. This looked like the year. They had beaten the Patriots earlier that season. I sat with my same roommate at Buffalo Wild Wings, watching that game while some homeless guy decided to join our table. He offered us some cashews, which was kind of weird, then after my roommate took some, he announced that he would have one of our wings. We just looked in shock and let it happen. It was the kind of negotiations you’d expect leading up to a Dave Littlefield trade. But in the end I didn’t care. Because I celebrated with that guy as the Steelers destroyed the Patriots, listening to him cheering out loud for “Duce Stacey”, “Ben Rossemberger” and “Troy Pomaroo”. This was no casual fan. This was a Yinzer.
It was amazing watching the Steelers beat the Patriots in that regular season game, 34-20. That’s when I knew that the Steelers were going to win it all. And when they lost once again to New England, that’s when I knew I’d never trust the Steelers again.
“I would have thought you would have been more excited over this.”
I had a smile on, but kind of a mixed feeling. My roommate (not the one who liked the Patriots and the Eagles, a different one) and his girlfriend were sitting with me. We just watched the Pittsburgh Steelers win the Super Bowl one year later. I had built this day up for years. It was going to be amazing. It was going to change my life. It was going to be better than the first time I had sex, the first time I drank beer that wasn’t Coors Light, and every live concert I had ever seen combined. So why was my roommate surprised that I didn’t seem very excited?
It’s because I spent the entire year waiting for the other shoe to drop. That was easy to do with the Steelers only making it as a Wild Card team, and only making the playoffs thanks to four wins in a row at the end of the season. I wasn’t getting invested again this year. Not after what happened in previous years.
I’m not saying I didn’t cheer when the Steelers beat the Bengals, especially on the amazing razzle-dazzle play from my favorite player, Antwaan Randle-El. And the game against the Colts was the highlight of that playoffs for me, and also almost killed me. But after Mike Vanderjagt missed his field goal, things went downhill. I was back to waiting for the other shoe to drop, and waiting for the Steelers to find a way to disappoint. When they handled the Broncos, I was thinking more “now they’ll disappoint in the Super Bowl” rather than investing in the team again. And I carried that reserved cheering all the way until the end. I spent so much time waiting for the Steelers to…collapse…that I missed their successful Super Bowl run and didn’t totally enjoy it. It’s kind of like when you get an ice cream, then talk through it while eating, and when you’re done you realize you didn’t even stop to enjoy it. Only this was the best ice cream cone ever.
I can’t say that I’m anything like I was back then when it comes to being a sports fan. I was 21, in college, and sports meant a ton to me. And I know I say that now as someone who does this for a living. But I’m nowhere near the sports fan I was then. I view a win as entertaining in the same way that I’m entertained by a good movie. I view a loss as a disappointment, in the same way that I’d be disappointed in a bad episode of a TV show, like when The Office used to have one of those episodes where Dwight or Michael would become way too unrealistic and way too characteristic. You point out the flaws, but ultimately it’s not changing your life at all.
But I’m writing all of this not to tell you about me, and how I feel about games now versus how I felt about games eight or nine years ago. I’m writing this as sort of a precautionary tale.
When I think about this season, I think about how I felt with the Steelers after they lost to the Patriots in 2004-05. They “collapsed” once again in their own way, and because of that I spent the entire following season waiting for the next collapse. In the process I totally missed the fact that they didn’t collapse, and win a Super Bowl.
The Pirates are in a playoff race. It’s going to be extremely difficult, as we’re seeing lately. They’re going to have close games against tough opponents. They’re going to have heartbreaking losses where you go back and question the flaws. They’re going to have amazing victories that add an extra step to the following day. There will be moments where you can’t sleep waiting for a big game or a big series. There’s going to be highs and lows in a way that we haven’t seen surrounding baseball in the city of Pittsburgh for quite some time. And unlike football, it’s going to happen everyday, which may actually kill some people due to stress before the season is over with.
You might not experience all of that, depending on how you follow sports. Personally I think I’m enjoying the story more. I’m enjoying the fact that four years ago at this time I was interviewing Jeff Locke, Tony Sanchez, Josh Harrison, Justin Wilson, and Bryan Morris in a parking lot in Lynchburg behind the outdated home team clubhouse, and now I’m watching those players in Pittsburgh in an actual playoff race. While the losing streak means very little to me, I’m enjoying that so many people will no longer have to hear about 20 years in a row after just ten more wins. There have been so many hardcore Pirates fans. I’ve seen that first hand. There should have been no reason to cheer for this team in previous years, and no reason for such a strong interest, but it was there. It’s what helped this site grow at a huge rate every year. And that type of loyalty to a team when there’s nothing to be loyal to, and nothing but disappointment for years…that should be rewarded.
There’s one thing I see pretty often, and that’s the fear of another collapse. That’s what reminds me of how I felt back when the Steelers were losing to the Patriots. It’s not rational, but the thing about sports is that it can make you feel that the irrational is actually very rational. I understand the feeling of wanting to be reserved. The Pirates have disappointed the last two years down the stretch. That feeling, after you’ve started to believe in a team, totally sucks. It definitely did when the Steelers kept losing to the Patriots every year in the AFC Championship.
But you know what is worse? Realizing that your team just won the championship, and you were too busy worrying about a collapse to even enjoy what happened.
I’m not saying the Pirates will win it all this year. Odds are they won’t, and that’s not speaking about the team. It’s just acknowledging that it can be extremely difficult for any team to win a championship in the playoffs. What I am saying is that you have a choice. You can worry about the collapse that is hiding around the corner, or you can enjoy what is happening, and realize that none of it is in your control, so worrying about something like a collapse is pointless.
The latter approach doesn’t mean you need to be all “rah rah” about the Pirates and their every move. Certainly criticize the decision to keep Mark Melancon on the bench in a tie game. Celebrate a dominant outing by Francisco Liriano. Breathe a sigh of relief when Jose Tabata adds an opposite field insurance homer. Ask out loud “WHY?!” when Starling Marte bunts in the seventh inning, down by a run. Or when anyone gives away outs at any time.
All I’m saying is that it’s difficult trusting a team, knowing it’s very possible in sports that you’re going to be let down. That feeling sucks, but not as much as the feeling that you get when you missed the enjoyment of a rare and special moment in sports, all because you were worried about the bad that might happen to prevent that moment.
And screw the New England Patriots.
Links and Notes
**The latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast is out: P3 Episode 17: The Pirates Issues With RISP, Platoons, and Small Ball.