No Expectations

Can the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates live up to their complete lack of hope?

America-Thrust had tasked the author with following the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates from the newly-established Pittsburgh Bureau. However, the first Friday of the season came and went without so much as a single tweet about baseball from the author.

An intern by the name of Preston was sent from the America-Thrust headquarters to Pittsburgh in order to keep the author’s affairs in order and to keep him in the proper state of mind for work to be done. There was immense skepticism within the America-Thrust organization as to whether Preston had any chance of success.

After several attempts by the author’s editor to contact Mr. Chavez and/or Preston, the editor finally received word from Preston the Intern that the author was not missing or in jail as had been feared, but had in fact been hard at work. So hard that he had simply lost track of days and forgotten to file his April 5th story.

Preston the Intern stressed that there had been no contact with the home office because the author had forbidden any, going so far as to confiscate all cell phones, laptop computers, tablets, etc., and had them locked in the safe at the Korner Pub — a local bar — so that Mr. Chavez could “concentrate on baseball.”

The editor doubts this story is true, and believes that Mr. Chavez was the author of the message. If so, then Preston the Intern’s whereabouts remain unknown. The good news is that the author filed his April 12th story on time.

PITTSBURGH — So we’re what now, a week-and-a-half into the season? Can’t say there have been too many surprises, as far as the Pirates are concerned. I have to say that one thing that threw me off guard was this babysitter you’ve sent me. He says his name is Preston, but I have to assume that’s some sort of joke. Middle name Spencer? Last name Poindexter, maybe?

Whatever we’re calling him, he’s not very fun. For the first day he was here, all he did was complain that the Korner Pub was too smoky, and he constantly asked if we were going to go anywhere else, to get something to eat or to check out the “rest of the Pittsburgh bar scene.”

I don’t know what sort of assignment you told the Intern he was going on, but the least you could have done was send me someone who doesn’t use language like “bar scene.” I’ve now made it my personal mission to eventually get him so stinking drunk that he agrees to split a pack of Winstons with me.

At least he likes baseball, and isn’t afraid to talk to the riff-raff about it. In that sense, we don’t make a half-bad team. I may even be able to bring him over to my team one day, and when that happens your whole operation is in trouble.

The word on the street in Pittsburgh has remained pretty consistent for the first couple of weeks: no expectations. That is a monumentally positive attitude to take, in my opinion, when taken in context of the last two decades of Pirates baseball.

Lest you think that I have holed up in the Korner and not seen the light of day for the last twelve days, I am happy to report that ol’ Preston and I made it to the North Side for the opening series against the perpetually sad Cubs. These two teams are sure to be locked at the hip all season, and the three-way wrestling match between them and the Brewers to stay out of the division’s basement could get downright filthy. The smart money would be on the Brew Crew to be your third place team, just based on their outright dominance of the Bucs in the last five years — but the even smarter money is to stay the hell away from those sort of predictions.

We started opening day upriver from PNC Park at a lovely spot called Nied’s Hotel. The Korner doesn’t open until 11 A.M., even on the day of the Pirate’s home opener — despite my vigorous protestations — and with a 12:35 start, that just wasn’t going to cut it. A solid day-drunk can’t be achieved quickly, not without a spectacular flame-out sometime before dark, and besides, the KP’s extensive menu of peanuts and every available variety of Cheetos products is not the most nutritious breakfast if one plans to spend the day seriously watching baseball.

Nied’s is a Hotel in name only, but if the Korner ever burns to the ground, it will certainly become my new home away from home. The doors open at 7 A.M., and the breakfast crowd is a sundry collection of factory workers and professional drunks. The coffee is so blackstrap-thick that all but the most robust of whiskies can get completely lost in it, which is just as well since I slyly instructed the sassy barmaid Barb to go double-heavy on the booze, and Preston was none the wiser.

The fried fish sandwich was the finest I’ve had north of Tampa and more than made up for the fact that I was awake well before noon. It was so good that I demanded a kiss from Barb, who was also our chef for the day, and old enough to be my grandmother. I was halfway over the bar when Preston pulled me back and held onto me like I was a prize cattle he was trying to keep out of traffic, forbidding me to engage in such shenanigans. I told you he was no fun.

I calmed down for Preston’s benefit; the staff appreciated my enthusiasm for their wares, and even offered me a free pitcher of Duquesne Pilsener to compliment the fish, which I accepted graciously.

“How about those Buccos?” I yelled to everyone. This is an acceptable declaration in any baseball town, especially on opening day, but the response in this one was as deflated as they come. It’s doubtful the attitude of Pittsburgh baseball fans has an equal anywhere in America. The Pirates were once one of the premier franchises in the sport, and even after the lean years of the 80’s they stormed into the early-90’s with some of the best teams to never have won a World Series.

This is not the City of Champions for nothing; the Steel City is used to winning. The Steelers are perennial contenders, and have been to three Super Bowls in the last ten years, winning two. The Penguins have been to two of the last five Stanley Cup finals, with one victory, and have had either the best or second-best hockey player in the world on their roster for almost every season since 1985. (Don’t ever mention the “second-best” thing to anyone in Pittsburgh, by the way, unless you have time for a thirty minute lecture on Le Magnifique.)

“Whatever,” one old fellow with an even older-looking mustache said. “Another shitty season.”

“Even if they start good, they’ll just fuck it up at the end,” said his younger drinking buddy.

“The ballpark is great,” Barb chimed in then. “I take the grandkids down for fireworks night once or twice a year.”

My questions about the lineup and the starting rotation were largely met with shrugs and more questions. “Is Tabata still on the team?” “Didn’t they sign that pitcher that was on the Twins before?” These are the same fans that will endlessly debate the merits of a backup linebacker, or start arguments over who should be the left-winger on the checking line, but when it comes to the Pirates the general attitude is, “why does it matter?”

And it probably doesn’t. The Pirates aren’t a team that the fans let themselves get invested in. They still watch baseball here, but reluctantly, out of obligation.

After buying a round of Black Velvet shots for the whole bar, Preston and I were on our way. Through blustery spring snow we hitched a ride downtown and got to the stadium just in time for the sun to peek out. The crowd was energetic, but clearly beer-fueled and barely interested in baseball. The Pirates did nothing to change that in getting mowed down by Jeff Samardzija over the next few hours, and most of the rest of the next two weeks were more of the same.

Preston and I did our best to console the post-game crowd at the Korner — consoling that went deep into the night — but perhaps the saddest thing is that it was largely unnecessary.