I have rediscovered how my friend and fellow newspaper columnist, Sam Bundy, has felt in August for the past 20 years and counting.
I have become a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, shelving my lifelong love for the New York Yankees with a whimper: "Wait 'til next year." A horrendous string of injuries has decimated the Bronx Bombers, leaving the Yankees, at this writing, out of contention for a playoff spot, a feeling that Sam and the Pirates have known for almost forever.
True, the Yanks will still have a winning season, something that has eluded the Pirates for two decades. But I know that empty feeling, too. The Yankees had losing seasons from 1989-92, and earlier, in 1965-67. For the Yankees, missing a playoff berth is the equivalent of the Pirates finishing below .500, a disheartening, deflating denouement to the "hope springs eternal" of each new baseball season. So I am losing interest for the rest of this year.
And there is my distaste for Alex Rodriguez. He is close to catching Willie Mays in career home runs. Mays was a marvelous player. Rodriguez is an admitted drug-fueled robot. That makes watching him about as much fun as watching a man on a riding mower. We all know what actually cuts the grass.
I have always liked the Pirates. Pittsburgh and Cleveland were my likely places to see Major League games through my childhood. We got there on trips for paper boys, altar boys, Boy Scouts ... and I chuckle at today's journalists eschewing those terms in favor of politically correct "carriers," "altar servers" and "Scouts."
That dual allegiance nearly bifurcated me in 1960 when the Pirates and Yankees met in the World Series. I was a freshman at Gannon College. In those days, one TV set served an entire floor of dorm students, meaning that 50-plus cheering Pirates fans, and this one Yankee fan, watched the Pirates win 6-4, 3-2 and 5-2 - and the Yankees win 16-3, 10-0 and 12-0.
The final game ended up 10-9 Pittsburgh on a fluke ground ball chop to shortstop Tony Kubek's throat, and, yes, Bill Mazeroski's marvelous home run (See? I can be gracious!).
For the rest of my freshman year, I was ridiculed as "that loser Yankee fan," and other epithets fitting neither for this newspaper page nor for a Catholic college.
I didn't hate the 1960 Pirates for that win, though. How could I? The Yankees had Mickey Mantle, but the Pirates had Roberto Clemente. If you're a baseball fan, you remember or can imagine the entertainment revolving around watching either of those superb ballplayers, live or via black-and-white TV, or listening to radio announcers Mel Allen (Yankees) or Bob Prince (Pirates) narrate their exploits.
Since 1960, the fortunes of both teams have had their tidal cycles. The Pirates of an earlier drug-plagued era had their own problems, just as did the Yankees of the aforementioned losing seasons. Both teams reattained World Series championship status, though the Yanks have been more frequent claimants.
Not this year, though.
And the Pirates are entertaining. So I watch them often.
For most of their glory years, the Yankees have gotten one or two men on base, and then awaited a home run. Power baseball can be awe-inspiring.
But speed, from Clemente down through today's Andrew McCutchen and Starling (C'mon, hand; heal!) Marte, can be delightful. A few years back, I happened to watch a game when both McCutchen and now-Baltimore speedster Nate McClouth hit triples. McClouth went first and, rounding second, inspired "Wow!" with his zip.
McCutchen followed and, rounding second, his high gear made McClouth's previous effort look trot-like.
We didn't say "Wow!"
We just turned and looked at each other, open-mouthed.
Though Pirates fans hope for a playoff berth, they have an unspoken fear: Another late-season collapse that will produce yet another losing season.
I doubt that. But then again, and just to tighten the shoulder blades of Sam Bundy, the 2011 Red Sox went 7-20 in September; that same year, the Braves went 9-18. And who can forget the 1964 Phillies, up 6.5 games with 12 to play, losing 10 straight and the pennant race as well?
This year's Pirates seem unlikely to collapse. Pitching should preclude losing more than three in a row, and though the offense is light, the speed/power combination is there, if everyone keeps or regains health. Unhappily, the Pirates share a division with the St. Louis Cardinals, who possess enough potency and depth to not only win the pennant, but also plunge rivals Cincinnati and Pittsburgh out of wildcard contention.
Let's not be negative, though.
Just as pennant contenders employ "rent-a-player" tactics late in the season, I'm a "rent-the-Pirates" fan for this year, loving to put into print my delight at the success of what Sam Bundy calls "the team that must not be named" and ... Whoops! Sam! Did I jinx 'em?
We'll find out in October.