Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Well Done to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"Welcome to Pittsburgh; the City of Champions (oh yeah and the Pirates)

That was a familiar saying in Pittsburgh over the last years. In the last decade the Pittsburgh Steelers have had a pretty decent time of things; winning 2 Superbowls and losing one, the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey have also fared well with a Stanley cup win and a couple of deep playoff runs. The Pirates however had for the past 20 years been the odd one out and were for some the butt of the sporting jokes, not only in Pittsburgh but in whole North American sports scene. I am delighted to say that the year 2013 has changed all that.

For those that don't follow or know much about baseball i will explain the history of it a little. In America having a "500" season or better seems to be a big thing.  The 500 basically means winning 50% of the games that you play or in other words winning more games that you lose. "A winning season" is how lots of American sports broadcasters phrase it. The last time the Pirates had a winning season was 1992, meaning that the club had one of the longest losing sequences of the 4 main North American sports, in history. It would be fair to say that the club had become a bit of a joke. It is hard to imagine this happening to a sports side in the UK because the system is very different to that in the US. In America there is no relegation so if you finish bottom you just get the highest pick in the draft and have another go next year. This means that clubs can stagnate if they go though a period of losing seasons and struggle to progress as fans drift away meaning less income for the side to attract the better free agents. It then becomes a very hard circle to break and in Pittsburgh's case when you have other sports teams in the City that are winning and attracting more investment, it makes it even harder.

That's not to say however that the Pirates haven't been successful in the past because they most certainly have, they competed in the first ever world championship series in 1903, and have won a very respectable 5 world series titles, placing them joint 7th on the all time number of championship wins record. Their last win came in 1979 (the year i was born) so a lot of fans have never seen them challenging for championships and unless you were following them in 1992, you will not have seen the Buccos in playoff/post season action. In baseball you play quite alot of games in a season 162 to be exact which has meant an awful lot of losing for the Pirates.
In the 6 or 7 years i have been following Pittsburgh sports i must admit i have taken a keen interest in the Pirates, not quite as much as the Steelers, but i have tried to follow their results and news about the side as closely as i could. In 2010 the side won a paltry 57 games; in came new manager Clint Hurdle and the recovery began. By mid July the side were well above the 500 mark and leading the NL Central division, I knew that whenever i got my arse over to Pittsburgh i was going to take in a game and that is exactly what i did.

Although the NFL is my favourite American sport, for me baseball really is "America's game". Tickets are reasonably priced and given the amount of games that teams play, (sometimes 5 or 6 a week) it means most people get a chance to see their team and with it being a summer sport i can think of few better ways to watch sport than an afternoon/evening at the ballpark. Its also the nearest thing Americans have to cricket so that's another reason why it's always appealed to me. And finally, having supported Lincoln City for the best part of 20 years with the majority of it being full of crushing disappointments and out and out failure, i had a natural bond and understanding with the long suffering Pirate's fans.

I spent the last couple of days of my American adventure in Pittsburgh and i have to say it is a fantastic city and one that i can't wait to return to. Its clean, stylish, and what's more its a huge drinking town. My kind of City really. We had tickets to see the Pirates take on the Colorado Rockies on the Friday evening. As i was flying back to the UK on the Saturday i didn't want to be drinking a huge amount on game day (hangovers, airports, and flying aren't great bedfellows in my experience). So to counter this on the Thursday night we ventured over to the Southside of Pittsburgh to met friends, knock back a few drinks and watch the Pirates on TV. We rocked up at Pipers Pub at just gone 7 to eat drink and make merry.

Piper's is the main "Soccer" pub in the Burgh that also does cracking British food. Now don't get me wrong i really loved all the American style food that i consumed while i was over there (and i ate alot i hasten to add) but it was nice to eat something that wasn't burger orientated. Now that i have been back in the UK for a few months i find myself missing the Stateside grub. The McDonalds over here aren't patch on the ones in America, over there you get double quarter pounders, larger portions, better big Macs, Root beer to drink etc. We are certainly the poor relatives on that score. Plus the staff in the States speak better English than 90% of the ones in the UK. Its a bit like spending two weeks having sex with Katy Perry.. then coming back to a lifetime of Jo Brand.

Anyway back to the point. The Pirates were taking on the Cardinals They had already won the three game series and were going for the sweep. However as we knocked back the pints the Cardinals piled on the runs. Oh well i told myself, the Pirates were saving themselves for the next night, nothing to worry about, another day another game and all that.

So the next day arrived as did a slight hangover. The morning was spent looking around Heinz field (the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers) followed by a tour of the City on the gateway clipper. Looking around the city you could tell that the city had caught "Buccs fever" Pretty much everywhere you looked there were people wearing Pirates shirts and hats etc. The best one i saw was a chap in a T-shirt that said "I followed the Pirates when it wasn't cool to". This seemed a feeling that a lot of long time Pirates fan had that i spoke to/overheard at the game. The Pirates have had quite a few sell outs this season as alot of fans have jumped on the bandwagon; its amazing what a few wins does isn't it? From what i can gather the same thing happened with the Penguins. When they were awful; "sucked" as they say in America, tickets were easy and quite cheap to get hold of. Now they are exactly  the opposite on both counts, thus pricing many long time hockey fans out of the market. I hope that the same thing doesn't  happen to the Pirates' fan base as the club continues to be successful, and hopefully due to the number of games there are in a MLB season, it wont.

Both the Steeler's Heinz field stadium, and the Pirates PNC park stadium, are on Pittsburgh's north shore. For those who don't know, Pittsburgh is built around three rivers and has more bridges than any other City in the world. I picked up that pearl of wisdom from our tour guide on the river tour. I wish i could remember more of what she said but i was too busy just taking in the sights. Both stadiums however looked fantastic. From looking at pictures and watching the NFL on TV, i have to say that most stadiums are unique and pretty spectacular. Its very strange to me, given that most of the MLS stadiums are very drab looking Lego brick style small stadiums built in the middle of nowhere. For those wondering, from what i saw "Soccer" is still miles behind the big four American sports. I bought a paper everyday of my stay in the US and the only mention soccer got in the press was the score form the All Stars game in USA Today. Not a match report, not a peep. Nor was it on TV, the large sports rolling news channels being far more interested in what NFL players had for breakfast in training camp than soccer. Before my trip i held the view that the MLS was to world football and the American public as a whole, what ice hockey and the EIHL is to the ice hockey world and the British sporting public. I am delighted to say that for once i was right. There a few folks watching the Inter v Chelsea game on the small screen in the pub while we watched the buccos but that was as far as it went. US fans are still very much far more interested in top level European football than the MLS and in all probability, always will be.

Anyway i digress a little, back to the baseball. We rocked up at the stadium with about an hour till the first pitch. The subway system in Pittsburgh is clean, on time, and if you are in the central zone, totally free. Everything the London underground isn't. First thing we did when we arrived was simply to walk around the ground and just soak up the atmosphere which was fantastic. Fans were drinking beer, chilling with friends, and generally having a great time, you could tell that the feel good factor was most definitely back in the City. Although thanks to my friend, host and fantastic tour guide Danielle, i already have a decent range of Pirates jerseys but there was one piece of Pirates merchandise that i just had to get my mitts on, and that was a Pirate Parrot hat. What? I hear you ask? Well let me explain, the Pirates mascot is a parrot and to honour him the club have started selling parrot hats which is basically a hat with a Parrots head on, beak and all, and in my opinion it's quite cool. Not many of the locals seemed to be wearing them so i can only conclude that they normally appeal to kids and eccentric British tourists like me. So the first thing that i did once i got inside the stadium was to rush to one of the merchandise stalls inside and part with my $28 dollars and purchase the famous hat. Now i have taken a fair bit of flack on both sides of the Atlantic for this purchase but am i bothered? Not one bit, its what one does when one is being a tourist. And there are far worse things in America to spend ones hard earned cash on.

As i went into the stadium before my friends, i was on my own in finding our seats. Now i have been in 188 football stadiums and quite a few other sports stadiums and never really had a problem trying to find out where i was suppose to be heading, and although some of them are pretty basic that even a Grimsby Town  fan could find their way around, i have successful found our seats in much bigger stadiums when Felice, for example, has been totally lost and needed his bacon saving. However PNC Park well and truly beat me.

It started well however. As this was free shirt Friday, everybody who entered the stadium received a free T-Shirt, and after collecting a shirt i got my hands on the programme. Now the programme was a mixture. On the plus side it was free which is always good. However about 3/4 of it is adverts, it did however cover three series so you can read about three sides; if you persevere through all the food adverts.

Oh and speaking of food, as this was my last full day with Uncle Sam, i had decided to do something different at the game and convinced Danielle to book us in the all you can eat section. Which basically means you can stuff your face all game for free,well its not free as the tickets are more expensive, but you get my point. I figured that at $42 and all you can eat, it was a decent deal. To put it into context at the time the Pirates had the best record in the MLB so i was paying £28 to watch at the time the best baseball side in the USA/World with a free programme,T-shirt and all the food and soda i could eat/drink thrown in. Now try getting a deal like that at whichever club is top of the Premiership at the time you read this. (Arsenal at the moment whose tickets are about £60 i believe)  Good luck with that, and it puts Lincoln City's £18 to watch 5th division crap into perspective.

So with programme, t-shirt and parrot hat in hand, i set off on a quest to find our section. After a couple of complete laps and looking at countless maps i admitted defeat and asked a steward, I was then pointed to a lift which took me up to the area where our seats were. Phew. However with hindsight the walk around the stadium was good for me as i got to see all areas of it and the views from each section. I did however miss the first couple of pitches but at i was too excited to worry about that. I did miss seeing who sung the anthem with is a huge part of an American sporting experience. When star spangled banner is sung everybody stops, stands up, removes their hats, and belts it out with pride. I for one like to see this and its a stark contrast to how we act when God save the Queen is sung, when we all stand up and look embarrassed as we attempt to mime our way through the first two verses (we would struggle through the whole thing which is why i think we only blast out the first two verses). The Americans play their anthem before almost every sports game from highschool games, through to the pro leagues, and good for them.

Now i am no baseball expert. All the stats and numbers go completely over my head. My pre game know how of the rules was very simple. Hit the ball, run and don't get caught, or run out. Oh and you get three attempts to hit the ball after that you are out. Then if a side gets three players out the other side gets a go. Each side has 9 innings and if its all level then its sudden death. That's the very basics of it but there is much more to it that that.
For example there is a first base and third base coach who's job seems to be to tell the players when to run and not to run. It may sound an easy job but i bet there must be more to it than that. It does seem strange that there is no second base coach. It must get lonely and tough for a batter on second without guidance from the coach. The Rockies drew first blood however but thankfully the Pirates were soon level, this however was short lived as the Rockies raced into a 4-1 lead as the the Pirates' rookie pitcher struggled. Not that the hitters did much better. If it could go wrong it did do. Although it has to be said that the Rockies did do a couple of nice double plays that got two hitters out on the same play.
The Pirates may have been struggling a tad on the field but help was on hand off it in the form of the all you can eat offer. Basically as you enter the section you get a wrist band which you just flash at the food vending section and help yourself to as much food as you can stuff down you. To that end i managed to wolf my way through 3 hot dogs, 2 boxes of popcorn, 2 bags of peanuts, (the large ones that you have to de-shell), a tray of nachos with cheese sauce (i wasn't too keen on the sauce but i forced it down), oh and two large root beers. I probably could have eaten more but i didn't want to miss too much of the game and risk not seeing the Pirates late comeback, if indeed there was to be one.

Sadly there was to be no way back for the Pirates this evening. They did pull one back in the 9th and threatened to get another but alas they fell to defeat. Even though they had lost, the fans still stuck behind the team. Had this been football over here then the fans would have lost patience and shouted all manor of obscenities. The worst things i heard at the game were fans crying for the manager to "Get the Bull pen rolling man" which meant get another pitcher on as the one pitching was struggling a tad, and the old favourite " Man/Dude that sucks". A day at the ball game is a real family event and everybody goes out to have a real good time. Not to get trashed and pretend to try and start a fight, that realm seems to be reserved by the MLS as they try to copy some of the English "firms" and fail miserably.

During inning's breaks the entertainment doesn't stop. Between some innings Pirate Parrot loads up his air gun and shoots out hotdogs into the crowd (not that we needed them of course). In the next innings he would shoot out T-shirts into the crowd. All jolly good stuff in my humble opinion. Wish we would do something like that. Actually given that 95% of food served up in British sports stadiums is shite, people would be ducking to avoid the half cooked rancid tripe being fired at them. During the break between the 6th and 7th innings everybody gets up and sings the old baseball favourite song "Take me out to the Ball game" I have no idea if this is a thing that all clubs do but i am guessing that it is. Of course i didn't know the words, tune or anything, so i just stood there looking a tad embarrassed.

As i we trudged back to the subway station it dawned on me that these were my last few hours in America. I had had a fantastic time and the experience of a lifetime. Before i had left for Amercia i thought that Pittsburgh was my kind of town and now i am convinced of it. Its a fantastic city, great bars, and has a history of its sports teams getting out there and winning championships; not just talking about winning them. Walking back to the hotel a guy was coming the other way. Just as we approached he stopped, leant on the wall and threw his guts up, looked as us then said as cool as you like "Sorry brother", as we walked in opposite directions he again threw up. 

And what about the Pirates? Well as soon as i was on the plane for home they rediscovered their winning form. By the end of the season they had smashed the 500 mark by recording an impressive 94 wins. It wasn't quite enough to win the division but it did send them into the post season. They were to fall eventually to St Louis in the divisional series (effectively the 1/4 finals) but they took it all the way before losing the series 3-2. They may have lost, but they gained the respect of the American sporting public and more importantly, the City of Pittsburgh.

And as for America? No words that i could write here could sum up how great a time i had over there. In the weeks after I returned home people asked me what was the best thing about the States, now it may sound cheesy, but i have to say that the main thing i will take away from my time there was the openess and friendliness of the people there. I met some truly fantastic people over there and i can't thank everybody enough. There are too many folks to mention but i need to give a very special mention to Danielle for planning everything and her wonderful parents for looking after me. Oh and Artemis the cat for tolerating my presence in his kingdom. Until next time..

LET'S GO BUCCS!!!!!!!!