For a very long time, I’ve remembered October 12, 1992. Game 4 of the 1992 NLCS. The only Pittsburgh Pirates playoff game that I’ve ever attended. In fact, it was the only playoff game of any sort that I’d attended until Saturday, when I went to see the Penguins play the Hurricanes in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Raleigh.
It was every bit as much fun as you probably imagine it was. The Pens rolled over the ‘Canes with Crosby and Malkin dominating the play and there were enough Penguins fans there that everyone had someone to celebrate and revel in the victory with in the stands. It’s one of the things that makes being a Pittsburgh fan truly special; the ability to walk up to a random man in a Tom Barrasso jersey in an arena 500 miles from the Igloo, high-five him, and say, “You know, I always liked Kenny Wregget better,” just to get the pseudo-shocked reaction that still comes 10 years after “Wregget vs. Barrasso” was any sort of meaningful debate.
That kind of fellowship isn’t necessarily exclusive to the playoffs. After the Pirates/Orioles game at Camden Yards last year, there was plenty of mutual griping about the Pirates among the larger-than-expected Pittsburgh contingent on hand in Baltimore that night. Before the game started, some random man in a Pirate hat came up to me and asked me if I thought Freddy Sanchez was ever going to break out of his slump. My friends had to pull me away from the conversation with this guy, because we would’ve talked about the Pirates forever in the streets, even though we’d just met.
What’s different is the way the games resonate. I still remember the feeling leaving Three Rivers after the Pirates lost Game 4 in ’92. They’d fallen behind 3-1 in the series at that point and the series loss seemed inevitable. As we walked out of the park, I felt like I’d never be happy again. When the Pirates lost to Baltimore last year, I felt kind of like I feel after one of those times you stab yourself in the gum when you’re brushing your teeth. It hurts a little bit, but then you move on with your day. On the opposite end of that, I was on an incredibly high leaving the RBC Centre on Saturday night. Every Pens’ fan there was beaming; since last June we’ve all wanted a rematch with Detroit and after Saturday’s win, it was finally starting to seem real. I got home on Saturday and I couldn’t sleep. I watched SportsCenter twice. I paced around my apartment for like two hours. Conversely, the Pirates won an incredibly thrilling game on Sunday and I thought, “That’s cool,” and went in to lab.
The difference in the two experiences, though, is huge. As the game on Saturday slowly turned more and more in the Penguins’ favor, the Hurricanes fans brought out what was clearly their favorite taunt. “BANDWAGON FANS!” they screamed at us, “DID YOU EVEN WATCH HOCKEY BEFORE 2006?!?” This was the ultimate pot/kettle moment coming from a fanbase that wasn’t even filling their arena in February when it looked like they were going to miss the playoffs (I know; I was there), but the implication stings nonetheless. You couldn’t hack it. Your team sucked, and you couldn’t stick with them, and now your only back because they’re good. There’s nothing worse to be accused of as a fan.
But there’s always some truth in accusations like that. It’s never easy to care about a bad team the same way that you do about a good one because the lows are so endless and the highs are only high in relation to the depths that the team has plunged to. The one thing that we have to cling to as Pirate fans is that real highs seem like Mount Everest after you’ve been in the Grand Canyon. I talked to a decent amount of Penguin fans on Saturday and it seemed like every single conversation drew back to the same place. “I can’t believe we’re here when things were so bad just a few years ago.” No matter who brought it up, the other person would nod and then everyone would start name-dropping Dick Tarnstrom and Ramzi Abid and other guys from those teams. The fans that stick with it through the dark times are always the ones rewarded the most when things turn around.