Welcome to the latest installment of the Ironic Jersey Omnibus. The mission of the Omnibus remains constant: to catalogue the jersey choices available to fans and discuss which, when worn, convey unspoken sentiment to one’s fellow man. Today, we venture into the Steel City to discuss the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Being a baseball fan can make a person feel helpless. We’re so vital in our own lives: we get people to fall in love with us and kill each other in automobile accidents and learn how to skydive and quilt. But when we go to a game, we become a smudge of color, a tiny fraction of the din, an unformed emotion in the periphery. We devote our energy and emotion to the game of baseball and it scarcely knows we exist. It knocks us down and never apologizes, again and again.
Such is particularly the case for the baseball fans of Pittsburgh, whose team seems to roll and pound like the tide. After twenty years drowning in the undertow, the modern incarnation of the Pirates seems to be teetering on the crest, trying to maintain their balance. After a magical 2013, this year the team has managed to maintain some playoff aspirations despite early prognostications and performance. For their fans, a fall into the familiar depths would be more painful than most; who knows when they might resurface next time.
Sitting on the razor’s edge, then, a Pirates jersey is a far more political statement than most: it casts you among the optimists or the pessimists. Like the Pirates themselves, there is no room for in between.
For the haters, the franchise has delivered no shortage of examples to reflect your ire:
1993 Jeff King: The former #1 pick flashed just enough talent to whet the appetite, and arrived just in time to deliver a new dynasty in a post-Bonds era. As a hero, he was miscast. King was an introverted man, uncomfortable with the spotlight and increasingly resentful about everything besides playing baseball that makes up baseball. He wandered around the defensive spectrum and underwent heavy streaks, both hot and cold, before he and the game both grew tired of each other. A Jeff King jersey is a declaration of weariness, almost to the degree of despair. Use only in case of emergency.
2004 Ian Snell: Another famed malcontent, Snell was never really bad in his three-plus seasons with the Pirates; he just never managed to be good. He’s one of those little disappointments that bad teams give their fans, like a Magic Eye with no picture inside: the hopeful fan strains his eyes, desperate to find anything more than a gooey blur. He was eventually shipped to Seattle for equally disappointing Jeff Clement, also a good choice for demonstrating hatred for The Youth.
1986 Sammy Khalifa: The reason to wear this jersey is so that you can tell people the story of Sammy Khalifa. That’s the only reason, but it’s worth it.
2007 Matt Morris: Object of perhaps not technically the worst trade in Pirates history, but unquestionably the most clueless. The Pirates gave away a useful player in Rajai Davis, but that was never the concern: it was that a cash-strapped, hobbled team suddenly took on $20 million in salary for a broken, ineffective starter in Morris. The lefty gave the Pirates 16 starts, and gave his opponents 75 runs in 84 innings. It showed that GM Dave Littlefield had no plan, no vision, and that fans had no reason to hope.
For those seeking to provide a more positive outlook:
1979 Kent Tekulve: The Pirates, it must be forcibly remembered, have had a couple of great dynasties amidst their failure. The 1979 World Champion team was loaded with talent, and it’s justifiable to represent this loyalty with a Madlock or even a Parker (though Stargell is a little too obvious). My choice is Tekulve, the gangly bespectacled closer and fan favorite.
1992 Mike LaValliere: The great Pirates teams of the early nineties, slain by the traitorous Sid Bream, are best remembered for their stars: Bonds, Bonilla, Drabek, and Van Slyke. The latter is a solid choice, but again my cut is slightly deeper: the rotund, mustachioed catcher LaValliere. Any kid who collected baseball cards in the junk wax era took one look at his bad, bad body and his pathetic home run totals and chalked him up as a bust. In reality, despite a heavy platoon, LaValliere was a fine defensive catcher and an OBP machine, posting above .350 five straight seasons. Maybe Van Slyke is the better choice; certainly, he resounds. But LaValliere deserves better. The Pirates needed more guys like him to get them over the top.
1995 John Hope: A little too obvious, but sometimes you have to be direct.
1983 Rick Rhoden: The 80s Pirates were nothing special, and neither was Rhoden, who consumed enough counting stats to form a respectable career. Nobody ate innings like Rhoden, whose slightly-above-average skills in every category brought him four- and five-win seasons. He was also a hell of a golfer. But what Rick Rhoden symbolizes as well as anyone is the value, for both baseball player and fan, for just showing up. Perseverance is an underrated trait.
But unlike many franchises, there’s only one truly perfect choice.
1997 Kevin Polcovich: The kid who was famously bagging groceries in Spring Training became the unofficial mascot of the Freak Show Pirates. Every once in a while a terrible team will seize a city’s heart: it’s the foundation of just about every rags-to-riches sports film, the narrative drive every bad franchise seeks in its planned ascendency from the depths. The 1997 Pirates had a payroll nearly half as low as the second-lowest team in baseball, or less than the salary of Albert Belle alone. Despite this they hung around the NL Central until September, finishing five back of the Astros. It was the ultimate example of house money, and a Polcovich jersey represents not just being there, but being able to enjoy the tiny crumbs of joy that make up the majority of the baseball experience.
As always, your thoughts and alternatives are welcome in the comments.
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