PITTSBURGH -- How we love the rituals of summer: The sweet peaches and juicy melons. The long cool light of evening. The guilty-pleasure novels we wouldn't touch in winter. The rainbow following an afternoon shower. The pennant run of a ball club picked to go nowhere, determined to go where no expert thought it might.
We're having a wonderful summer here in Pittsburgh, a honeydew-and-rainbow kind of summer, a dreamy season of high spirits and high hopes. Our local ball team, for two decades a patchwork of has-beens (superannuated refugees from somewhere else) and will-bes (angular young men poised for greatness, always somewhere else), is on one of those July highs that make for summer reveries, and sometimes for autumn obloquies and occasionally for midsummer meditations like this one, on the vanity of human wishes and the futility of men left on base.
I've written this column before, or one embarrassingly like it, maybe last year, maybe the year before. Our Pittsburgh Pirates, our Bucs -- that's short for buccaneers, a word whose derivation, from French, has something to do with smoked meat, which is how the team finished the season the last two years -- were for a time last week the very best team in baseball.
That's a bit like saying that for a time (January 1883, when he signed the Pendleton Act for civil-service reform) Chester A. Arthur was the very best president of the post-bellum years. What really matters is the identity of the very best team in baseball at the end of the World Series, and the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers and the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies stand as examples of really good teams that collapsed on the path to glory. They are the baseball equivalents of President Samuel J. Tilden. (Look him up. He's not on your presidential ruler.)
Now we're at the All-Star break and there are the usual chinks in the armor visible in our team of destiny, or maybe a team destined to disappoint. The other night, a steamy one at our lovely ballyard on the Allegheny, Jeff Locke pitched a beaut of a game but had no offensive support. A nice performance, three hits in seven innings -- wasted.
One of the many delights of this team is Locke, barely named to the starting rotation in April, only to be named to the All-Star Game in July. You should know that he's from the tiny village of Redstone, N.H., and that New Hampshire's own Alan B. Shepard Jr., rode a Redstone booster into space in 1961, but it was the great Lloyd Jones, chronicler of the White Mountains sports scene, who had the wit to dub him the Redstone Rocket. Take that, Roger Clemens.
Last year's Pirates did have a whiff of the buccaneer to them, all swashbuckle but, alas, no belt. This season's team seems to be sailing more of a sloop than a pirate ship, with a couple of headsails (Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte) forward of the mast. Not that there's smooth sailing ahead. Pirates fans know these waters.
Indeed, the curious thing is that, as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said in an entirely different context, the hope still lives and the dream doesn't seem ready to die at PNC Park this summer. Even amid a worrisome losing streak last week, there was a special grace to these Bucs, a lyricism in how Marte pulled down a long fly in left, right there at the warning path, and then flipped the ball to a child in the bleachers in one long legato motion; or in how McCutchen exceeds expectations not only at the plate during the game but also along the third base side beforehand, lingering longer than any All Star, signing all manner of baseballs, programs and uniform shirts.
These men are the boys of a generation's summer, if only.
Because every generation of sports fans, in every city, but especially this generation of Bucs fans, deserves a summer seared in memory -- a summer romance with the crackle of a play-by-play announcer as our song, unforgettable as a first kiss, as tingly in memory as in the moment, maybe more so.
And all the more beautiful the more unexpected it is.
That's why all of the baseball faithful, except maybe for Reds and Cardinals fans, are going to be Pirates partisans once the game resumes after its annual July intermission. It's not only because the Pirates have the longest string of losing seasons in the history of American big-time pro sports. It's also because it's almost as stirring to watch a love story as to live one.
We're living it, "Casablanca" by the river bank, and what all of you beyond the Allegheny Mountains are watching may be the quiet transformation of the sporting culture of an entire region.
Since the 1974 draft, which produced four NFL Hall of Famers, the Steelers have ruled here. The Penguins, despite their June collapse in the Stanley Cup playoffs, are a team possessed of great ingenuity on the ice and great insights in the front office.
That left the Pirates as the forgotten men of the three rivers, resented for bungling season after season, reviled by true fans for despoiling their jewel of a ballpark with senseless between-innings distractions that seemed designed to be so mindless that the performances on the field might seem artful by comparison. Monday night's horror show, a new low if I didn't know better: several Jumbotron minutes of Pirates players discussing which day of the week they disliked the most.
Now people in Pittsburgh are falling in love again, with baseball -- a game of surpassing beauty, with its own rhythms and its mysterious inner integrity, marred only by the designated hitter rule that, I am happy to say, does not apply in these precincts. They are falling in love with these Pirates, and also with the idea of being in love. There hasn't been a postseason baseball game here since the presidency of George H.W. Bush.
So bring it on, with hearts and flowers, and a Whitman's sampler of chocolates, and moonlight and love songs, never out of date. It's an as-time-goes-by kind of moment here in Pittsburgh -- you can sense it in the streets and in the stands -- for it's still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die.
It could happen. It might. Let's hope, this summer, here.
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