During the turmoil of the 1970s, Pittsburgh became known as the city of champions. Led by two very charismatic and colorful players—Roberto Clemente in 1971 and Willie Stargell in 1979—the Pirates won the World Series twice. Meanwhile, blessed with a bevy of players who would later be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, the Steelers won four Super Bowls during the decade. In addition, riding on the back of their superstar halfback, Tony Dorsett, the University of Pittsburgh won the NCAA Division I championship in 1976. These exploits helped residents of western Pennsylvania and fans of Pittsburgh teams living in other nearby areas deal with an otherwise dismal decade that included Vietnam, Watergate, an oil crisis, stagflation, the substantial decline of the steel industry, and a host of other maladies.
Pittsburgh teams have also enjoyed much success in years since. The Steelers triumphed in the Super Bowl in 2006 and 2009, making them the only team to win it six times. After winning the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992, the Penguins were victorious again in 2009. Both the Steelers and Penguins have very talented teams and seem poised to continue their high-caliber performance. The University of Pittsburgh has had several outstanding basketball teams in the new millennium. Moreover, when playing for championships, Pittsburgh professional teams have done amazing well: the Steelers are 6-1, the Penguins are 3-1, and the Pirates are 5-2 (having won their last three) for a combined record of 14-4.
So what do Pittsburgh fans have to complain about? Sadly, the recent ineptitude of the Pirates.
This week the Pirates set the record for the most consecutive losing seasons—17—of any franchise in the nation’s four major sports: baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. The Pirates’ championship drought is not nearly as long as that of the Cubs, the Red Sox before they won the World Series in 2004, or the White Sox before they won in 2005. Moreover, some of baseball’s best played for the Pirates, including Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, Arky Vaughan, Paul and Lloyd Waner, and Ralph Kiner. However, since 1992 their record has been miserable as they have won less than 44 percent of their games. During this time, as a result of questionable decisions—poor drafting, unwise trades, and risky signings of free agents—they have performed very poorly. Adding imprudent management and lackluster play to substandard talent is the perfect recipe for failure.
This especially grates upon one who first became cognizant of baseball as ten year-old in 1960 when the Pirates beat the mighty Yankees four games to three on Bill Mazeroski’s memorable walk-off homerun in the bottom of the ninth. Despite being outscored 55-27 in the series, the Pirates triumphed in David versus Goliath fashion. During the 1970s, the Pirates won more games than any other National League team, and in the early 1990s, led by the killer B’s—Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds, and others—the Pirates made the playoffs three consecutive years. However, all of that now seems like a distant memory with no relief from losing in sight.
Despite the success of some very well managed small-market teams, most notably the Marlins, Athletics, and Twins, teams with the largest payrolls have generally won the World Series. While high salaries and winning are not directly connected (despite their huge payrolls the Yankees have not won the World Series since 2000), they are significantly correlated. Without a salary cap like that of professional football and basketball, it seems very unlikely that small-market teams like the Pirates or Royals will ever be able to compete effectively.
So what can frustrated fans do? We can pretend baseball does not exist.
We can transfer our loyalties and root for another team. We can focus on teams in other sports in our home area that are doing well. We can hope for a miracle, perhaps to have "Angels in the Outfield," as the Pirates did in a 1951 movie when they were mired in a similar slump.
Or we can try to discover the benefits that come from defeat. Losing can help us be more gracious, forgiving, and empathetic with fans in other cities such as San Diego, Seattle, Buffalo, and Cleveland whose professional sports teams have never won a championship or not won one in decades. Coping with losing is very difficult in a society that glorifies success, especially in the sports world. However, neither the Bible nor modern psychology endorses the single-minded pursuit of success for its own sake, which our society pushes us to pursue. Dealing with the Pirates’ failure can perhaps help us cope more effectively with disappointments in other areas of life. It can also teach us the perennially useful traits of patience and perseverance.
— Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College, where he teaches Sports in American History. He is also a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values and the author of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2006).