Three weeks ago, the long-suffering fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates (and when I say long, I mean really, really long) were finally able to shed that King Kong they'd been lugging on their aching backs for two decades. The Buccos' 1-0 victory against the Texas Rangers on Sept. 9 was their 82nd of the season, meaning that for the first time since 1992 the Pirates had secured a winning record. The longest streak of losing seasons in North American major sports history was mercifully over.
Few people were happier to see an end to the futility than 1966 Charlotte High School graduate Lanny Frattare.
"The people I'm happiest for are those long-time fans who somehow never lost the faith,'' says the man who spent 33 seasons as the radio voice of the Pirates and now teaches sports broadcasting at Waynesburg University, about 45 minutes south of the Steel City. "They had to have the patience of Job, and that patience has finally been rewarded."
From 1976 through 2008, Frattare broadcast more than 5,000 Pirates games, a franchise record. He fondly recalls the 1979 season, when Willie Stargell repeatedly launched baseballs into the upper decks of Three Rivers Stadium and Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" became the team's unofficial anthem as Pittsburgh defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Frattare also has cherished memories of the three-year playoff run of the early 1990s, when he chronicled a Jim Leyland-managed club that came within a whisker of returning to the Fall Classic.
But after former Pirate Sid Breem, who boasted glacial speed, slid home and barely beat the tag with the winning run for the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series of '92, there wasn't much joy in Mudville. Pittsburgh baseball fell into an abyss, from which the Pirates seemed destined never to escape.
This once-celebrated franchise became an unending source of ridicule. Comedy writers had a field day:
"The Pittsburgh Pirates have fired first base coach Lou Frazier. The team didn't think Frazier's job was necessary because their players never reach first base."
"The Pittsburgh Pirates have signed two javelin-throwing, reality show participants who have never played organized baseball. It's nice to know they'll have something in common with the rest of the team."
"Suspected pirates have taken shots at U.S. ships. There were no injuries to the crew, and the ship wasn't damaged. Apparently, the pirates failed to hit anything-which means they must have been Pittsburgh Pirates."
And you Bills fans thought you had it rough?
Finally, after two decades of revolving doors that saw seven managerial changes, five different general managers and two ownerships, the small-market, low-budget Pirates seem to have finally gotten it right. Nobody is laughing at them anymore. After so many years of playing second fiddle to the Super Bowl champion Steelers and Stanley Cup champion Penguins, the Pirates have been rediscovered by Pittsburghers.
"I'll run into people at the supermarket or when I'm out to dinner, and they'll say, 'Hey, Lanny, how 'bout the Buccos?'" Frattare says. "Pirate-mania is everywhere. People are talking about it on the street, at the water cooler, in classrooms and on the talk shows. It's such a compelling story, not only here but throughout baseball."
The Pirates have become sentimental favorites, America's team, if you will. Although I'm a lifelong Yankees fan, I'd been rooting for the Buccos to break this cursed streak for several years because Pittsburgh is one of my favorite cities and I hate to see such a proud franchise and its fans go through these stretches. (It should be noted that I don't hold a grudge against Pirates legend Bill Mazeroski because I didn't start following the Yankees until 1961, a year after Maz's Game 7, ninth-inning home run beat the Bronx Bombers in the World Series and made Mickey Mantle cry.) I have mostly pleasant memories of the Buccos, particularly of the regal Roberto Clemente, who roamed right field with such elegance and had the best arm I've ever witnessed.
"Pittsburgh has always been a wonderful baseball city," Frattare says. "But when you start stringing together as many losing seasons as the Pirates did, you risk becoming irrelevant and having people turn their attention to other teams in town that are having success. I never doubted people would return in droves if you gave them a reason to."
Frattare's predecessor and mentor, Bob Prince, would tell listeners, "We had 'em all the way," after Pirates victories. Lanny's signature call was "No doubt about it." And current Pirates voice Greg Brown (who spent five years as a Bills radio analyst) has continued the tradition with his "Raise the Jolly Roger" victory line.
"The flag companies are selling thousands upon thousands of those Jolly Rogers, thanks to Greg's great end-of-the-game slogan," Frattare says. "It's all part of Pirate-mania."
And that mania has been stoked, in part, by former Rochester Red Wings stars Francisco Liriano, Garrett Jones and Justin Morneau, each of whom has contributed to the Pirates' first postseason appearance in a generation. Frattare, who retired five years ago because he had grown weary of traveling, has enjoyed watching it all unfold.
"I think with all the negative stories associated with performance-enhancing drugs and such, baseball really needed a feel-good story like this," he says. "Everyone likes a tale of the underdog sticking with it and finally succeeding."
I know I do, which is why I'm pulling for those Buccos this October. I'm hoping to raise that Jolly Roger numerous times.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.
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