Friday, July 5, 2013

"The Year", The Pittsburgh Pirates, And The Truth.

The phrase has passed the lips of every fan of every team of every sport at one point or another: "This could be the year."  It's more talisman than utterance, more affirmation than statement.  It's saying the magic words, an incantation to the team and invocation of the Gods.  It's not an every-season thing, obviously, because sometimes the writing is just plain on the wall, and your team is not coming within a stone's throw of success, even if they're using a catapult.  But sometimes, we say it and we mean it.  With enough luck, if most of the team stays mostly healthy, if things break right at the perfect time or at least avoid breaking poorly and the worst possible moment, it becomes a truth and a hope and a dream.  "This could be the year."

And as fans, the meaning of that phrase is a given.  No one has to ask what "The Year" is, because it's the same thing for everyone: a championship.  Champagne and jubilation and your team riding on parade floats down your city's main avenue.  That's what you envision when you invoke the magic words.  "The Year" is this rosy, diaphanous thing in the lexicon of every fanbase.  Every fanbase, that is, save one. 

If you happen to root for the Pittsburgh Pirates, "The Year" is almost assuredly not concerned with the World Series.  You've probably heard, but the Bucs have a sustained track record of ineptitude to rival that of any organization in sports.  (Yes, I am aware that the Charlotte Bobcats exist.)  To wit: The Pirates have finished with a sub-.500 record every season for two decades.  That a team could miss the playoffs for twenty straight years seems statistically improbable; that a team could fail to win even half their games for twenty consecutive seasons defies belief, yet that's exactly what the Pirates have done.  Last time the Bucs won more games than they lost in a year, the first President Bush was in the Oval Office, Boyz II Men's "End Of The Road" was #1 on Billboard's Hot 100, and the term "email" had yet to be coined.  I imagine that, if any Pirates fan has used the phrase "this could be the year" in the two abysmal decades since, they weren't thinking about October glory so much as just a nice, pleasant season in which the team managed to win more than 81 games. 

To that end, it appears that this may in fact be "The Year" for the Pirates.  Here is a thing which is true: Pittsburgh has the best record in baseball right now.  Not the NL Central, or even the NL, period.  In all of baseball.  Again: Pittsburgh.  Best.  Record.  In baseball.  This is not a typographical error. 

Despite such an encouraging start, there is, of course, plenty of fretting among the Bucs faithful.  Cautious optimism is the only kind that fanbase has known for a long time, and even a first half as auspicious as this year's is no guarantee of anything.  (See: 2012.)  There are real baseball concerns like whether or not the pitching staff can continue their superlative performance through the stretch drive.  There is also, because it's the Pirates we're talking about after all, irrational, fatalistic dread. It's the sort of apprehension that comes from having watched a team repeatedly, completely, utterly wilt after (if not long before) the All-Star break.  They're waiting for the other shoe (injury? surging Reds team?  Inexplicable decline?) to drop.  Twenty years of abject misery will to that to a body.  Twenty years and one of the slowest, most perfectly mustachioed baserunners in the history of the game. 

Sid Bream's slide in 1992 effectively murdered baseball in Pittsburgh.  As a Braves fan, it was one of the great moments of my young sports-watching life, but I can see how, given everything that's happened to the Bucs since, that slide has come to embody the whole sorry mess of bad trades and worse luck and collapse after collapse after collapse.  (I was at Turner Field last year for the 20th Anniversary commemoration/bobblehead giveaway of the Sid Slid game, and there was a guy a few rows down from us wearing a Pirates cap and a homemade t-shirt that read: "Twenty years of lies.  Sid Bream was out.")  And I get it.  It's the same pathos that causes me to refer, to this day, to a long-retired Minnesota Twin as "Kent F****** Hrbek" or Red Sox fans to still call a 61-year-old man "Bucky F****** Dent" or Clevelanders to call pretty much everything "Awful, Demoralizing, Heartbreaking F****** Sports."  Some moments you just never let go of. 

Admittedly, I used to revel in the Pirates' failures.  They were the Braves' fiercest NL competition for two or three seasons, and a heated rivalry flared up during the incredible '91 and '92 NCLS.  Thing is, that rivalry was ultimately too short-lived, with too little history attached, to really hold water two decades removed from its inception.  I'll never stop hating, say, the Phillies, but I long ago discarded any real animosity for the Bucs.  Which brings me to a sentence and a sentiment that little-kid me who watched Sid Bream's slide could never have imagined writing.  I am rooting, actively and more than a little fervently, for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  And so should you, if you have a heart.  Root for them because not even Bills fans are this miserable and the Bucs faithful need something, anything, good to happen.  Root for them because it's a fun team miraculously playing over their heads and Clint Hurdle seems like a good guy.  Root for them because watching a team, finally, mercifully get off this kind of historical schneid is gratifying and even a little life-affirming.  Mostly, root for them because every fan should be able to say the magic words from time to time, with hope resting in the truth of possibility.  Root for them because, after all, this could be the year. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Brief Time Well Spent: Michael Turner And JoAnna James

A few days ago, the first reports surfaced on ESPN and other outlets that the Falcons were likely going to cut Michael Turner sometime this offseason.  A few brilliant playoff moments aside, our workhorse back has seen his production decline at a near-precipitous rate over the past few seasons.  You didn't even need to check the stats to recognize that The Burner was not really himself anymore.  He was right there on the TV screen, hitting the hole with zero force of impact, his legs no longer churning with the implacable force that once made him so difficult to bring down.  Of course, not all or even most of this is Turner's fault.  Former OC Mike Mularkey wore him out prematurely with a staggering amount of carries despite having the personnel to distribute the backfield workload far more equitably.  The loss of Ovie Mughelli, whose ability to clear a path for the ball carrier cannot be overstated, didn't help either.  It was inevitable, given the circumstances, that such a physical back would lose the explosiveness that made him special.  The overwhelming consensus seems to be that Turner's time in the ATL is at a close. 

There is a tendency among fans to slightly (or occasionally dramatically) overvalue our own.  Because we watch our teams with more frequency than any others, we see every contribution and every hustle play, regardless of whether or not they appear on a televised highlight reel.  During his peak, I thought Turner was criminally underrated by the national media, despite all evidence to the contrary, because I watched him absolutely pummel so many defenders every Sunday.  How could this man not be considered elite?  Aside from, you know, the fact that he wasn't actually one of the three or so best backs in the league.  We appreciate these players far more when they wear the home jersey than we ever would otherwise.  And so over the past few days, I've found myself grateful for Michael Turner's time here, and I've found myself thinking of a songwriter from Minnesota that, and pardon the indie-snob cliche here, you've probably never heard of. 

I probably would not have discovered JoAnna James had she not been a friend of a friend of a friend.  She wasn't exactly in my buddy Mike's musical wheelhouse, but he nonetheless threw on her second album, "Desire," in the car one sunny afternoon.  It's funny that I remember him being almost dismissive about it: "Hey, I saw this girl play the other night, you might enjoy her stuff."

I did.  What I heard glided effortlessly from ethereal pop to gritty twang to darkening soulfulness to some eerie, alchemical space off the map.  It wasn't perfect, mind you.  Some of the songs were overly direct and maybe even a little sophomoric, lyrically speaking.  But.  My God.  That voice.  Through a stereo, it was lovely and powerful and rich.  In person, it had roughly the same effect as that flash of light had on Saul on the road to Damascus. 

It is 2005.  There is a bar on 6th Street in Minneapolis called Gluek's, and JoAnna James has a permanent residency slot there on Tuesday nights.  When you meet her, she is slender and slight; she cannot be taller than 5'4" or so.  The first thing you notice is that she has the bluest eyes you've ever seen.  When her smile lights them up, which it does frequently, they are electric.  The second thing is that JoAnna James the person is sweet and humble and wryly self-deprecating and has almost nothing in common with JoAnna James, Force Of Nature, who will be reappearing on stage as soon as this set break is over.  She stands there at the mic, brandishing that gorgeous Rickenbacker 330 as the band slinks and struts through the intro.  Then she opens her mouth and ... well, you'll describe this as soon as your breath and some portion of your mental faculties return.  You have just been aurally gobsmacked by JoAnna James' pipes.  There is no way someone that tiny should have that voice.  It's a hurricane wrapped in a thermonuclear detonation.  Her range is phenomenal, her control perfect.  The depth of her feeling is astounding.  Whether she's tenderly cooing "Lucky Strike" or bouncing the raw fury of "Molasses" off the back wall, that voice envelops your world.  JoAnna James contains multitudes. 

Back in the present, I think about the fact that for two years I was fortunate enough to see JoAnna James live probably twenty or thirty times.  Every time, without fail, that voice left me deleriously, joyfully shell-shocked.  Then it was time for her to move on.  JoAnna went out to L.A. to pursue her dreams.  Were those nights at Gluek's or The Fine Line or 7th Street Entry the same as, say, seeing Mahalia Jackson in her prime?  Probably not.  But in the moment, with the thunder of that voice rolling out over you and all creation, they were surely incredible. 

That was Joanna James.  And, from 2008 to 2010, and occasionally thereafter, that's what watching Michael Turner run the rock was like.  Thanks for everything.  Both of you.