Jim O’Brien: Just enjoy the games as they are played:
Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien
This is a great time to be a sports fan in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates have been playing so well and have created so much excitement in the city over their improved prospects.
The Steelers opened their training camp at St. VincentCollege at mid-week and many of their fans will be making their annual pilgrimage to Latrobe to get an up-close look at their favorite pro football team.
The Summer Olympic Games are underway in London and we will be rooting for our U.S.A. competitors in a wide selection of sports. Since I was 14, back in the Summer Olympic Games in Rome in 1960, I have been a big fan of this international competition.
Golf fans had to enjoy the British Open – I still call it that – in which the veteran Ernie Els made a great stretch run to overtake Adam Scott to win one of the majors. I don’t play golf but I love to watch it on TV. I was also glad that Tiger Woods was in contention nearly all the way.
Anyone who has a high definition flat screen TV these days has to enjoy the extended coverage of sports in every spectrum. I even watched the NASCAR race in Chicago on Sunday.
If only they could clean up the mess at PennState sooner than later. I’m a Pitt man but I root for PennState and I want to see the school resume being the great school it has always been.
As I was writing this column, the Pirates had just swept a series with the Miami Marlins for a season-high five consecutive victories and were 14 games over .500 with the Chicago Cubs coming to town. Who saw that coming back in April?
Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neal Walker, A.J. Burnett & Co. are the toast of the town. So many Pirates have stepped up their games. It would be great if they can continue to win more games than they lose. I will be happy with a winning team this year.
I don’t want them to trade off any of their top prospects for a rent-a-player to help them get into the playoffs. I’d rather see this team grow from within. I’m a patient man when it comes to the Pirates. They are missing some pieces, but they have an inspired manager in Clint Hurdle. He has a heartbeat, unlike his predecessor, and he has endeared himself to Pirates’ fans. I’m worried that he will wear out his jaw chewing gum so vehemently during the games.
I was looking forward to attending Wednesday afternoon’s contest with the Cubs at PNCPark, knowing there would be a great crowd, enhanced by the presence of plenty of Chicago visitors. It promised to be a great afternoon for baseball.
There’s been a real buzz in the ‘Burgh about these Pirates. Some of the biggest crowds in PNC history have turned out to see the Pirates in action, and not just for the giveaways and fireworks for a change. They were there to see the Pirates play baseball.
Ticket sales for the remainder of the summer have been strong, and anyone looking for the best seats better hurry up and get their orders in because they are going fast. People are buying up Pirates’ paraphernalia
I may sound like a coach but I am enjoying each game on its own merits. Overzealous fans are already talking about the Pirates’ playoff prospects – there’s an extra wild-card slot this year – and even about what the team might do in a World Series.
People who recognize me as a sportswriter have started to ask me what I think about the Pirates and how far they might go.
I usually disappoint people when they ask me those kinds of questions, whether we are talking about the Pirates, the Penguins, the Steelers, or one of the Pitt teams.
For starters, I don’t know what any of these teams are going to do in future games. I pride myself on knowing the history of these teams, and sports in general.
I have been surprised and delighted by the Pirates’ play to date. Who wouldn’t enjoy what we have seen so far? But there are serious holes in their lineup, at bat and in the field, and the quality of pitching can turn on a dime.
I think Pirates’ fans who want to discuss the playoffs and the World Series before July has even ended, with so many games in August and September and even at the beginning of October, are just setting them up for serious disappointment. It would be nice if they could win their division, but don’t count on it. There are many games still to be played. And just because an opposing team has a poorer record does not mean the Pirates will prevail. That’s baseball; that’s sports.
Here’s my suggestion: just enjoy the games as they are played, and be enough of a baseball fan to be able to deal with a defeat here and there, because it’s going to happen. A team that can win five straight can also lose five straight. Or more.
The same goes for the Steelers.
How do I think they will do this year?
I think they will be a contender. I think they will be in the mix. They still have enough key players back to be in the running. The Steelers don’t have to win the Super Bowl to have a great season, at least not in my mind. They have a first-rate coach in Mike Tomlin and great players showing the way on both sides of the ball in Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu and strong supporting casts, with or without Mike Wallace.
Like the Pirates, I think they will provide us with some great games, some victories to make our day, and that there will be days they will disappoint us because they did not play well, or they did not win the game.
The same goes for the Penguins. Why does the Stanley Cup come into the conversation at the start of every season? Or already this summer?
Pittsburgh sports fans are more spoiled than most sports fans because we have enjoyed so much success in sports in this region, more so than most cities in this country. We have enjoyed more than our share of championships.
Sports are an outlet, entertainment to take our minds off some of the stories that fill the front pages of our daily newspapers each and every day. It’s a pastime.
I’ve been following sports for a long time. I first got interested in the Olympic Games when I was 14 and became the sports editor of the bi-weekly newspaper in my hometown – The Hazelwood Envoy.
The gold medalist in the shot put that summer was named Parry O’Brien from Southern California. That caught my attention understandably. I became a big fan of track & field.
I learned that there was a man in my hometown named Herb Douglas Jr. who had won a bronze medal in the long jump at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. We later became friends. Herb celebrated his 90th birthday here in Pittsburgh in mid-March and he is in London for the next seven days, sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh, his alma mater, to witness these Olympic Games.
I will be especially interested in watching track & field, basketball, swimming and gymnastics.
I will be rooting for Swin Cash of McKeesport, the oldest player at 32 on our women’s basketball team, to contribute to a gold medal effort. I recall having lunch with Swin at an Eat’n Park Restaurant on Lyle Boulevard in McKeesport when she was a star player at the University of Connecticut.
I recall seeing Swin Cash honored at the Heinz History Center and looking so beautiful posing for pictures with the likes of Herb Douglas and the late “Bullet Bill” Dudley, a Steelers’ star in the ‘40s.
Swin Cash keeps coming back to McKeesport and lends her presence and her money to help make things better in the projects where she grew up. There have been killings in her old neighborhood and she knows the families of some of the victims.
Whether there is violence in McKeesport, or Aurora, Colorado or in so many countries in Europe and Asia and Africa, it makes one realize how lucky we are to have some relief, or an outlet, to have fun with our games, with our sports.
It’s fun to argue about sports, and to make comparisons and contrasts. I see where Kobe Bryant is bragging that this edition of the men’s basketball team would beat The Dream Team that represented the U.S.A. when Michael Jordan was the team’s star.
I go back to that 1960 men’s basketball team that is now overlooked, but had enough great players to beat any team at any time. You can’t play ten or twelve players at the same time and I think we’d be better off with some lesser talents who recognize that they are role players, and contribute in ways that are more difficult to measure.
Our 1960 team included Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Walt Bellamy and Jerry Lucas – who are all in the Basketball Hall of Fame – and such other stars as Terry Dischinger, Bob Boozer, Darrell Imhoff and Adam Smith. They went 8-0 and outscored their opponents by 42.4 points per game.
Pirates’ broadcaster Steve Blass has been reminding us during each game of what fun it is to be at PNCPark these days. The Pirates and their fans have suffered through 19 straight losing seasons, the most of any team in professional sports, and that’s why this is so sweet.
I hear the Pirates’ broadcasters using phrases such as “can of corn” to describe a pop fly in the outfield, and it brings Bob Prince to mind. Prince used that phrase when he was “the voice of the Pirates,” and it brings back memories of better days at the ballpark.
I think it’s unrealistic to expect our teams to come out on top all the time. It doesn’t work that way.
Save your prayers for the real problems in the world or in your neighborhood, and simply root for the home teams to prevail. Don’t damn them when they don’t play up to your expectations.
Just enjoy the games.
Sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien has a series of “Pittsburgh Proud” books at area bookstores. His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com