Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Humbling of the Pittsburgh Sports Fan

The past few years have been difficult for Pittsburgh sports fans. Not in the same way the past half-century has been for Cleveland sports fans or the time from 1918 to 2004 was for Red Sox fans. No, our struggles have been of a different kind. We have fallen victim to our own hubris. Our fall from grace has not been as storied or as tragic as Agamemnon or other Greek heroes. But it is a fall from grace all the same. Much like Icarus flying too close to the sun, we soared high and our egos got the better of us. Captivated by our ignorance, we were blind to what was going on around us.

I don't know when the changeover occurred. But the timeline is easy to trace.

In late 2010 things seemed as though they couldn't get much better. The Steelers were rolling on the backs of a tough defense, playing that lock-down style we had seen in 2008. No traces of their 2009 implosion were anywhere to be seen. The Penguins were on fire. Sidney Crosby was playing the best hockey that anyone had played in over a decade. He had an unrealistic points streak.

Whether it was that night at Heinz Field where David Steckel rammed into the back of Sidney Crosby or shortly thereafter when Evgeni Malkin suffered a torn ACL, the zenith that had been reached began to crumble. The Steelers lost Super Bowl XLV to a very talented Packers team. We had the ball with 2 minutes left down by 6 with a chance to win. But Ben Roethlisberger, who had been so clutch throughout his entire career, could not put another game-winning drive together.

The Penguins fought through the grind of the rest of their season, taking a 3-1 series lead against Tampa, only to let it slip away in 7 games. But as a fan base, we knew that the Penguins had over-achieved just to get to that point. We told ourselves things would be better next year when Crosby and Malkin were back.

The 2011 seasons for both teams showed flashes of what they were capable of - dominance and greatness. After the Steelers beat the Patriots, we seemed to think there was no one that could stand between us and another Lombardi Trophy. We won close road games against bad teams like Kansas City and Cleveland. The writing was on the wall, but we were ignorant and chose to believe otherwise.

Heading into the playoff game against the Broncos, callers to pretty much every radio station in Pittsburgh had already written the game off as a win. There was no way, we thought, that Tim Tebow could throw for 300 yards against the Steelers defense. There was no way this team could lose to the Broncos. We were already thinking about Baltimore or New England the next week. I did it. I'll admit it.

Similarly, the Penguins fanbase was planning the parade before the playoffs even started. They over-looked the Flyers, and pretty much all 15 other playoff teams. The Stanley Cup was our right. One Pittsburgh writer, a well-respected one at that, even committed the hubristic sin of publishing an article about the very subject - before the playoffs began.

Perhaps we were blinded by our past triumphs. Perhaps we grew so self-absorbed that we thought Championships should just be handed to us.

In the end, we became that which we despised.

It all hit rock bottom on Sunday afternoon. The Pittsburgh Penguins became the Philadelphia Flyers.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Regardless of how tonight's game goes, there is no where deeper we can fall. We have hit the bottom of the pit. Now, like Gandalf after the fall from the Bridge of Khazad-dum, we must fight our way back up, all the while struggling and battling with a giant monster.

I'm not talking about beating the Flyers in this game and resurrecting our way to the Stanley Cup. I'm talking about something bigger. As a fan base, we came to expect certain things from our players. A way of acting, performing, speaking. We wrote articles praising them. We got into fights on twitter and facebook and on message boards defending them. But now, the actions speak louder than the words. We can no longer defend them after they acted in the very manner of the opponents we tended to belittle. The Penguins betrayed not only themselves and their teammates, but also their city.

Now, we must fight the long hard road back to respectability, with the giant monster of the Penguins goonery and selfishness hanging on our backs. Remember how outraged we were after the brawl-fest with the Islanders last year? How is that any different than what Aaron Asham did?

And don't think the Steelers are exempt from this either. They have their own troubles broiling all while the Penguins are engulfed in the front pages of the paper. Even though they hold all the bargaining power, how do you think a drawn-out negotiation with Mike Wallace and agent Bus Cook will fare for the team? Cook has already shown he will leak things to the media about how Wallace won't sign his tender and such. How many fans do you think will be wearing #17 jerseys this fall?

As Steelers fans, we pointed and chuckled over the locker room issues in Cincinnati and the traveling circuses of Randy Moss and TO. What if the Wallace situation turns into one of those? The Steelers obviously did a very good job covering up any ripples that Santonio Holmes caused in the locker room before they dealt him off to the Jets. Don't think that the Steelers wouldn't make a similar move with Wallace if he turns into a locker room cancer, but the real question is - do we have the talent and depth at receiver to replace Wallace if the team does move on? On-field performance can go a long way into helping you forget or notice the absence of a player. The play of Wallace and Antonio Brown have helped us forget the void left with the departure of Santonio Holmes.

But let's not get caught up in hypotheticals. Here we are. The Pittsburgh sports fan. Still as proud of our city as ever. And as well we should be. We have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy six times, more than any other city. We have paraded Lord Stanley's Cup down the Boulevard of the Allies thrice. Our city's history is filled with accomplishments. We have a rich tradition to build on. But let this past year be a lesson to all our sports fans. We can no longer take anything for granted. Not one victory. Not one series. Not one season. Not one championship. Ask the people of San Diego who haven't seen a championship trophy of any kind since 1963. We have been fortunate. We have been blessed. And we must be humble.

As Coach says, "the standard of expectation does not change." That is true. We are here to compete for championships. But let this series against the Flyers, that game on Sunday, serve as a lesson to all of us - never again should we take for granted what the athletes of our city can do on the field. Never again should we assume that a title will be won. Never again should we be so self-important that we think ourselves above or better than another team. Sure, instances will occur where we are in fact the better, the classier, the more professional team. And that is how it should be. Pittsburgh teams are supposed to be that way. It's what we expect, regardless of whether it's Troy Polamalu or Aaron Asham putting on the jersey.

The Standard of Expectation Does Not Change, no matter who you are. To wear the black and gold is an honor and a privilege, not a right. Let us never forget that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are born a steelers fan not made one by win. Your a fan when they are winning and when they are loosing.Just got tickets to attend their game in 8/9. Some of us just happen to end up living here , it's not our fault.