Is It Really Worth It? And, Good Riddance, Plaxico

Monday, January 24th, 2005, 1:44 pm

Before I begin, let me link to a story in today’s Post-Gazette, where receiver Plaxico Burress bemoans his lack of attention in the Steelers offense and says he’s almost certain to leave in free agency. Well, about the whole city of Pittsburgh will be waiting to hold the door open for the guy. Hopefully he goes to Baltimore to screw up their salary cap and their passing game with his colossal underachievement.

The guy is bitching about not getting the ball, when he dropped a touchdown pass that would’ve completely changed the game. Why do you think they don’t throw you the ball, for Chrissake? Plax is the master of the awkward tip-then-fall-down incompletion. He pushes off on virtually every single pass, drops about every other ball thrown to him, and has a blooper reel of brain-dead plays an hour long. Get him gone, fast.

The Steelers figure to lose Burress, Kendrell Bell, Keydrick Vincent and probably Jerome Bettis, as I doubt they’ll pay Bettis the $4.5 million he’s owed if he plays next season. I can’t see the Steelers sticking a franchise tag on Bell, who can’t stay healthy, so they’ll have to do some digging to find quality replacements. But a good start would be for the Steelers to pack up Burress’ stuff and mail it to him this afternoon with a fruit basket that says “Bon Voyage”.

Wonderful day in the ‘Burgh today, everyone horribly depressed, it’s bitter cold, flurries, and the rivers are freezing over. The temperature in my office is about 53 degrees, and I think I’m finally coming down with my yearly cold/flu. I’d still be getting sick if the Steelers had won, and it’d still be freezing out. But none of that would matter if my team was going to the Super Bowl. Which leads to the question, Why the hell do I care so much? Which leads to the next question, Wouldn’t it be better if I DIDN’T care? And that leads us inexhorably to, CAN I stop caring?

Joe Queenan (one of my favorite writers) wrote a hilarious but still painful book called True Believers which looks into the horrible suffering true sports fans go through. Queenan is probably happy today, because he’s from Philadelphia, but how he’s suffered over the years cheering on the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers, and Flyers. And how we’ve suffered here in Pittsburgh the last decade or so. The Steelers and Pirates haven’t won a title since 1979, the Penguins won their last cup in 1992. So that’s 13 years we haven’t had a title to celebrate here. Now, that’s not too bad, at least not compared to Philly, who hasn’t had a champion since 1983. But the past decade has been sheer torture for fans of the Black and Gold.

The Steelers have had outstanding teams during Bill Cowher’s reign, but they’ve lost FOUR title games on their home field, most of them throw monumental choke jobs that ruin your year, not just your day. The one time the Steelers DID make the Super Bowl they still didn’t deserve to go, having been outplayed by the Colts, but the Football Gods took their revenge in Super Bowl XXX and made Larry Brown the most undeserving MVP in the history of history. The Penguins won the Cup in 1991 and 1992, but they went to the conference finals three times since they and lost every time, twice in Game 7s at home. More Pittsburghers know the name David Volek than New Yorkers, he being the nobody who beat Tom Barasso in overtime to snuff out the Penguin dynasty. Penn State went undefeated in 1994 but because college football is so monumentally corrupt they were denied their rightful share of the national championshop. Pitt basketball has had several good teams over the last few years, teams that were not good enough to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The Pirates lost 3 consecutive league championship series from 1990-92, including the Game 7 where the Pirates, leading 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth, gave up 3 runs thanks to an error by Jose Lind and a single by a nobody named Franciso Cabrera, whose single to left was fielded by the pre-cream and pre-clear Barry Bonds who, although allegedy one of the great fielders of our time, couldn’t throw out Sid Bream trying to score from second, Sid Bream having approximately the same footspeed as Frankenstein.

That was probably the loss the hurt the most, because the Pirates were already half-broken up and we all knew that would be the last time the Bucs would contend for…for…forever. The Pirates haven’t won a Series in 25 years, and I know that the Pirates will never win one again. Ever. Not in my lifetime, not in a thousand lifetimes. Not the way that the game’s economics are set up, and not with the Pirates incompetent ownership. I might even wager that the Pirates will never finish above .500 in my lifetime. My evidence? The Pirates big free-agent signing this winter was Benito Santiago. ‘Nuff said.

The Penguins will never contend for another Stanley Cup because I’m pretty sure the Penguins will never play again. If the NHL ever returns (and I don’t think that’s a sure thing) there will be serious contraction, and I don’t think the Pens will survive to fly again. Penn State football has stunk the last few years, and winning a national championship has as much to do with politicking and hype as play on the field and with PSU getting shafted so many times over the years it’s hard to imagine even a great Nittany Lion team winning a title.

The Steelers? They finally seem to have a quarterback for the future, unless this was all just beginners luck and Big Ben never plays better than his playoff fiascos. The Steeler organization has shown they know what it takes to build and maintain a good team, whether they can make the jump and become a championship team is a total crapshoot.

You may be saying, “Oh boo hoo!”, especially if you live in a town populatd by teams who are perennial losers. I would reply by saying that it is a LOT easier to deal with a horrible team losing year after year than endure the emotional roller coaster of so many close calls. You think I lose any sleep over the Pirates, who stink now, stunk last year, and will stink for the next century? I’ve been through that, I’m over that. I can root for the Pirates, I can enjoy their wins and sigh at their losses, but there’s no real emotional investment anymore because their fate is preordained. There’s no big payoff waiting at the end of the year, we all know that, and we adjust our interest accordingly.

But with the Steelers, or with any team that comes so close and falls short, it’s not just the loss that hurts. Its the denial of the joy that would’ve come with the win. If your team goes 8-8, eh, you had a blah year, you got to cheer a bit, bitch a bit (bitching can be just as much fun as cheering) and maybe next year things will come around. But look at the Steelers season–is there anyway that next year could be better than this one was? 15-1 in the regular season? Next season the Steelers will have to have a great year (which isn’t going to be easy in the overloaded AFC) just to get back to the playoffs, where the wheels came off a year ago. This was the Steelers best chance to win a Super Bowl, maybe for a long long time, and they laid an egg. Again. And losing what might have been hurts far more than just the loss. You only get that feeling when you’ve come so far, only to fall short. And we’ve had a lot of that here in Pittsburgh the last 10 years or so.

Would it be better if I didn’t care so much? Sure, and actually I’m much better than I used to be, and I’m far better than a lot of people here in town, who are calling en masse for Bill Cowher’s head yet again, and screaming that Tommy Maddox should’ve started ahead of Roethlisberger. Mass hysteria feeds upon itself, but I’m calm and detached enough that it doesn’t affect me. Well, not much–see my screed against Burress above.

But CAN I stop caring? In Queenan’s book there’s a part where he’s talking to a friend who found the inner strength to stop watching and caring about sports. He decided one day it wasn’t worth the pain, and quit cold turkey. And Queenan has a certain admiration for him, because the act takes an enormous amount of self-control and restraint to just up and stop caring about something that once occupied a big part of your psyche.

Could I do that? I doubt it. I drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago. But then again, I’ve been able to distance myself from the Pirates, I don’t find myself praying for the resurrection of the Penguins, and I’ve come to accept the fact that Penn State is no longer an elite football program. Whether I can detach myself from the Steelers is another ball of wax, as rooting for the Steelers is practically a religion here and forsaking them seems an act of heresy. Do I want to stop caring about the Steelers. Well, at the moment I’d like to, but that’s me speaking at the bottom of the emotional well. Ask me again on Opening Day in September. I think I know what the answer will be then.

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4 Responses to “Is It Really Worth It? And, Good Riddance, Plaxico”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Great post Gene, sorry the Steelers lost. I’m a Chiefs fan unfortunatley. I laughed out loud when I read the line about Sid Bream having the approxomite foot speed of Frankenstein, hahhaa. I watched that game, couldn’t be more true. But everyone knows Barry Bonds has the arm of a 7th grader. Anyways, good post as always and keep em coming!


  2. Anonymous Says:

    Out of respect for your grief, Gene, I won’t point out that before last fall, Boston shared your pain. Or before last weekend, Philly. Or Buffalo (close calls recently? Forget the Bills, what about Sabres and the no-goal Cup in ’99?). Or Cleveland (The Drive. The Fumble. Freakin’ Jose Freaking Mesa).

    But.. ten years? Ten years is too long to wait for a championship, even if you get close a few times? Wow. Um. Perhaps it’s time to switch cities to sweat? That can’t possibly as hard as giving up sports cold-turkey.. and if you pick New York, you can safely shorten your timeframe to five-ish years. Win-win, I tell ya.

    I understand your point about the emotional variance of a close-call team. I just don’t think Pittsburgh is anywhere close to being the home of the near-miss. But, like I said, I understand that you’re grieving today.

    Ask me some time about how I fared the week after The Drive. I still have to change the channel when the latest “Donovan’s Mom” Chunky Soup commercial comes on, before it gets to the part where she’s reading the bedtime story. “And then John Elway drove 98 yards…”

    Good luck with Benito Santiago. And here’s hoping, for your sake, that the Roethlisberger of the last two games is a fast-fading echo of his college days, rather than an echo of Marinos to come.

    (Oh, and thanks for the link to the Queenan book. I’ll probably be picking that up today.)

  3. Scotty Nickels Says:

    i felt exactly like you did last week after your steelers escaped with a victory over my jets…i actually woke up the next morning, eyes still closed, with visions of doug brien missing that 43 yarder..and i totally relate to the feeling of losing what might have been as to just plain old losing..last sunday, i imagined how my life would be if the jets had won..a whole week of hope, excitement, jitters, etc…instead it was all hope, no exitement, no jets..couple days go by and you move on and wait till next year..but thank you for putting in words EXACTLY how heartbreaking it feels when your team gets so close only to fall short..some might think we’re crazy but i feel ya man..great post

  4. BadBlood Says:

    Mean Gene,

    I can totally feel for you. As a Boston sports fan, I’ve invested far too much emotion over the past 30 years to simply let go.

    I tried, especially with the Red Sox. Even moving down South couldn’t keep me away from the heartbreak of 2003.

    Trust me though when I say that when the Steelers finally do win, and I believe they will, it makes the win all the sweeter.

    At this point, I do feel a bit spoiled with the Pats’ success and the Sox finally winning it all.

    Based on your writing, I don’t think you’ll be able to let go. But so what. It the end, it’s worth it.

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