Pirates crush losing streak, inspire Pittsburgh
Gabriel Fontana has repaired about 300,000 shoes in his tiny Downtown shop since the Pirates last had a winning season in 1992.
Though business remained steady, he said, interest in the Pirates vanished during their two decades of futility. Nobody talked about “last night's game.” Nobody scanned the standings while getting a shoe shine.
Nobody cared, until now.
“There's a lot of excitement again,” he said inside Gabriel's Shoe Repair on Forbes Avenue. “I listen to the games on the radio here. People come in and they talk about the Pirates. Everyone is happy, like back then.”
By beating the Texas Rangers 1-0 on Monday night, the Pirates notched their 82nd win of the year, ending a historic stretch of 20 straight losing seasons — the longest streak in North American professional sports history.
Former Mayor Sophie Masloff recalled sitting in her City Hall office in 1992, “glued to my radio” and listening to the game that started the losing streak, a nine-inning loss to the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series in heartbreaking fashion. One thing that hasn't changed, she said, is Pittsburgh's reputation as a great sports town.
“We love our sports and people were so enthusiastic,” she said. “I hope we can see it happen again.”
While the losing remained a constant, the city changed significantly.
Among other things, the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland was soot black, the Port Authority's North Shore Connector was an idea, and a gallon of gas cost about a buck.
In 1992, Pittsburgh had a dying economy and a shrinking population, officials said.
Economically, the city and region oversaw a transformation that became the envy of the Rust Belt.
“In 1992 we were in the process of moving from a heavy industry economy to an economy based on health, education, technology and so forth,” said James Craft, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business. “We've met that. Now we're even moving ahead into a whole new emerging industry, with the Marcellus shale development.”
The biggest regional employer then was Westinghouse, business experts said. Today, it's UPMC.
Education levels reflect the economic shift: Despite a smaller population today, 49,859 city residents have college degrees, compared with 37,678 in 1990. Residents with post-graduate degrees spiked from 23,627 in 1990 to 33,852 in 2010, according to U.S. Census data.
“It was OK then to not have even a high school education because you could get a job in the mill,” former Mayor Tom Murphy said. “We've come to value education in a significant way.”
Visually, the city also changed.
“In 1992, our riverfronts were still dominated by steel mill structures, colossal industrial artifacts blocking the city from its rivers,” said Lisa Schroeder, CEO of Riverlife Pittsburgh, an advocacy and planning group. “The only waterfront path I know of back then was a boardwalk in front of the Carnegie Science Center. That's gone now.”
Today, 13 miles of trails carry outdoor enthusiasts and tourists from the newly-renovated Point State Park through a web of interconnected parks and memorials.
“Having a winning baseball team is hugely important to that development,” Schroeder said. “With the football team and Stage AE, and the growing number of restaurants and hotels and festivals — people are drawn to our riverfronts now.”
Pittsburgh's population then was about 370,000 residents, but shrinking rapidly. Today, the city's population is about 306,000, but gaining residents for the first time in decades, census data show.
Several neighborhoods — including East Liberty, Lawrenceville, and South Side — were considered undesirable, blighted areas in 1992, officials said. Now they enjoy various stages of rebirth.
Perhaps the most significant shift has come to the North Shore and, by extension, Downtown, officials said.
In 1992, the Pirates and Steelers played games in Three Rivers Stadium, a cavernous bowl sealed off from surrounding areas.
Today the Pirates play in PNC Park, which looks out on Downtown and the Allegheny River, creating a more communal feel, officials said. Boaters float on the river during games. Fans with binoculars watch from Downtown rooftops. Thousands of people wearing Pirates gear stream across the Roberto Clemente Bridge to watch the game in the stadium or in one of the dozens of restaurants, bars and hotels dotting the revived North Shore.
“I'm 41 and I don't ever remember a time in my life seeing such a palpable enthusiasm for the Pirates,” said Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership spokeswoman Leigh Ann White, a lifelong Pittsburgher.
Downtown evolved from a business-only district to a residential neighborhood with nightlife and cultural attractions, officials said.
Since 1992, more than 2,500 residential units were added Downtown, White said. Where large buildings once stood vacant, the business occupancy rate now is 92 percent, “making it one of the strongest markets in the country,” she said.
On the field, the Pirates' best player in 1992 was Barry Bonds, a mercurial outfielder who fled the city when his contract expired. Today, it's Andrew McCutchen, a graceful outfielder who says he likes it here and proved it by giving the Pirates a hometown discount in signing a 6-year contract extension.
“We used to lose all our best players,” Fontana said in his lilting Italian accent. “Maybe it's different now.”
Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.