Pirates' success pushes Steelers to back burner
At Sharky's Café and elsewhere in Latrobe, they're gearing up for Friday's start of another Steelers training camp. It always is an anticipated and vital three weeks, good for the town's economy, identity and general well-being.
Sharky's usually is a docile place for watching sports in the weeks before players and coaches check in at St. Vincent College, before fans flocked to the bleachers and berms overlooking Chuck Noll Field. But business has picked up, and not because of the Steelers. Where one small TV often was enough to show Pirates games, they have graduated to the big screens.
“The Pirates have put a nice end to the void that used to be there (before camp opened),” Sharky's owner Johnathan Huemme said. “It's definitely nice to have more than the Steelers to talk about.”
For what seemed like forever, the Pirates were so bad that the start of Steelers camp, not the schedule, marked the end of their season. Headlines like “Steelers push Pirates aside” prevailed. Looking back on his days with the Pirates, Daryle Ward once told a reporter, “You'd get a chant in the outfield: ‘When's football season start?' or ‘Thank God we have the Steelers.' ”
Not now. For once, it is the Pirates — the second-place, second-best-record-in-the-National League, postseason-contending Pirates — who seem to be generating the bigger buzz.
“The Steelers have taken a back seat to the Pirates,” declared Stan Savran, a 37-year observer of the local sports scene who hosts a radio talk show in addition to the Pirates and Penguins pregame shows and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's weekly TV show and news conference.
“I've had some guests on who are associated with the Steelers, but it's not like I've got people calling me up and emailing asking if I think Kelvin Beachum will be the starting left guard.”
Savran said the Steelers' 8-8 record last season and a tempered view of what lies ahead explains part of the altered landscape. But he added that “absolutely” the Pirates' success is mainly responsible.
“It has rekindled the old fan base, and, I dare say, because I'm at the park every night, the younger people, too,” he said.
It would be silly to suggest that the Steelers have been nudged off the radar, however. Pittsburgh remains foremost a Steelers town. But the reality of the Pirates providing an alternative source of energy at the dawn of a new NFL season is strange and welcome to their long-suffering fans.
“There's always an electricity and a buzz about the start of training camp, but I think some of that has been stolen by the Pirates,” said Carl Zappa, a 26-year-old fan of both clubs (and the Penguins) who lives in Mt. Washington. “They were always non-relevant. It was like, ‘It's still nice to catch a game, but I can't wait until the Steelers start.' ”
Being hopelessly out of the pennant race in late July during most of 20 consecutive years can have that effect. Some recent history: Over 10 long, losing seasons from the opening of PNC Park in 2001 through 2010, the Pirates, on average, stood 15 games out of first place and 15 games below .500 on the Steelers' reporting date at St. Vincent. Only twice did they finish as high as fourth.
Last season and 2011 to a lesser extent, winning records at this point (which eventually disintegrated) boosted Pirates interest. But this year's model has a better record than those teams. By all reckoning, it is a better team, period, Jason Grilli's injury notwithstanding.
On the other hand, the preseason expectations of Steelers fans appear to be diminished from 2011 and '12. Fans who visited Latrobe those years already were looking ahead to the postseason. Now they are not so sure. The Steelers had their first non-winning season since 2006 and face a fair amount of uncertainty.
“The Steelers are never far away from people's thoughts,” Savran said. “But they have kind of been relegated to second place, at least as far as camp starting.”