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Pittsburgh's fortunes rise, slide with its sports teams

Tom Fontaine
| Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011

Ron Vergerio calls himself the world's ultimate Steelers fan.

It's tough to argue: Steelers-related tattoos cover most of Vergerio's body, and the decor of his Springdale home is all Steelers, all the time. He named his son, now 29, Melvin Cornell after Steel Curtain cornerback Mel Blount.

"It's part of who I am," said Vergerio, 57.

Vergerio is what academics call a high-identifying fan. Pittsburgh is chock-full of them.

Such fans don't just don their favorite player's jersey or wave a Terrible Towel on Sundays.

"They exhibit loyalty through good times and bad times. It's a central part of their self-concept. They tend to use pronouns like 'we' when talking about their teams," said Christian End, associate professor of psychology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, who studies sports fan behavior.

It's all part of what defines Pittsburgh as a sports town. The region long has had large, devoted followings for its pro, major college and high school teams, even when they weren't good.

Steelers teams played in the postseason just twice in four decades before the Steel Curtain dynasty began to take shape in the 1970s. The Pirates last season lost a league-high 105 games en route to a record 18th-straight losing campaign, but the team sold more than 1.6 million tickets at PNC Park. Four Major League Baseball teams, including two that won at least half of their games, sold fewer.

"There definitely is a special relationship here with sports, one that traces back a long way," said Anne Madarasz, director of the Heinz History Center's Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum in the Strip District.

Winning helps. Passions surged during the 1970s when Pittsburgh became known as the City of Champions, as the Steelers, Pirates and the University of Pittsburgh football team won seven championships between them.

"The teams' fortunes were ascending as the region's economic fortunes were descending. Sports really became the good news. That created a special bond that remains to this day," Madarasz said.

There is another unique bond between the city's three pro sports teams: black and gold uniforms.

In the early 1980s, a Steelers Super Bowl drought began just as the region lost more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs. Then the team and the region re-emerged together, said Bill Flanagan, executive vice president for corporate relations with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

"We had to rebuild as the Steelers rebuilt in the '80s and '90s to get back on top," Flanagan said.

The city transformed into one that kept manufacturing and finance as key industries, but enabled the health and life sciences, technology and energy industries to flourish. Punctuating the transformation are recent events that put Pittsburgh on the national radar: hosting the G-20 economic summit; being named most livable city by multiple publications; attracting billions of dollars from investors for the burgeoning natural gas industry.

Today, Flanagan noted, Steelers broadcasts are accompanied by "beauty shots" of the city, not video from blast furnaces.

Yet observers say the region clings to its blue-collar, hard-nosed, shot-and-a-beer roots, even as it becomes more high-tech than hot press, particularly when it comes to sports.

"We like teams that play hard and don't give up ground," Madarasz said. "In the same way, if you look at some of our enduring sports heroes, you start to notice a trend. Guys like Mario (Lemieux), Franco (Harris), Maz (Bill Mazeroski), (Roberto) Clemente, Joe Greene — they were humble and in many ways come across as everyday guys. They worked hard, believed in their teams and didn't necessarily want to be in the limelight or chase the front pages."

Pittsburgh is unique because its "shared story" is passed down through generations, Madarasz said.

Xavier University's End calls this "socialization," a process crucial to developing rabid fan bases.

Vergerio, who got his first Steelers tattoo in the late 1990s, said his parents were not rabid fans. Another Daddy drew him in: Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, a monstrous defensive lineman who played for the Steelers for two seasons in the early 1960s.

"Big Daddy was this big, intimidating monster. He was the first person I remember as a Steeler who got me hooked," Vergerio said.

Vergerio shared his passion with his wife and four children, taking his kids to Steelers training camps throughout their childhoods.

"I'm glad they came up this way. They're all Steelers fans to varying degrees, and now some of them are starting with their kids," he said.

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