- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

PITTSBURGH — More than an hour outside of Pittsburgh, it already is apparent this is Steelers country — and Steelers country only.

The rest stop in Somerset, Pa., houses a large gift shop that sells plenty of Pittsburgh sports memorabilia. Actually, it’s just Steelers memorabilia. Amidst the usual souvenirs, there are Steelers dog toys and wedding garters.

There also is something made conspicuous only by its absence: Pirates merchandise. No hats. No mugs. No bobble-headed likenesses of Jason Bay and Zach Duke. Nothing. And this store is not unique.

The arrival of baseball’s All-Star Game to this city makes two things painfully clear: Pittsburgh loves the Steelers, but it only likes the Pirates.

“The fans weren’t afraid to let you know about it when we lost,” said Washington Nationals first baseman Daryle Ward, who played for the Pirates the past two seasons. “Especially the teams that we had there, we weren’t doing very good. You’d get a chant in the outfield: ‘When’s football season start?’ or ‘Thank God we have the Steelers.’ You expect little comments like that.

“Even if we were doing good, I think they would still make those kind of comments. It’s just a football town, and there is not much you can do about that. They have such a tradition with having good teams in football that it kind of outweighs baseball a lot.”

Ward’s insight into the psyche of the Pittsburgh sports fan is dead-on.

Every other car in the city has a Steelers license plate or bumper sticker. There are as many Steelers flags flying in front of homes as U.S. flags.

“Pittsburgh fans are fanatical about the Steelers. It’s like our blood is black and gold,” said Randy Tozzie, 42, of Carnegie, Pa.

Tozzie isn’t exaggerating by much. One of his in-laws died from a heart attack in the stands at Heinz Field during a Steelers playoff game. The family, Tozzie said, took consolation from the fact the relative died watching the team he loved.

“You couldn’t have written it any better,” Tozzie said. “He died in the stadium wearing black and gold. Most guys would say let me die in bed with a hot broad, but this guy wanted to be at a Steelers game. He really died the best way.”

Pittsburgh momentarily has embraced baseball as the game’s biggest event other than the World Series takes over the city for five days.

In addition to scheduled events like today’s Home Run Derby and yesterday’s Futures Game, Pittsburgh turned its convention center into a baseball fan’s dream for Fan Fest 2006. Visitors can create their own baseball card, take a turn at broadcasting a home run on the radio or run the bases on a replica field.

“This is a chance to be in the national spotlight for a five-day period, the type of national PR we couldn’t afford otherwise,” Allegheny County chief executive Dan Onorato said. “It brings in a lot of people that would otherwise not be here, and we use that as a marketing opportunity to showcase the aesthetics of the city, the people and the culture.”

The city last played host to the game in 1994, and it has changed significantly since. Pittsburgh renovated and expanded its convention center. PNC Park and Heinz Field, the homes of the Pirates and Steelers, opened in 2001.

This week, Pittsburgh’s restaurants, hotels and public spaces will be flooded with baseball fans for the All-Star Game. But what happens when the game is over?

“Personally, I just can’t wait for Steelers season to start,” said Jerry Wheeler, 61, an engineer from Scott Township, Pa. Wheeler on this night sat at Atria’s Restaurant and Tavern, a Pittsburgh staple since 1933, watching the Pirates lose to the Philadelphia Phillies.

He’s not alone in his sentiment: In this town, the Terrible Towel is treated as a holy object and fans hold candlelight vigils for injured Steelers, as they did when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was injured in a motorcycle accident in June.

Fans obsessed with the Pirates are a much rarer species. The team can take some of the blame for that.

The Pirates last won the World Series in 1979 and haven’t reached the playoffs in 14 years. They have finished last in their division in two of the past five seasons and have not had a winning record since 1992. This season, the Pirates have the worst record in baseball and draw about 22,000 fans a game, fifth worst in the majors.

“It’s tough to find a positive when you lose that much,” said Pirates first baseman Sean Casey, a Pittsburgh native. “Hopefully in due time we can change that trend. In the early ‘90s, the fans came out, and the city was abuzz with the Pirates. … As a Pirate it puts us in a role to win because the Steelers will sell out no matter what.”

The All-Star Game, though, has brought out at least a few diehard Pirates fans.

Steve Epstein, 57, traveled from Los Angeles for the game because he wanted to relive his memories of the Hall of Fame-filled Pirates teams of the 1960s and 1970s.

“There is a certain nostalgia to coming back to Pittsburgh,” said Epstein, who grew up in the East Liberty section of the city and attended the University of Pittsburgh. “I was in Forbes Field when [Bill Mazeroski] hit the World Series-winning home run. I still kind of get goose bumps thinking about it, and because of that I have always followed the Pirates.”

Both the Pirates and the Steelers have rich histories, filled with championships and great players like Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann. A new generation of fans, however, will remember only modern teams.

The 2006 Super Bowl champion Steelers will continue to reign over Pittsburgh sports. The Pirates, though, will fight an uphill battle for fan support.

“The Steelers dominate in every category, not just in sports, but in life,” said Dejan Kovacevic, the Pirates beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Churches book mass around kickoff times.”

There is no need to skip services when it’s only the Pirates playing on Sundays, and when training camp opens in several weeks the Steelers again will be the only Pittsburgh team that will matter.

After all, they will have a Super Bowl championship to defend. The goal for the Pirates, meanwhile, will be to lose less than 100 games.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page.

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