Monday, June 15, 2009

Why We Need Our Sports Teams

Life is good for Pittsburgh sports fans. The city is beaming with pride over its recent Penguins’ Stanley Cup championship in hockey to go with the Steelers’ Super Bowl victory in February. It’s a rarity for a city to have two major sports championships at the same time. Pittsburgh proudly called itself the “City of Champions” back in 1980 when the Pirates and Steelers did the same thing.

For the Penguins along with the Steelers before them and with the Pirates long before them, the local media coverage of the championship seasons was far out of proportion to what a non-sports fan would think to be appropriate. Front pages of newspapers, lengthy parts of newscasts. Why did they do it? Obviously, because this is what many local readers and viewers wanted in order to support the euphoria they were feeling for their beloved teams and the pride of seeing their city being showcased to the world.

And make no mistake; Pittsburgh loves its sports teams! Although the Pirates have been pathetic losers over the last 17 years,
Reliving the 1960 World Series victory is an annual ritual every October at the outfield wall of Forbes Field that still remains long after the field has been demolished.

But despite all of this, there is still the assertion by some that we don’t need our professional sports teams. It was just a few years ago that the Penguins were ready to move to Kansas City if a deal couldn’t be reached to build a new arena in Pittsburgh. Who needs the Penguins? many asked. When the Pirates asked for a publicly financed new stadium the same question was asked of them. And when the Steelers also wanted a stadium, a few hard-liners said that they could leave too!

It’s easy to understand the thinking of these people. If we have a shortage of funds for things like helping the poor and repairing our decaying infrastructure, why should we publicly finance sports facilities for rich owners and sports leagues? Maybe it’s because it fills a need.

For those in Pittsburgh where they do have their pro sports teams, it’s easy to say that they can do without them just fine, thank you. But to get the complete picture, it’s necessary to look at those cities that don’t have them or have lost them.

Kansas City wanted the Penguins in the worst way. They were building a new arena and were offering a sweetheart deal to owner Mario Lemieux to move his team there. And despite Mario’s love of Pittsburgh, he was prepared to move to Kansas City if Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and other officials hadn’t finally helped to hammer out an 11th hour agreement to build a new arena in Pittsburgh.

Kansas City wanted a major league hockey team and was willing to pay the asking price. But even more telling are the many National Football League cities who have put together major deals financing new stadiums to lure teams to replace the ones that had just leftones that most felt at the time that they could do without. The roll call includes Cleveland (to replace the former Browns who became the Baltimore Ravens), Baltimore (to replace the Colts), Houston (to replace the Oilers), and St. Louis (to replace the football Cardinals).

Brooklyn Dodger fans suffered a devastating loss in 1951 when Bobby Thomson’s
Shot Heard Round the World won the pennant for the hated arch-rival Giants. Millions of fans in the New York area stopped what they were doing that day to listen to the game on the radio. But it was nothing like the profound hurt that Brooklyn fans felt when the Dodgers left for Los Angeles after the 1957 season (taking the Giants along with them to San Francisco).

Even though they got the Mets to replace these teams, those from Brooklyn old enough to remember following the Dodgers still mourn the loss of the Dodgers to this very day. And many still feel that the heart and soul of Brooklyn was lost when the Dodgers left town and the wrecking ball tore down
Ebbets Field.

Of the many teams that uprooted in the 1950s and 60s, the Dodgers have probably had the largest number of public laments over their fans' heartbreak over losing their team. A couple of decades later, Roger Kahn's book The Boys of Summer and Frank Sinatra's song "There Used to Be a Ballpark" mourned the loss of places like Ebbets Field, and of the attendant youthful innocence of fans and players alike. The story of Ebbets Field and the Brooklyn Dodgers' move to Los Angeles were also chronicled by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, figured into the plot of the film Field of Dreams, and were featured in an entire episode of Ken Burns' public-television documentary Baseball, as well as a 2007 HBO documentary called Brooklyn Dodgers: Ghosts of Flatbush.

It’s easy to dismiss sports as being non-essential fluff especially when times are tough and we have real problems to solve. But maybe it's especially when times are tough, we need sports along with other forms of entertainment more than ever to keep our spirits up and carry on. Even in the early years of the Great Depression, countless millions followed Babe Ruth and Bobby Jones through newspapers and newsreels. Indeed, Jones was honored with a New York City ticker-tape parade following his grand slam golf victories in 1930. And then there is the USO which has been there over the years to entertain our troops during wartime.

But entertainment aside, sports teams, especially major league ones contribute to the livability and add a sense of identity and civic pride to our cities. When national sportscasts showed pictures of Pittsburgh as part of their telecasts, Pittsburghers were proud to show the world just how beautiful Pittsburgh really is and that it didn’t deserve to be the butt of jokes about being the ‘Smoky City’.

And finally for those who believe that sports teams are not important to many of its people, there was this crush of people for the
parade to celebrate the Penguins’ Stanley Cup championship victory.

Just call it the city of champions.

Four months after celebrating the Steelers' sixth Super Bowl victory, Pittsburgh Police estimated 375,000 people converged downtown again for a parade, this time in honor of the Stanley Cup champion Penguins.

People lined streets -- in some places standing 20 deep or crowding onto multilevel parking garages -- to get a glimpse of the team and the cup.

While 375,000 people attending may sound impressive, the local TV stations carried the parade live so it was seen by perhaps millions more. So for those who think that losing the Penguins wouldn’t have been a big deal, tell that to all of those people!

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