When reporting a story about something as demoralizing as the Pittsburgh Pirates' epic losing streak, it's not about the destination. Nor is it about the journey.
It's about the tour guides.
And we were lucky enough in our voyage to the bottom of the standings to be blessed with some exceptionally hospitable Pittsburghers who helped us see things clearly in what used to be called the Smoky City.
We needed some clarity. After all, The Mag, in its 11-year existence, had never run a feature on the Pirates, and this reporter hadn't thought about the Bucs, frankly, since Sid Bream's slide. We're just not that into car wrecks, except occasionally at Talladega.
But David Finoli never quit staring, no matter how grisly the Pirates got. The co-author, with Bill Ranier, of The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia, Finoli provided valuable insights into the minds of the long-suffering Pirates' loyalists.
The first of which is, Pittsburgh has the world's best place to watch the world's worst baseball. "The ballpark's nice," Finoli says, "and I'll give them credit: To be able to draw almost 2 million fans with this product, you've gotta be outstanding businessmen." But Finoli says that's the problem. The Pirates have for years been content with selling everything but the sport. "Of the 1.6 million attendance they had last year, probably about 200,000 came to see a ballgame," he says. "They'll come for the bobbleheads and leave in the second inning. Or they'll come and fill up the place in the seventh inning to see the fireworks, or the Styx concert after the game."
Finoli was a college student when he fell for the Bucs, spending way too much time at Pirates and Steelers games in the twin-title seasons of 1979. He enjoyed the late-80s, early-90s Pirates, too, led by Barry Bonds -- "the mini-version, before his head exploded. If he would have stayed, he would have been the greatest Pirate ever, surpassing Honus Wagner."
But it was not to be. Finoli figured the Pirates would lose Bonds, then lose. "But I never could have imagined this," he says.
The most recent front-office regime seems to be doing the right things to build a foundation, Finoli says. But he sounds defeated. "I won't be fooled again."
Our other tour guide, Nino Petrocelli, gave us another side of Pittsburgh fandom -- the side that decided not to be fooled long ago. Now 75, he emigrated from Italy after WWII, became a highly regarded tailor by day, a lounge pianist by night and a town councilman of his Pittsburgh suburb. He gave us a personal tour of Mt. Washington and seems to know everybody in Pittsburgh; at 6 p.m. on the Friday night we were in town, Nino had no ticket and little interest in the game, but by 7:30, he was lounging with the swells and sipping a beer in the club level at PNC Park. Like we said, he knows people.
But Nino shoots straight. He's fashioned suits for many a well-known Pittsburgh athlete over the past five decades, yet he steadfastly refuses to name names, at least for the record. "I don't need to get famous off them," he says. "Athletes are no better than me, I'm no better than them. I'm just shorter. One time, an athlete said to me, 'Nino, how about I talk you up on my TV show? It'll be good for your business.' I said, 'I don't need the business, I need the money. Screw you. Pay me!'"
There is one famous client he will own up to suiting up -- the "Mr. Rogers" show's beloved Speedy Delivery man, Mr. McFeely, a Pittsburgh icon's icon. Nino designed Mr. McFeely's uniform.
He sees some signs of hope for the Pirates sartorially, in that they're emphasizing their classic gold "P" logo. But he frowns on their black and white alternate home uniforms. "It's fine to be simple, but they need some color," he says.
Though he's known many a Pirate personally, Nino is a more typical Pittsburgh sports fan than Finoli, who can't quite give up wishing for better days. Nino long ago stopped caring. "The Pirates, forget it," he says. "And baseball's boring. Too slow. I'd rather watch soccer, or football. Now, the Steelers, they're my team! THAT'S who you should write about."
If it means another trip to Pittsburgh, consider it done.
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.