By Jim Sankey
Allied News Baseball Columnist
FOR ANYONE under the age of 25, late July meant the end of the baseball season in Pittsburgh.
By then—usually way before then—the Pirates were all but mathematically eliminated from extending the season into October.
So when the perennially-winning Steelers opened training camp, it gave Pittsburgh sports fans a reprieve. Instead of another dismal season, the Steelers provided post-season hopes.
Not so in 2013.
Relegated to the second or sometimes third spot on tv sports reports, the Steelers are finding out what the Pirates knew for 20 consecutive years: Losing games translates into losing fan support and interest.
An 0-4 Steelers’ pre-season went mainly unnoticed by fans enthralled with a baseball team that reminded fans the way it used to be.
As they raised the Jolly Roger, the Terrible Towels stayed in the closets, tucked away like so many Christmas ornaments in February.
By the time the Pirates had smashed a 20-year curse and fans discovered why October baseball is so much fun, the Steelers had lost four more games—this time ones that counted, ones that pretty much ended the football season after only a quarter of the schedule.
With the Pirates’ winning the top wild card spot and extending the eventual National League champions from St. Louis to the five-game limit, Pittsburgh’s elimination jolted fans from football sleep to find their beloved “Stillers” had lost eight games this season.
When Tike Tomlin’s team grounded an up-but-mostly down Jets team, then squeezed out a last-second win against Baltimore, many fans began to believe that the Steelers were on the way back.
But they failed to realize just how bad Baltimore is and, because of that, just how bad the Steelers are.
These aren’t Ray Lewis’s Ravens.
These aren’t Bill Cowher’s Steelers.
Any doubts about where Pittsburgh’s pro football season is headed were peeled away on Sunday, when the Steelers had to fight furiously even to make it a game against the Oakland Raiders, whose quarterback Terrelle Pryor pretty much ended his day after his historic 93-yard touchdown run had set the tone for the game on the first play from scrimmage.
While the Steelers managed only eight rushing yards in the first half, the Raiders mustered only one first down and 35 total yards in the second half. But they still won.
Now, 13 AFC teams have a better record that the Steelers’ 2-5 mark. (Only winless Jacksonville is worse.) Overall, only four NFL teams have a worse record. Even the most diehard of fans are checking out when the Pirates load the equipment truck and set the GPS for Bradenton.
The Steelers have a worse record than any of their remaining opponents. It is clear that Pittsburgh will be serious underdogs on the road against the Patriots and Packers and at home against the Bengals. Even if they can beat the Bills, Lions, Browns (twice), Ravens, and Dolphins, their record would be 8-8, hardly encouraging anyone to place an order for playoff tickets.
There have been Steeler teams that had the ability to go 7-2 over the final nine games—assuming that a 9-7 record could sneak the team into the playoffs.
This team doesn’t.
Isn’t there a middle school kid somewhere who can out-punt Zoltan Mesko. (Note to Tomlin: Leave all Zoltans to the Pirates.)
Even worse is LaMarr Woodley’s post-game comment following the unofficial end to the Steelers’ season: “This is no step back for us; we're still movin' forward,” the linebacker said. “We just had some mistakes out there and the Raiders capitalized on it. So, we're still a good football team, but we gave up some big plays. That's the only thing you can really look back on. You gave up some big plays. I wouldn't question us as a football team.”
He’s right about one thing: There is no question about this team. But this time it’s the Steelers—not the Pirates—who are on the losing end of fan interest.
Jim Sankey is a baseball columnist for Allied News.