It's 10 o'clock on a hot August night and I am sitting in my car in the driveway. I am screaming.
The engine is off, the windows are open. The night is oily black. The only light is digitized and emanates from the car's dash: MIL 6, PIT 5.
It is the bottom of the 9th inning in Pittsburgh, where a Pirate named Michael McKenry has just dropped a pinch-hit single into leftfield, pulling the Buccos -- my Buccos -- to within one run of the Milwaukee Brewers. I am in suburban Cincinnati, sweating in my car, trying to keep from exploding.
I have been doing this all summer.
The small miracle of satellite radio has kept me informed. When the radio is not possible, the iPhone is there, the St. Bernard of displaced fans everywhere. I punch up At Bat, the MLB.com app, and I get the game summaries. I blurt strange, loud fan noises at inappropriate moments, such as in the middle of dinner at quiet, classy restaurants. Andrew McCutchen went yard late in a game in June. The maitre d' was concerned for my well being. He thought I was having a seizure.
What is the difference between fiddling with knobs on a tabletop radio and punching up Sirius 187 on the satellite? Forty years. And technology. It isn't 1972, and I am not 14. But the passion is there. Techno-triumphs can't replicate that. Only enhance it.
It's a strange feeling, one I'd assumed I'd lost. I'm not a fan. I'm not paid to be a fan. I write sports columns. They can't be jaded by affections. No cheering in the press box.
I'd assumed I'd lost all fanly attachments. I thought nothing of it. Readers would ask me who I rooted for. "Me,'' I said.
Whatever made for the best column. Whatever kept the words rolling on deadline. Win, lose, rain. I rooted for myself.
It was easy to do, given I was a recovering Pirates fan. The Bucs had sucked for 19 years. Ownership didn't seem especially concerned. It's hard to be awful at anything for 19 years in a row. I figured if the owners didn't care, why should I? That was the extent of my fanly understanding. It's why I could empathize with Cincinnati Bengals fans in the Lost Decade of the '90s.
Until this year.
My Pirates have brought me back into fan nation. For better or worse, they're an old flame, spotted in the supermarket. The heart beats a little faster. The old highs are recalled fondly.
The old lows are tolerated, even welcomed. It's nice to have that corner of my heart awakened.
Paradise by the dashboard lights isn't just a song about teenaged lust.
At the moment, the Battlin' Buccos are circling the drain. As I write this, they've lost 15 of 23. They're 2 /12 games out of the wild card. They're not going to make the playoffs. The hope is, they win more than they lose, for the first time since 1992. Hearts are smashing like eggs dropped from the upper deck. Is it better to have loved and lost?
When I was a kid, my dad and I would spend fall Sundays driving to a reservoir in northern Maryland, an hour from our apartment in suburban D.C. The place had picnic tables and hiking trails and turtles near the water's edge. It was a nice place to wander, but that's not why we went there.
My dad was an Eagles fan. Somehow, he discovered this place where we could go and he could get the Eagles games on the car radio. While he sat in the car, fiddling with the AM knob with the delicacy of a jewel thief, I caught turtles. Every so often, my nature fix was interrupted with a blast from the driver's seat.
"Goddam Norm Snead!''
Technology enriches. Passion sustains. So here I am, all summer, in my car in the driveway.
"What are you doing in there?'' my neighbor, Paul R., wants to know.
"Why are you sitting in a hit car in the driveway at 10 at night? Are you wearing a trenchcoat?''
I'm listening to the Pirates game.
Whatever small ember of care I'd reserved for the least successful franchise in the history of sports, I'd kept to myself. No need to offer up that embarrassing tidbit. Paul didn't know about my old flame.
"Haha,'' he said, after I told him. "Don't let the cops know.'' Then he went back inside.
It's amazing, the power of sports. It's also irrational. What else in our lives compels us to act this way? Why else would a 54-year-old father of two grown children be sitting in a hot car late on a weeknight? Not to tune in the Republican Convention, brother.
It's nothing, and everything. The Pirates will fall short again. It's what the Pirates do. At least they're not the Cubs.
But I thank them, in this lovely summer of 2012, for reminding me that it's OK to yell and scream and seize in restaurants. I thank them for restoring a pleasant corner of summer. It's not a crime to attach hope and love to something as silly as a ballgame. It's part of what makes us feel alive.
I hadn't felt like a fan in 20 years. I have again this summer. I kind of liked it.
Back in the car, Michael McKenry's base hit has put the tying run on second base. Hope floats. It better, because I'm sweating like a con in the chair.
Kameron Loe comes in for the Brewers. He strikes out Gaby Sanchez swinging.
I die a little. I'll be back tomorrow. I'm a fan again. I know why I came. It feels good.