In recent years the identity of Pittsburgh’s rival city, at least in sports culture, has changed. Baltimore has replaced Cleveland and Philadelphia as the place Pittsburgh sports fans love to hate.
The reason is two fold. First, the only team from Cleveland the Pittsburgh Steelers play regularly is the Browns, and the Penguins and Flyers are the only Pennsylvania pro sports teams that share a division any longer.
The other is easy- Baltimore is the city Pittsburgh always beats.
As the Steelers and Ravens prepare for their playoff game Saturday night, Pittsburgh teams are 7-0 lifetime against Baltimore teams in the postseason. This whitewash includes two World Series triumphs for the Pirates against the Orioles (1971 & 1979), two playoff victories for the Steelers against the Colts (1975 & 1976), and three triumphs for the Steelers against the Ravens.
In the 1970s Pittsburgh sports triumphs against Baltimore created icons. Roberto Clemente showcased his greatness in the 1971 Series; Willie Stargell became the most popular athlete in America following his 1979 heroics. The Terrible Towel made its debut in the Steelers’ 28-10 victory against Baltimore in the 1975 NFL playoffs and Steve Blass and Kent Tekulve’s pitching prowess against the Orioles in the World Series allowed them to be considered for lengthy broadcasting careers.
Today, the lasting singular moment of Troy Polamalu’s career was his game-clinching interception return for a touchdown against Baltimore to clinch the 2008 AFC Championship for Pittsburgh.
Heroics? The Steelers 40-14 victory against the Colts in the 1976 NFL playoffs was so quick and efficient it could be argued it saved lives, as an airplane actually crashed into just-emptied stands at Memorial Stadium in the moments following the game.
The other playoff victories were noted for their dominance (a 27-10 victory against the Ravens in 2001-02) and drama (Steelers came back from a 14-0 deficit in their 31-24 victory in 2010-11).
Baltimore has been so subservient to Pittsburgh the Penguins once had their top minor league affiliate in Charm City. The Baltimore Skipjacks were the Pens’ American Hockey League affiliate from 1982-87. If you should happen to meet Troy Loney on the street ask him about the overtime goal he scored against the Hershey Bears in 1985. He’ll get excited and talk about beating Ron Hextall.
Which leads us to another truth; even when Baltimore teams win they have to rely on athletes deemed, rightly or wrongly, not worthy of playing in Pittsburgh; John Unitas, Joe Flacco, Earl Morrall, Rod Woodson.
The rise of Unitas from Steelers’ waiver wire to the Pro Football Hall of Fame has always been a sore spot to longtime fans. Legendary WPIAL coach Chuck Wagner even says he enrolled at the University of Louisville in the hopes of playing with the former St. Justin High star.
But imagine how Baltimore fans must have felt when, eight years after winning his Super Bowl ring with the Ravens, Woodson was on the Steelers sideline in the 2008-09 AFC Championship game, emphatically rooting Pittsburgh on against Baltimore.
Give credit to former Pirates’ third base coach and Johnstown native Frank Oceak for starting Pittsburgh’s dominance against Baltimore. When it began in the 1971 World Series, the Pirates actually began that Fall Classic by losing the first game and then fell behind 11-0 in the second.
At this point a beautiful Memorial Stadium ball girl named Darlene was assigned to come out in her white short shorts and go go boots and sweep the dirt off third base with a broom. Defiantly, Oceak completely changed the mood by kicking the dirt back on the bag, leading to a “never give up” attitude that resulted in Richie Hebner immediately hitting a 3-run home run and the Bucs taking four of the final five games.
Sure, all streaks must come to an end. If that happens on Saturday this piece will surely be looked upon as a jinx.
And frankly the idea of, say, Bob Robertson missing the bunt sign or Eddie Murray cutting off the throw having anything to do with a football game played four decades later is ludicrous.
But it might be the first time since 1806 Baltimore could ever really claim to have a “winner-take-all” victory against Pittsburgh. That was the year Thomas Stewart killed Tarleton Bates, Allegheny County’s prothonotary, in Pennsylvania’s last recorded duel near the base of the street in Oakland that bears Bates’ name.
Stewart would then flee Pittsburgh and lived the rest of his life in Baltimore in order to avoid justice and imprisonment.
Even then, Mr. Flacco, Baltimore was taking in people deemed unworthy of being in Pittsburgh.