Sketch by Henry Gustavson
TOP OF THE FOURTH: PIRATES 6
(1) – 5 BREWERS
Before McCutchen, there was Sparrow. Before Bonds, Captain Hook.
Before Clemente and Stargell and Waner and Wagner, there was One-Eyed Willy, Redbeard, Billy Bones, Long John Silver. There was, before the very first pirate set foot beside the Allegheny River, the long marauding history of the buccaneers, the raiders, the corsairs, the filibusters, the freebooters, sailing the seven seas and beyond—the seasick and the treasure-crazed, lumped together in mussed-up crews from Sardinia to Barbados.
John Jaso holds sway over them all. The man, in nearly every way, is a pirate.
I know I’m late on this, but did anyone in Pittsburgh tell John Jaso he didn’t have to ACTUALLY become a Pirate? pic.twitter.com/jr3qRyrj7m
— PTBNLeandres (@sleandres) April 3, 2016
The greatest of remaining pirates, in an age when the whole lot have turned in their parrots and peglegs for phishing scams and music rips, we’ve got before our eyes a real live swashbuckler, the traditional traits reworked to a beautiful tee. Swagger. Grit. Charisma. Dreadlocks. On a team where the halloween statute of costume limitations indeed has no limitations, where Sean Rodriguez and Clint Hurdle don their ballpark personas as if dropped into a Robinson Crusoe plot, John Jaso comes out unquestionably the alpha.
They say Dave Attell is the comedian’s comedian. Denis Johnson the writer’s writer. Perhaps Gary Oldman the actor’s actor. And John Jaso, before scores of awed fans and teammates, the Pirate’s Pirate.
Just look at him, and see if that isn’t a man from another century, another place, another world, another life. Somehow, some weird way, a piece of the 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates roster.
Look at him again, say Ahoy five times fast.
Someone, years from now, sings to a Zevon piano tune: “I saw John Jaso drinkin’ a piña colada at Trader Vic’s—his hair was perfect.”
Today, against these surging Pittsburgh Pirates, the Brewers made one fatal mistake, incurring the jinx-wrath that propels all pirate ships on into the wind, Jaso himself at their helms. The rolling out of a backstop ad, in the fourth inning, for a local brand of frozen pizza (see above). One bad move, and one stark disaster for the home team.
Did they not realize, as obscure Mediterranean historians certainly would have, as the obscure Italian singer Rosa Balistreri most definitely would have, that the Palermo of Palermo’s Pizza, on the northern shores of Sicily, has a long, still-scarred history of piracy? Did they know what fate they’d brought on with an ad like that? And how is it that the song goes? Arrivaru li navi, tanti navi a Palermu, li pirati sbarcaru, cu li facci di nfernu…
With faces, from hell. Faces from hell! Sean Rodriguez, in a ring of flames, disembarking and plundering, cutlass in hand, bandana on head, salt-stained clothes and his face, as always, the face of hell. Bad move, Milwaukee, very bad move indeed.
Palermo shall be remembered, it seems to say, this pizza ad, far past the best-by date of a midnight snack. “Palermo’s”: A Jumanji-esque summoning of a baseball plague, a bad bad roll of the dice that sinks all the hopes of an easy win.
And so, the Pirates listen, hear the call, and answer—and the fourth inning begins with a curse, created in Italy and invoked again by great midwestern pizza. Adam Frazier comes up, with one out, the team down four runs, Jimmy Nelson on the mound, and rips a base hit back up the middle past his shoulder, straight for the centerfield camera, quickly zooming out.
Jordy Mercer walks. And after a long, dull at-bat for Eric Fryer, he walks too. The bases loaded, one out. The table set for the great John Jaso, on deck, striding up in his loose-flex surfer-grunge choke-up pants-up athletic baseball crouch.
A legion of Pirates behind him sailing across Lake Michigan, to the Milwaukee shores, up into the Menomonee River, across several highway arteries of traffic, and into Miller Park to pilfer and plunder all barley and brew and temporary leads stored up over the early innings.
It was Vin Scully, days earlier, who’d first hit the books on pirates—the origins and symbolism, customs and ethic—in a final-season sendoff to one of the great National League teams.
“Whenever we play a team that has a name like, the Pirates,” he says, the beginning of a inning-long lecture no other broadcaster could rival, “I just wonder about whatever pirates can pass along to you. You know there’s more than one pirate flag? They talk about the ‘Jolly Roger,’ the black flag with a white skull and crossbones, really they also had a red flag. I didn’t know that, but yeah the pirates had a red flag, and that meant—no prisoners. We’re gonna wipe you out. And actually the term ‘Jolly Roger,’ was based on the red flag. In French, it was something like, jolie rouge, which turns out to be: Jolly Roger.”
Back in Milwaukee, far from the Vin’s Dodger Stadium broadcast booth, far from the library shelves of piracy history, from the island routes where it all happened, John Jaso steps up for Pittsburgh. Grizzled, cocky, tall, dreadlocked, dialed-in.
And he whips the bat through the zone on the second pitch—lining a fastball onto the rightfield grass for a single. The Pirates score a run, all runners advance, Jaso takes off his bright yellow gloves, hands them to Nick Leyva, takes the wheel of the Deathmobile and says in Piratespeak what amounts to a victory cry, Wisconsin down in flames: “Let’s take the cheese…”
It’s 5-2 Brewers still ahead, as Josh Harrison steps up and lifts a low fastball from Nelson into left. Another run scores, Fryer’s sent home for two, and he’s just in under the tag for the inning’s third run, sliding with his fist up in the air, the throw from Ryan Braun off-line, as the ball escapes and trickles away with Jaso in to third, Harrison in to second. Braun charged with an error. Says, on camera, “That’s bull…” and gnaws at the nail on his pointer finger.
The Milwaukee broadcast crew, late into the August calendar, is in that deflated state of the bad-team blues, where it’s unclear which team they’re calling for—games on games of the casual, the polite, the aimless musing of baseball goings-on, no stakes or significant drama. Waiting room literature at the doctor’s office. A does-this-really-matter hole that’s growing with each successive loss.
And one of them sighs, as Josh Bell grounds out to second, Jaso trotting home as the tying run. 5-5, without one hit beyond a single.
— Pirates (@Pirates) August 28, 2016
Andrew McCutchen follows, with two outs, his pants hiked up with the black socks ringed with three thick yellow stripes, a symbol only Vin would know how to decode. On a 2-2 count, he hits a hard ground ball under Nelson’s legs, Scooter Gennett slides behind second, keeps it in the infield, but no time for a throw as it’s too late. Harrison scores, Pirates lead. McCutchen in safe to first. 6-5. The rally complete.
Brewers’ manager Craig Counsell comes out for the ball, calls in a reliever, and heads back to the dugout more glum than maybe he’s ever been. Nelson hangs his head in the dugout as if he’ll never meet a major-league mound again. As if not only the inning, the game, but his house, his workplace, his city, his life, were just raided by a marauding group of bandits.
You might say, you might definitely say, that they brought this gloom upon themselves, throwing that Palermo reference into the ballpark visual. Jinxed it. And so, a note that can’t go underestimated, to all future teams hosting these Pittsburgh Pirates, the NL Wild Card game especially: Do not, under any circumstances, any!, bring forth the rally talisman that is the Palermo’s Pizza ad.
Give a wide berth, steer clear, or sink down to Davy Jones. Out of the NL playoff picture. Into a yearlong nightmare memory of the great John Jaso, a gang of rowdy pirates at his back, swinging around on dreadlock ends, like a row of lanyards, rigged up to the mast. Faces from hell.