In evaluating baseball players (and cities), sample size is important

PITTSBURGH - Dear residents of the Steel City, I have something I need to tell you: I’m sorry.

For several years now, I’ve had a burgeoning distaste for your town. I ignored all of the most-livable-city awards and the talk about how Pittsburgh had reinvented itself after the decline of the steel industry, focusing only on its stereotypical image as a smoggy, burnt-out town in the Rust Belt. I respected your sports traditions, especially the legacy of the Pittsburgh Steelers. But as a Green Bay Packers fan living in Washington who’d come across one too many Steelers fans that have trouble with either history or math (since the NFL began play in 1921, the Packers have 13 championships, more than double the Steelers’ six), I ran your team up the list of franchises I love to watch fail. And I’ve spared few opportunities to take playful punches at the team, or the city, on Twitter.

But my most insidious offense - and the one for which I feel the greatest need to apologize today - is my violation of a principle tenet of baseball writing: Sample size matters. Or, as my mother might say, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

You see, in four years covering the Nationals, I’d never visited your fair city. Instead, I’d allowed my image of it to be crafted by what I saw on TV or heard East Coast bluebloods say about it. When the travel schedule finally lined up for me to travel west this weekend for the Nationals-Pirates series, though, I decided I’d better get enough information to make a fair evaluation. So, resisting my urge to strut around town all weekend in my Super Bowl XLV champions swag, I set out to explore the city.

What I found, quite frankly, surprised me. First, your baseball stadium (PNC Park) is a gem, and it would appear your football stadium (Heinz Field) is, as well. The ability to get from downtown to both of them by foot or boat is tremendous. And your downtown area, as it turns out, is clean, walkable and full of places to eat. It’s got both a sense of history and revival.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, your town’s commitment to hearty, greasy food is truly elite. I ventured with a few of the Nats beat writers to Fat Head’s Saloon on Pittsburgh’s South Side on Friday, and was thoroughly impressed with the high-end bar food and beer list. Saturday’s trip was to the legendary Primanti Bros. Restaurant, which scored well in three areas: It had appeared on “Man vs. Food,” it referred to soft drinks as “pop,” not “soda” (I’m from the Midwest, I still call it pop and I’m not changing), and it adhered to the first Ben Goessling Principle of Sandwich-Making - a sandwich is not big enough unless there’s stuff falling out of it with every bite.

As it turns out, Pittsburgh, in forming my short-sighted opinion of your city, I’d ignored many of the same virtues that life-long East Coasters miss when they denigrate my native Midwest as “flyover country.” In a way, you’ve got the same artsy-meets-salt-of-the-earth feel that my hometown of Minneapolis has. And like Wisconsin, from which my entire family hails, your town is full of northern European descendants, Germans and Poles raised on back-breaking labor, family values and an intense love of their sports teams. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Packers and Steelers, quite possibly the two greatest franchises in NFL history with the two most passionate fanbases, take their names from labor-heavy industries that have now largely gone away. Our paths involve the same roots, struggles and high points. We share a love of comfort food and kitschy phrases (“Yinz guys” for you, “You betcha” for us). We might produce the meat, cheese and bread for the burgers, but what would they be without Heinz ketchup? As president Abraham Lincoln said in his First Inaugural Address 150 years ago, we are not enemies, but friends. Or, in the words of another great dignitary, Rocky Balboa, if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change.

(Wait, he was supposed to be from Philadelphia, right? Is that a sore spot?)

So in conclusion, Pittsburgh, I’m sorry. I thank you for giving me a chance to have my stereotypes erased, and I look forward to spending more time in your fair city. I’m excited to walk around PNC Park this weekend to see what makes it one of the most highly-respected parks in the game. And maybe i’ll get to Heinz Field someday, to see where the Steelers won their last game of the 2010-11 season.

(Of course, to see where the Packers won the last game of their 2010-11 season, I’d have to head another 1,200 miles south to Dallas.)

OK, OK, that was a cheap shot. But from what I can tell, Pittsburgh, you can appreciate a little good-natured teasing. I’ve learned enough about you to know I don’t have any reason for digs more serious than that.