Winning ways firing up Bucs' fan base
Enthusiastic supporters packing ballpark, embracing current players
PITTSBURGH -- There's no dress code at the school Clint Hurdle's kids attend, so the Pirates manager did a little bit of a double take when he took them to catch the bus one morning during his team's last homestand. Most of the students had on similar attire.
"You could count the kids without Pirates gear on easier than you could count the kids who had Pirates gear on," Hurdle marveled. "I asked the bus driver and he said, 'You have no idea. It's never been like this.'"
There is joy in River City again. The Bucs' streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons, the longest in major professional North American sports, is finally over. A 1-0 win over the Rangers on Monday guaranteed a winning season. They hope to accomplish more, much more, but this is an important symbolic step along the way.
And the energized and engaged fan base has responded. Pittsburgh will easily break the record of 19 sellouts in a season at PNC Park. The North Shore bars and restaurants are vibrant and noisy when the team plays at home. That's a big change from the years when Blackbeard could have fired his cannon through the concourse and not hit a paying customer. Still, the sight of fans streaming over the Roberto Clemente Bridge to fill the seats only begins to tell the story of how this baseball team has recaptured the hearts of the city. Of how, after 20 fallow years, the Pirates are commanding attention from the populace that had grown accustomed to turning its attention to football at this point of the calendar.
Hitting coach Jay Bell lives downtown, and he sees it when he walks home after games.
"I get to see a lot of fans leaving the ballpark, and they're excited about what we're accomplishing," Bell said.
Broadcaster Steve Blass sees it when he drives to the park.
"I see kids playing catch in the yard," Blass said. "They've got their [Andrew] McCutchen jerseys on. I feel good about that. The last two years, it's gotten some traction. And this year, it's just taken off."
Drivers and pedestrians see it on Fifth Avenue. Outside the old courthouse is a countdown sign. Going into a National League Central showdown series against the Cardinals during the Pirates' last homestand, it featured the number five followed by the notation: "Wins to go for a winning season! Let's Go Bucs!" There's also a large billboard featuring McCutchen advertising for a local jewelry store.
|"There was never a doubt in my mind that, in this town, the synergy would be there. That the ballpark would come alive. Just based on the fan base. This is a sports town."|
|-- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.|
"You never saw that before," noted longtime Bucs communications director Jim Trdinich.
Fans see it on the top of the Gulf Tower, clearly visible from PNC Park. Different illumination patterns coincide with key moments in the game and Pirates wins. The top six stories of the 44-story structure feature different black-and-gold light sequences that celebrate homers and runs scored. Also, for each victory, home and road, another sequence is displayed for the rest of the evening.
Kent Tekulve, former Bucs reliever turned pregame and postgame television analyst, sees it in the stands.
"For the longest time, when you went down there, there would be jerseys with guys who had been here and played well and were gone," Tekulve said. "You don't see that now. You see a lot of McCutchen jerseys. You see [Neil] Walker jerseys. You see these guys, because people have identified with this team. This is their team."
Paul Meyer covered the Pirates beat for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 1987 through 2008, and he still follows the club closely. He said it's no mystery why the team fell on hard times.
"Everybody knew after '92, it wasn't going to be as good," Meyer said. "Because of the money. [Barry] Bonds was going to leave. [Bobby] Bonilla had already left. [Doug] Drabek was going to leave. From 1994 through '98, they had really unproductive Drafts. You didn't really realize it at the time. But as you look back, for five straight years, they got almost nobody.
"It became almost like the Steelers, the Penguins and ... oh, the Pirates. They were way down the list here."
That's all changed now.
"There's a different feel," Meyer said. "People here are really back to being Pirates fans. And I know that not just because the ballpark is full. Because my friends, who hardly ever talked about the Pirates before, now they'll say, 'Hey, how about the Pirates?' It's pretty amazing. It's totally changed. And it's good. Because we shouldn't keep talking about '92 and '71 and '71 and '60. We shouldn't be doing that. But for awhile, that's all we had."
There's nothing quite like pennant race baseball to stir civic enthusiasm. And Pirates fans are all in.
Sparky Roteman is the unofficial leader of the Section 316 Gang, a group of 20 season-ticket holders who sit in the third deck right behind the plate. They have become so close that they even get together in the offseason.
Roteman is 66 years old, which, he is quick to point out, is how many home runs Dick Stuart hit for Lincoln of the Class A Western League in 1956. Roteman was living in Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979, which was convenient because it allowed him to attend all seven games of the World Series between Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Naturally, he got engaged at PNC Park.
The group has its customs. For example, if there's a Pirates runner on third base, one or more of the gang is likely to yell, "Moooose! Moooose!" Which is to say, they're rooting for a wild pitch that will allow the run to score. The reference is to the infamous wild pitch Bob Moose threw to allow the Cincinnati Reds to win Game 5 of the 1972 NL Championship Series and advance to the World Series. It's a tribute, Roteman said, adding, "He also threw a no-hitter. He was a good guy."
Roteman has also written three novels featuring his favorite team. In the first, a character based on former Bucs outfielder Chris Duffy gets called up from Double-A and bats .339. The following year, Duffy, who had played in Double-A the previous season, made the Opening Day roster ... and batted .339. In Roteman's latest book, which came out last year, the Pirates win the World Series. And Roteman is convinced that fact will once again follow his fiction.
"It's time," he said. "We've been close the last couple years. Usually, the Steelers report to training camp and it's all Steelers. Not this year, my friend. This year, it's the Pittsburgh Pirates. And the Pirates are going to win the World Series."
Don and Bernadette Olsavicky are also season-ticket holders. What makes them unusual is that they live outside Albany, N.Y. It takes them eight hours to drive each way, but they make the trip as often as they can. Sometimes their son, who's in his early 20s, comes along. He's part of the lost generation of Pirates fans who can't remember seeing their team compete in the postseason.
"He's a diehard," Don said. "He doesn't know what winning is for Pittsburgh. But he lives and dies with the Pirates. He can't wait for the Pirates to finally have a winning season, because he's going to be able to say he was actually at the stadium for [some of] the home games."
The Olsavickys are planning to relocate to the Pittsburgh area before next season. They're doing that so they can attend all 81 home games in 2014.
Hurdle became the Pirates' manager in 2011. The year before, the franchise lost 105 games and averaged fewer than 20,000 tickets sold per game. He sees evidence of how much things have changed everywhere he looks.
"The people who sell season tickets, it's much easier now," Hurdle said. "The people working in the ballpark who have been grinding and selling stuff, these guys out on the streets trying to make a living selling merchandise. You drive and you say hello and they say, 'Hey, thanks!' They're appreciative."
Clinching a winning record, Hurdle stressed, is only the beginning.
"We've got more work to do," he said. "We have a vision that goes far past some of those things."
But, Hurdle added, he always knew that the fans would respond the way they have.
"There was never a doubt in my mind that, in this town, the synergy would be there," Hurdle said. "That the ballpark would come alive. Just based on the fan base. This is a sports town. These are real people, and everything you hear about Pittsburgh is true. They're blue-collar people. They love their team. They love the Pirates. The Pirates have been out of place here for a long time. So it"s actually a real cool thing."