PITTSBURGH - Something odd has been happening the past few weeks in the town that's home to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Penguins - something very strange indeed. People are talking about a professional baseball club called - what was that name again? - the Pittsburgh Pirates.
They are speaking about alien things, matters unfamiliar to a community unaccustomed to talking about baseball in anything but resigned tones. Things like five Pirates headed to the 2013 All-Star team - the first time so many are going since 1972. Things like a homer-slamming slugger nicknamed "El Toro." Things like a closer who leads the National League in saves, a pitching staff that leads the majors in shutouts and a team that has one of baseball's best records - and for a time the past few weeks, had the very best of all.
Too many things have happened between Pittsburgh and its baseball team over the past 20 years to make expectations high - or, more accurately, not enough has happened. But in this, the 21st year since the Pirates last finished with a winning record, the talk in restaurants and bars, on Little League fields and in the concession lines at PNC Park centers around some form of this tentative, hopeful question: Is this finally the year when things change?
"It all feels new," says Manny Sanguillen, a catcher on the 1971 and 1979 World Series title teams who now runs a barbecue stand behind the ballpark's center field fence.
"The fans, they're completely different this year. I walk down the street, they shout over at me. That wasn't happening [the] past few years," Sanguillen said before a game last week.
There hadn't been much shouting at all - either the good kind or the frustrated kind. While two Steeler teams won Super Bowls in the last decade and a Penguin team won a Stanley Cup, the Pirates watched from the cellar as one of the worst pro baseball teams playing in one of the major leagues' best ballparks. Their streak of consecutive losing seasons is unparalleled in major American sports.
Early season runs in 2011 and, more prominently, last year ended with post-All-Star-break implosions that have Pittsburghers skittish about supporting anything related to baseball at least until the back-to-school sales begin. And even after this season's shining start, a recent four-game losing streak - even after the nine-game winning streak that preceded it - produced audible mopery.
"It's tough to be a fan when you lose 20 years in a row," said Jeremy Bromley, 25, watching batting practice one evening last week before he saw the Bucs lose to the Oakland Athletics, 2-1.
And yet ...
The bubble-gum-chewing Clint Hurdle, manager since the 2011 season, calls this year's Pirates "the best team that we've had since I've been here." The team's official game-day magazine last week dared to contain an article with the headline: "Hurdle's Pirates are shaping up as one of baseball's best teams." Signs in the stands express an ascending optimism ("It's Our Year," says one). On the field and off, players seem to be having more fun. And one of the city's best-known sports columnists, Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, calls this "a fateful and long-awaited Pittsburgh summer."
"For 20 years, it's been the Penguins and the Steelers. And the Pirates have been the afterthought. And now the Pirates are in the conversation. They're relevant," says Scott Kaminski, 45, a lifelong Pirates fan and college baseball player who is now an attorney in neighboring West Virginia. "For 20 years it's just been, 'Well, let's go see a Pirates game for something to do,' or 'Some great player's coming into town,' or "It's a great ballpark.'" Now it's 'Let's go see the Pirates.'"
Part of it is that the Pirates are just exciting to watch this year, win or lose. When they have pulled out wins, often in the late innings, it still feels unexpected, such as the Sunday in June against the Milwaukee Brewers when catcher Russell Martin drove in the winning run in the bottom of the 14th. And even when they lose, as they did against the Cubs a week ago, the team often hands fans treats like leftfielder Starling Marte's home run in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two strikes that sent the game into extra innings.
Are such things enough, though, to reverse the dull sting of 20 losing seasons - a record unparalleled in baseball's history? Mind you, that's not "losing" as in losing the chance to be champions or make it to the postseason. That's "losing" as in not a single winning record since the first George Bush lived in the White House and Johnny Carson was just retiring from "The Tonight Show."
Pittsburgh's baseball fans have always been noticeably restive. As early as 1884, three years before the team that would become the Pirates entered the National League, fans and newspapers were already complaining. "We've had enough of that kind of baseball and don't intend to stand for any more of it," one newspaper said, according to a seminal 1948 history of the Pirates by Frederick G. Lieb.
And so it went. The 126-year history of the Pirates has been a tale of thrilling moments bracketed by long, parching droughts, drawn in sharp relief by the Pirates' World Series appearances - 1903, 1909, 1925, 1927, 1960, 1971 and 1979. If you look at those numbers and do a bit of math, it becomes evident: The past two decades have been surpassed only by the Pirates' inept performance between 1927, the year they were beaten by a Yankee team that many consider baseball's best ever, and 1960, when they turned the tables on the same club.
For Ethan Varley, 10, and his grandfather Kevin Berry, 69, of Pittsburgh's northern suburbs, this season's Pirate excitements come against a backdrop of what Berry calls skepticism and his baseball-loving grandson calls "being careful."
"I have a little more hope," says Ethan, still thrilled after meeting All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen and other Pirate players during a visit to PNC Park. His favorite: Hard-slugging third baseman Pedro Alvarez, part of Monday night's home-run derby. "They put a little more oomph in it this year than last year and the year before."
He and his grandfather are separated by more than two generations. Berry, a Pirates fan since the late 1950s, has living memories of three triumphal Pirates World Series years - 1960, 1971 and 1979 - and tells a story of spending an afternoon in the Forbes Field stands with his friends and an injured but friendly Roberto Clemente, who watched the game wearing street clothes.
Like many Pittsburghers, Berry, a semi-retired chemical engineer, questions some of the decisions by Pirate management over the past decade and more. He says he started turning away "when the ownership started showing a lack of a commitment to a winning team." Now, after a series of what he calls "good baseball decisions," including the acquisitions of Martin and pitcher Francisco Liriano and the development of pitcher Jeff Locke, "I think they have good players. It's taken a long time to get there."
KDKA-TV sportscaster Bob Pompeani, a Pittsburgh institution since the glow of the 1979 "Family" World Series win was still in the air, has spent a lot of time in this year's locker room. Yes, he says, there is talent and a strong manager, but there is something else, too: An enthusiastic team is infecting a city that wants to be.
"Twenty years is a long time. Hope has been shattered," Pompeani says. "I've always thought it was a great baseball town, even when it was struggling. Pittsburgh has been, I think, somewhat true to its team. Even during dark and bad times. And now they're expecting big things, but they're cautiously expecting big things. ... People are caring again."
Pirate fans might seek solace in the words of a man whose number appears on the backs of thousands of spectators at every game - Clemente, dead 40 years, still looming over the team as a reminder of its glory days. The Great One recognized the dangers to the present of people dwelling on what was. "Why does everyone talk about the past?" he said. "All that counts is tomorrow's game."