After two lean, long decades, Pittsburgh Pirates fans throughout western Pennsylvania and points beyond embraced the Bucs once again in 2013, showing the type of support that hadn't been seen since the early 1990s.
As the Pirates accomplished their first winning season and earned their first trip to the National League playoffs since 1992, the team's dedicated, long-suffering fans joined forces with those who came out of the woodwork and jumped on the bandwagon to show the Bucs their appreciation.
This week, the Pirates are doing their part to return that appreciation as part of the team's newly formed Pirates Charities CARE-a-van, which is visiting 15 cities and taking part in 25 community events over three days in the Pittsburgh area and surrounding communities.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Tony Watson thanks Van Zandt VA Medical Center resident Edwin “Jack” Bumford for his service during a visit by the Pirates Charities CARE-a-van Thursday afternoon.
Pirates players Josh Harrison, Tony Sanchez and Tony Watson, along with coach Rick Sofield and broadcaster Greg Brown, comprised a traveling group that appeared in Altoona early Thursday morning to greet residents and clients at the Van Zandt VA Medical Center.
The outing was a win-win for everybody concerned.
Harrison, a utility infielder, Sanchez, a catcher, and Watson, a left-handed relief pitcher, enjoyed coming back to Altoona, where they all played Class Double-A baseball with the Curve.
"Any time that you can come back and give back, it's good,'' said Harrison, a key member of the Curve's 2010 Eastern League championship team who has played several infield and outfield positions during his time with the Pirates. "You never know whose day it can make.''
One of the veterans on hand to greet the Pirates entourage Thursday morning was longtime Van Zandt Center resident Jack Weaver, 88, of Saxton, who fought in World War II.
"I watch all their games [on TV]. I'm a big fan,'' Weaver said. "I'm glad they came here, and I hope they come back again.''
Sanchez, who got his feet wet with the Pirates in 2013 by appearing in 22 games, and batting .233 with two home runs and five RBIs, was also glad to be back in Altoona.
"When you're here to touch the lives of people at the Veterans Medical Center, you're here for the right reasons,'' he said. "Any time you have the opportunity to come out into the community for the right reasons, you've got to take advantage of it.''
Watson, a big part of the Pirates' stellar bullpen this past season, agreed.
"The guys here have been through a lot,'' he said. "Some have done a lot of rehab, some are battling illnesses, and for us to come around here near the holidays and put a smile on their faces is what matters most,'' Watson said.
Andrea Young, the Van Zandt Medical Center's Public Affairs Officer, said that the Pirates stepped forward to make the visit.
"The Pirates came to us and said that they really wanted to come here and visit,'' she said. "It's such a generous thing that the Pirates are doing. A lot of the veterans here watch the games, and to meet the players is such a treat for them.''
Brown said that Pirates president Frank Coonelly came up with the idea of the community CARE-a-van - sponsored by Highmark - as an alternative to the team's annual autograph-signing sessions at shopping centers and sporting goods stores.
"Pirates Charities has become so big that we want to use that philanthropic arm and continue to grow it,'' Brown said. "PirateFest [which is set for this Saturday and Sunday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh] can still accommodate the fans who want autographs, but the emphasis of these trips is community outreach. It's a week of giving.''
And the Pirates' giving has been well-received.
"This area has definitely embraced us,'' said Chaz Kellem, the Pirates' Manager of Diversity Initiatives, who was on hand to coordinate Thursday's event. "We're honored that these organizations are welcoming us to their places of business.''