Pirates catch up with PNC Park aura

PITTSBURGH – The plan worked to perfection, even if it took 13 seasons to kick in.

The idea was the Pirates would move into a baseball-only park with limited seating capacity and pack the place on a regular basis.

The whole thing hinged on assembling a winning team that would cause demand for tickets to exceed the limited supply.

The park has been a winner since the day it opened. It took the Pirates 13 years to measure up.

It happened this year with the first winning season and postseason berth since 1992, which led to Tuesday night’s wild-card play-in game against Cincinnati.

Things started slowly this year, with the Pirates drawing 9,570 for an April 17 game against the Cardinals.

But the bandwagon has been filling up, and not just in western Pennsylvania.

When the Pirates have been on the road, announcer Greg Brown has found his pockets stuffed with notes from displaced Pirates fans hoping to send a greeting back to Pittsburgh via the broadcast.

“More so than ever, without a doubt,” Brown said. “It’s happened all year, but it’s gotten bigger in the second half of the season, obviously.”

Brown has been a Pirates announcer since 1994, but he came to work for the team as an intern in 1979, when the Pirates won the World Series.

The fan base’s relationship with the Pirates has been understandably rocky through the 20-year losing streak.

If a neighbor spotted someone loading the car for a Steelers or Penguins game, they would be inclined to ask, “How did you get the tickets?”

But tell someone you were headed to a Pirates game, and it’s more likely the question would be, “Why?”

“I think the fans have always been there, but they’re coming out now,” Brown said. “They’re not ashamed now to show their allegiance. They’re proud again.”

Although manager Clint Hurdle talked about winning 95 games this season (one short of the team’s regular season total), this year’s success was unexpected.

The Pirates were coming off their second straight late-season collapse, and they didn’t make any player acquisitions to excite ticket buyers.

A 1-5 start led to speculation that heads would roll. The Pirates recovered and topped the .500 mark on April 20. They never had a losing record again.

“You could see it build up gradually,” Brown said. “Whenever there was a fear another collapse would happen, they’d find a way to win again. It took a little more convincing to get those people back this year, but now I think they’re in fully.”

As the team won, ticket sales increased and merchandise started moving.

“You see people wearing Pirates gear, and it’s not Stargell and Oliver,” Hurdle said. “It’s McCutchen.”

There’s another difference in this Pirates team. They’re loveable. That hasn’t always been the case. The Pirates were consistent contenders in the 1970s, but they weren’t always endearing. Some of their best contributions came from players like Dave Parker and John Candelaria, who didn’t evoke warm and fuzzy feelings.

The three division-winning teams in the early 1990s were led by Barry Bonds, another polarizing figure.

The sandpaper on this team is provided by crusty veteran pitcher A.J. Burnett, but fans seem to love his occasional bursts of temper, some of them directed at Hurdle.

Hurdle says he hears from the fans every day.

“Starbucks, Giant Eagle and the barber shop,” he said. “That’s the pulse.”

Fans will pay for this year’s success. In the midst of the postseason excitement, the Pirates quietly slipped out the news on Friday that next year’s ticket prices will increase. They’ll also switch to a system that charges a premium for certain opponents and Saturday games.

But they’ll go into next season occupying a different spot in the local sports scene.

There could be Pirates ticket lines in January.