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Pirates try to heal two decades of hurt

A pennant, not just a winning season, is what Pittsburgh's long-suffering fans are praying for

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 3:23am
 

They've got the best modern ballpark in the United States, a gem on Pittsburgh's North Shore with spectacular views of the city and a bridge you can walk over to watch a game. It may be the only place in baseball where french fries come inside a sandwich rather than next to it.

Up until now, all that was missing at PNC Park was a winner.

Pittsburgh will have one this season, though it's hardly time to start spraying champagne. Not with a precarious lead in the National League Central, and eight games still to be played against the two teams chasing the Pirates down the stretch.

The collapse of last season is still fresh in the minds of Pirates fans everywhere, as if they didn't have enough history to worry about. An entire generation of new fans who know Sid Bream only as a historical footnote has never experienced a winning team in Pittsburgh.

They've been mired in mediocrity for so many years that just clinching at least a .500 season this week was hailed as an accomplishment. Still, as Brewers manager Ron Roenicke pointed out after the Pirates got win No 81 on Tuesday night in Milwaukee, this is really a good ballclub.

They certainly are, with an MVP candidate in centrefielder Andrew McCutchen, a slugger in the middle of the line-up in Pedro Alvarez and a remarkable reclamation project in Francisco Liriano. Adding Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd to the mix in trades within the last week pretty much guaranteed the Bucs would not only have their first winning season in 21 years, but be in the play-offs, too.

The fact the Pirates haven't shown one sign of folding has to be heartening to long-suffering Pittsburgh fans. So does management's willingness to go out and spend some money to upgrade the line-up with Morneau and Byrd.

But if this is going to really be a magical year, it's likely the Pirates need to not only make the play-offs but win their division. After 20 years of losing, nothing could be crueller than facing the very real possibility of being bounced from the play-offs in a one-game wild-card match-up where the winners really do take all.

Indeed, the race in the NL Central highlights the main weakness of the new wild-card format, implemented last year to keep more teams in play-off contention. After losing to the Cardinals on Friday the Pirates led the division by just half a game from St Louis and two ahead of Cincinnati. With no other teams in the National League really in wild-card contention, the two teams who don't win the Central will meet in a one-game play-off with the winners advancing.

Seems fair enough, until you realise that both the first- and second-place teams would have got slots in a full division series under the old system.

Not that the Pirates seem too worried about the possibility of one-and-done. They're enjoying the ride, and the full ballparks at a time of year when fans in Pittsburgh are usually too busy rooting on the NFL's Steelers to worry about baseball.

"It was on our to-do list," manager Clint Hurdle said of the winning season. "We'll move on from here."

Hard for Hurdle or any of his charges to get too giddy, because someone will always remind them of the past. Two decades of losing, including six seasons where the Pirates finished more than 30 games out. It's the longest streak in any major North American sport, but how it began makes it hurt even more.

With a skinny outfielder named Barry Bonds in left, the Pirates were up 2-0 over the Atlanta Braves going into the bottom of the ninth inning of game seven of the National League championship series in 1992. Three outs and the Pirates go to the World Series for the first time since they danced to the disco hit We Are Family after beating the Baltimore Orioles in 1979.

The fact the Pirates haven’t shown one sign of folding has to be heartening to Pittsburgh fans

But after a double, an error and a walk, the lead was cut to 2-1. With two outs and the bases loaded, third-string catcher Francisco Cabrera lined a single to leftfield, and slow-footed Sid Bream was waved around from second with the winning run. Bonds had a chance to get Bream at home, but the throw was just up the line and Bream slid in just before the tag.

In the stands, former president Jimmy Carter high-fived everyone around him as the crowd of 51,000 in Atlanta celebrated one of the most improbable comebacks ever. The Pirates, meanwhile, went into a daze that has taken them two decades to escape.

Whether it ends any better this year may be decided before the play-offs even begin. No team need the pressure of winning one game to move on after already playing a full season of 162, but the Pirates have history to beat, too.

A winning season is nice. But winning the NL Central may be the only thing that really matters.

Associated Press

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