By Jim Sankey
Allied News Baseball Columnist
WHEN A TEAM that has not won much does well and is eliminated from extended post-season play, people often shrug off their exit by explaining, “Hey, they were just happy to be there.”
After 20 consecutive losing seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates—and their fans—were not “just happy to be there.” No, we all were ecstatic!
Had you been asked last spring if a .500 record would please you, you would have jumped on such a deal, at about the same time people were snickering, not always behind Clint Hurdle’s back, when the skipper projected his team would win 95 games during a season when it lost five of its first six games to open the 2013 campaign, then went 93-63.
Especially after having been stung in each of the two previous summers’ meltdowns, we would have signed up for .500.
But unlike each of the past two seasons, this version of the Pirates stiffed its back when it teetered on the edge of a losing streak, never losing five consecutive contests.
“We definitely had an amazing year,” Andrew McCutchen said after the St. Louis Cardinals eliminated the Bucs in the fifth and deciding game. “A year to remember. A year that's going to go down in the books forever. Definitely happy to be a part of it.”
It was a year that has fans licking their chops for 2014, when season ticket sales are expected to near 20,000. For the first time in two decades, the off-season will be more than a time of signing free agents nobody else wants and trying to promote players whose ceilings are lower than those at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.
Moreover, if there were any question in the first place, the Pirates re-established themselves as Pittsburgh’s clear number two team, behind only the Steelers in popularity. Nobody can question the Pirates’ fan loyalty.
If anyone doubts that Pittsburgh is a solid baseball town, answer these two questions: Had the Penguins or Steelers been under .500 for 20 straight seasons, what kind of fan base would they enjoy in year 20?
In the Pirates’ 20th consecutive losing year in 2012, the team drew more than two million fans after watching 1.9 million spin the turnstiles in 2011. And this year’s 2.25 million ranks historically only behind PNC’s inaugural 2001 season of 2.4 million.
In contrast, when the Pens’ 11 straight playoff appearances (Doesn’t everyone make the NHL three-month playoffs?) ended after 2001, attendance fell in 2002 and 2003, landing dead last among the 30 teams in 2003.
Even when the Steelers don’t qualify for the playoffs (2013?), the team still sells out. But ask season ticket holders how many of the original ticket buyers show up in December when the team is out of contention. There are starved fans all too willing to buy those unwanted tickets held by season ticket holders. And scalpers already have fistfuls of tickets available around Heinz Field during this lost season.
In the meantime, Pirates fans continue to bask in the warmth of an exciting season that reignited the city’s love of its Buccaneers and in anticipation of awards for McCutchen (MVP, Gold Glove), Hurdle (top manager), Francisco Liriano (comeback player), and Neal Huntington (top executive).
And with the Cardinals just two wins from advancing to another World Series, most Bucco fans are pulling for an organization that has had consecutive losing seasons just once (1994 and 1995) since 1960.
A Sports Illustrated article last May reminded that the organization’s 11 championships have been well distributed. According to author Ben Reiter, no son or daughter of St. Louis born since 1902 has reached the age of 25 without having lived through at least one World Series victory.
Those sighs you hear are from Pirate fans who will be watching their 35 straight World Series without a Pittsburgh participant.
But this winter there is fact-based hope that might change in 2014.
Thanks, Buccos, for the past…and the present.