The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 31, 2014

Spring brings hope for baseball fans

Pirates look to build on winning season

JOHNSTOWN — The calendar might not say so, but for many in western Pennsylvania, today is the first day of spring.

It’s the beginning of the Major League Baseball season – at least for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Our beloved Buccos open the season by hosting the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park at 1:05 this afternoon. A capacity crowd will be on hand to see the Pirates take the field amidst the most optimism that has surrounded the club in decades.

Spring and hope are nearly synonymous in baseball – most Pirates fans who suffered through the 21-year losing streak that ended last season probably believed for at least half of those Aprils that it was going to end that particular year – but this year just feels different.

Not only is the weather finally starting to feel like spring, but the Pirates’ run to the postseason last year showed how great of a baseball town Pittsburgh can be. The atmosphere at PNC Park during the playoff games was incredible, matching – or surpassing – anything you’ll find at a Steelers or Penguins game. It proved that the baseball is no longer just something to pass the time in Pittsburgh between the end of the hockey season and the beginning of football.

The offseason was a bit of a disappointment for some Pirates fans, as the team did not re-sign popular pitcher A.J. Burnett or any of the players they traded for during their playoff push last year. They didn’t bring in any big-name free agents or fill what looks like a gaping hole at first base, so there certainly are some question marks going into the season.

But there are also plenty of reasons for that optimism. They did make a commitment to their future this week by signing young outfielder Starling Marte to a long-term deal. They also have a multi-year deal with Andrew McCutchen, who won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award last season. Add in Pedro Alvarez, who tied for the league lead in home runs last year, as well as young star pitcher Gerrit Cole and the Pirates have great core to build around.

They have what experts rank as one of the best minor-league systems in all of baseball, with a number of prospects that are either ready to play in the majors now or will be shortly.

Oh, and they also play in PNC Park. It used to be that it was labeled as the best ballpark in baseball, but often with the asterisk that it deserved a team and fan support worthy of the gem that it is. Now, it should have both.

A great park, with what could be a great team and great fan support? Sounds like a winning combination to us.

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