The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

July 13, 2012

ERIC KNOPSNYDER | Pirates no laughing matter

Eric Knopsnyder

JOHNSTOWN — It wasn’t that unusual to hear a “How about those Buccos?” comment in this region over the past two decades, but it was usually followed by a derisive chuckle.

No more.

The Pittsburgh Pirates sit atop the National League’s Central Division as they begin the unofficial second half of their season tonight in Milwaukee, and fans in western Pennsylvania have taken notice. Whether it’s the appearance of more Andrew McCutchen jerseys at games, Facebook pages adorned with the Zoltan sign players flash to one another after big hits or the record TV audience that watched Root Sports’ broadcast of the team’s 13-2 thrashing of the San Francisco Giants on Sunday, people are getting behind this team.

At least one national writer called the Pirates baseball’s best story this season, and with good reason. They haven’t just been bad since Sid Bream slid across home plate in October 1992, crushing the Pirates’ bid for a World Series appearance and setting in motion a downward spiral from which they still haven’t rebounded; they have been worse – in terms of longevity – than any team in major North American sports history.

After that 1992 season, Barry Bonds went on to bigger things – seasons and muscles – as he left via free agency for the San Francisco Giants. A rebuilding project ensued and quickly collapsed upon itself in a cycle that repeated over and over again.

Despite picking in the top 10 of the first-year player draft eight times from 1994 to 2003, the Pirates never did find a true superstar. They selected players who never panned out, such as Chad Hermansen, J.J. Davis, John Van Benschoten and Bryan Bullington, who was the top overall pick in the 2002 draft, or ones who turned into mediocre major leaguers such as Kris Benson (another overall No. 1 pick) and Paul Maholm.

The Pirates moved from boring old Three Rivers Stadium to the shiny and cozy PNC Park. They switched logos and uniforms.

The managers, front office personnel and even the ownership changed. Only one thing remained constant: Losing.

But, there is real optimism around western Pennsylvania that this could be the year that the streak of futility ends.

Better yet is the feeling that the Pirates could actually end up in the postseason.

There’s still a long way to go – at 48-37 the Pirates have 77 games remaining. And there are plenty of fans who got behind the team last year – when it was in first place in late July – only to see a monumental collapse in the second half of the season.

There’s a chance that could happen again, but there is even more reason for optimism this season. First off, this team has a different feel about it. McCutchen, a do-everything center fielder, has blossomed into the franchise’s first MVP candidate since Bonds left. The pitching staff features a nice mix of veterans and youth, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. And people who have been around the team say there is a different dynamic to the clubhouse than there has been in decades, a sense the team expects to win.

Perhaps it’s a fitting challenge that the Pirates resume play at Miller Park in Milwaukee, were they had won just four of their previous 42 games prior to this season and just one of 14 series. But these new-look Bucs took two out of three games from the Brewers there last month.

And Milwaukee, which enters the series with a 40-45 record and eight games behind the Pirates in the standings, isn’t nearly as strong this year. In fact, Clint Hurdle’s squad won’t play a team with a winning record until Aug. 3, when it visits the Cincinnati Reds. In between, Pittsburgh will face the Brewers, the Colorado Rockies, the Miami Marlins, the Chicago Cubs (twice) and the Houston Astros. Those teams are a combined 66 games below .500.

If the Pirates can pile up a few more wins during that stretch, they will be well on their way to a winning season and, possibly, reigniting a fan base that has had little to cheer about for two decades.

Eric Knopsnyder is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat.