By Dan Majors
PITTSBURGH — There are plenty of new names connected with the Pirates' resurgence this season. Burnett, Barajas, Barmes, Bedard, McGehee, Sutton. And Zoltan.
Amid all the excitement of having a competitive baseball team -- and perhaps ending a record-setting string of 19 losing seasons -- the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates have embraced a wacky bit from a goofy movie to celebrate their success. Whenever a player slaps an extra-base hit, his teammates put their hands together -- the left one on top of the right one with the thumbs extended and touching -- to form a sort of "Z."
"It all started in Atlanta when we were watching [television] in the clubhouse, and there was nothing we wanted to watch," said second baseman Neil Walker, recalling the last weekend in April. "We saw 'Dude, Where's My Car?' And guys were like 'Oh, we haven't seen this in a while.' So we watched it. "It was just so terrible and stupid. We just pulled that from it. It's just kind of our team way of bonding, I guess."
The 2000 comedy features a scene in which the stars, Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott, join a group of losers who are wearing Bubble Wrap and celebrating the pending arrival of the cult leader Zoltan.
"I think you've got to just find ways to lighten the mood at times," Walker said. "This game is so difficult that when times are going good, you have to celebrate. When times are going bad, you have to forget about it and move on. It's a way for all of us to come together a little bit more and have fun with it."
Carole Kunkle-Miller was in the stands at PNC Park recently when she noticed the players and fans making the strange hand gestures.
"I thought they were just being funny, and then I realized there was a meaning behind it," said Kunkle-Miller, a certified sports psychologist who has been practicing in Mt. Lebanon for 12 years.
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It means the Pirates are winning and the players and their fans are having fun. It became prominent among the players in May after catcher Rod Barajas belted a game-winning home run against the Washington Nationals at PNC Park. As he rounded third, he found his teammates waiting for him at home plate, each one displaying the "Z."
"We just started doing it, we've been raking ever since," said starter A.J. Burnett. "That was my favorite part of the night, seeing 20 guys behind home plate doing that. It shows you what a group we have."
"It gives them a sense of shared goal and that positive message of winning. It unifies them," said Kunkle-Miller. "I remember when the Pirates were in the World Series (in 1979), they would play 'We Are Family' to rally the fans and get everybody going. This is a variation on that."
Like playoff beards, the Green Weenie and the Terrible Towel.
"Athletes in general like to be part of a team," said Aimee Kimball, director of mental training at UPMC Sports Medicine on Pittsburgh's South Side. "So something that they all have in common, like an inside joke, bonds them a little more. And the fans then take it to another level."
"I love it because it's specific to them," said Pirates fan James Hans, 30, of Delmar, who attended Tuesday night's game at PNC Park. "They're a band of brothers sticking together."
"It's great," said his friend, Joey Morris, 29, of Plum. "It means they're having fun, and if they're not having fun, they're probably not winning."
Such would be the diagnosis of George Pappas, a sports psychologist who has been practicing in Squirrel Hill since 1985.
"It's important for athletes to have something to help them to tap into their full resources," said Pappas, who has worked with professional athletes across the country. "It helps in improving concentration, getting rid of unnecessary tension, substituting negative thoughts with positive thoughts. "It creates a positive image and it takes on like a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you're negative, a player strikes out, and he might dwell on what he's been doing wrong. Now he has something positive to think, and he's changed for the better."
Players always have been ritualistic, Pappas said.
"They wear a certain shirt, a certain sock. Superstitions. It's nothing new. This goes back decades."
Like tugging on your shirt, the way Pirates third baseman Richie Hebner did in the 1970s.
"I can see this working, this Zoltan, because now they believe they have something that's going to lead them to getting more hits," Pappas said. "And the fans form the association with it because they like to emulate their favorite players. They want part of the team."
As do the merchants. Dan Rock, general manager at Common Wealth Press on the South Side, said he and his co-workers were quick to seize on the symbol and have been selling T-shirts depicting the "Z" for a couple of weeks.
"We don't try to find T-shirt opportunities, but they seem to happen quite a bit with our sports teams," Rock said. "It's pretty popular right now, even though they don't have any words on them. Just the hands. "That's what a lot of our stuff is. If you're not from Pittsburgh, you won't get it. We get people who come in our shop all the time and say, 'I don't understand what these shirts mean.' We're definitely Pittsburghers making shirts for Pittsburghers."
Kunkle-Miller said she doesn't see anything wrong with rallying around something such as Zoltan.
"I don't think there's a downside," she said. "But the big picture is that the reason why they're doing so well is not because of Zoltan. It's what Clint Hurdle has done as manager, keeping them focused with a positive attitude. It's definitely more than luck. But it's fun."