Pirates, fans enter 2014 season in winning mode
On Monday at PNC Park, the Pittsburgh Pirates will take the field as winners before the first pitch is thrown on Opening Day. It took only 21 years for that to happen.
The last opener following a winning season took place on April 6, 1993, in Three Rivers Stadium. The Pirates beat San Diego, 9-4, that day but fooled few fans. Hard times had arrived after three straight division championships. Slashing payroll and parting with key players, including Barry Bonds, the Pirates slogged to a fifth-place finish and the first of 20 straight losing seasons.
For this Opening Day, against the Chicago Cubs, the prevailing mood is considerably brighter. Even the controversial Bonds will be there, presenting the National League Most Valuable Player award to center fielder Andrew McCutchen. Bonds was MVP in 1990 and '92 before signing a big free-agent contract with the San Francisco Giants.
Instead of tearing things down and losing stars like Bonds, the Pirates organization continues to build.
“You used to walk into the stadium thinking, ‘Maybe we'll get lucky and win a game today,' ” said season ticket-holder Doug Hull, 48, of McCandless. “Now you have the feeling they'll at least be competitive. There's gonna be some battling going on on the field.”
Before the game, McCutchen (NL MVP, Silver Slugger), Clint Hurdle (NL Manager of the Year), Francisco Liriano (Major League Comeback Player of the Year) and Pedro Alvarez (Silver Slugger) will receive awards.
That's a lot of hardware, but 2013 was quite a season. After improving but falling short of the playoffs in the previous two years, the Pirates sustained their momentum and won 94 games, plus a crazy, cacophonous, Johnny Cueto-dropping-the-ball wild-card playoff, before falling to St. Louis in the division series.
The Pirates at once emerged as contenders and terminated the longest streak of losing seasons in the history of major American team sports.
“You feel like a huge weight has been lifted off your shoulders,” said Pirates broadcaster Greg Brown, whose first Opening Day behind the microphone was in 1994. “As those losing years piled up, every spring people would bring the weight of the previous year and say, ‘Are we gonna end it?' Now they don't say that. They say, ‘We've set the bar, now we've gotta top that.' ”
Season ticket sales are up 40 percent from a year ago, and the club is projected to top last season's record 23 sellouts, said Brian Warecki, the club's vice president of communications.
Opening Day tickets average about $83 on the secondary market, 50 percent more than last year's opener and the highest recorded for a Pirates regular-season game. Pittsburgh's Opening Day tickets are the sixth-most actively traded in MLB, according to SeatGeek, a ticket search engine.
“It's one of the most popular Opening Days in Major League Baseball,” SeatGeek analyst Connor Gregoire said.
Going into a season, every team — from the world champion Boston Red Sox to the lowly Houston Astros — poses questions. For the Pirates, the main topics have been right field, first base and the starting rotation. No one asks whether the team will ever win again.
“Now they're baseball questions, and that's something we haven't had,” Brown said.
“We've gone from completely dismissing the team to ‘It would be good if (shortstop Clint) Barmes could hit a little better,' ” Hull said.
Topping last year would be a tall order, even for a club that seems to have turned the corner. Hull believes the Pirates will slip a bit, and he is not alone. He remains enthusiastic.
“I want them to keep getting better, but I have the feeling they're gonna regress,” he said. “Are they gonna be in the same neighborhood this year? I don't know, but they don't really need to be. The monkey is off their backs.”
Like most who play the game, Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said the club is maintaining an even keel.
“The mindset hasn't changed (in the clubhouse), but I think externally it has changed with the fans and the media, whatever you want to call it,” he said. “Our goal is the same. Our goal is to win the World Series.”
Some fans hoped the Pirates would make a bigger splash with free agents in the offseason, “but they didn't make any wrong moves, either,” Hull said. “They've done pretty well. They're not throwing $20 million contracts out there, and I don't think that's a bad thing.”
Last week, the Pirates extended Starling Marte's contract, locking up the talented and speedy left fielder for another five years.
The team's popularity beyond the local market, which spiked last fall, has remained high. Since Dec. 1, national merchandise sales were 300 percent higher than in the same period last year, according to Fanatics.com, the largest online retailer of officially licensed team merchandise. Only the Red Sox improved more.
The company reported sales of McCutchen-related merchandise during the period ranks fifth among all players.
According to SportsOneSource, which tracks the sporting goods industry, Pirates' merchandise overall ranked 10th in national sales from November through January.
“It's not surprising that some of the euphoria has carried over from last season,” said Matt Powell, an analyst with the company.
Brown, who regularly interacts with fans, said: “From Day One in spring training, you could almost see it in their faces. There's a joy and relief we haven't seen.”