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Expectations on the high side for Pirates' 2015 season

| Sunday, April 5, 2015, 10:57 p.m.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Luke Nio of San Francisco peruses the Pirates shirts in the PNC Majestic Clubhouse Store on Thursday, April 2, 2015.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
John Heichel of Tyrone peruses the Pirates gear available Thursday, April 2, 2015, in the PNC Park Majestic Clubhouse Store.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Fans form a line outside the ticket window at PNC Park on Thursday, April 2, 2015.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Pirate flags hang along the sidewalk Thursday, April 2, 2015, outside of PNC Park on the North Shore.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Luke Nio (left) and Shawn Rainey, both of San Francisco, peruse the Pirates hats in the PNC Majestic Clubhouse Store on Thursday, April 2, 2015.

Mike Mulvihill owns a set of Pirates playoff tickets canceled out by the San Francisco Giants in last season's National League Wild Card game.

But unusable does not mean useless.

The souvenirs are reminders of a wilted franchise again in bloom.

The Pirates will open their 2015 season at 4:10 p.m. Monday in Cincinnati as winners and contenders, “not the team that gets rolled over anymore,” as pitcher Jeff Locke put it. Coming off back-to-back winning records and postseason appearances for the first time since 1993 — and led by star center fielder Andrew McCutchen — the Pirates are on a roll.

This is a welcome state of affairs for once-suffering fans such as Mulvihill, who keeps the playoff tickets in a desk in the New York office where he works as senior vice president of programming and research for Fox Sports.

Fox and Fox Sports 1 will broadcast at least six Pirates games this season, having carried seven in 2014.

Fox ignored the Pirates for many years — and the network was not alone.

But things have changed.

“They're a fun team to showcase,” said Mulvihill, 43, who grew up glued to Milo Hamilton's play-by-play on KDKA radio and rode the 56E bus to the former Three Rivers Stadium from his home in Greenfield. “Even putting aside my personal connection to the team and the city, I think they're a tremendous story.”

Such bullish assessments are a major upgrade from the annual spring rite of writing off the season before it started or lamenting the club's small-market payroll.

ESPN columnist and TV analyst Buster Olney picked the Pirates to reach the World Series, drawing a comparison with the gold standard of respected, forward-thinking organizations.

“They are becoming what the Cardinals have become,” Olney said. “They're certainly not in position to have the same resources over time, but what's striking is, they've developed a real nice culture.”

The Pirates “should be proud of what they've done collectively,” said Dan O'Dowd, an MLB Network analyst and former Rockies general manager. “It's really spectacular — and great for the game.”

O'Dowd predicts the team will win a division title.

Former Reds and Nationals GM Jim Bowden said Pirates President Frank Coonelly and General Manager Neal Huntington “have done a phenomenal job working within very difficult parameters.”

“They've done a very good job making very difficult and very hard decisions,” said Bowden, who writes a blog for ESPN.com and hosts a talk show on MLB Network Radio.

Last season, the Pirates had the highest attendance (2,442,542) in franchise history and the third-best local television ratings among the 30 MLB clubs. Four years removed from 105 losses and what seemed like utter hopelessness, the club is relevant — the operative word in any Pirates-related discussion.

“We're obviously a lot more eager to showcase them than in any time in our relationship with baseball,” Mulvihill said. “I'd be surprised if we carried a handful (of games) from 1996 to 2010.”

Small wonder. The Pirates had losing records in each of those seasons, along with the previous five — 20 straight in all — a mark of futility unsurpassed in major American team sports.

Manager Clint Hurdle, hired after the 2010 debacle, describes the team's atmosphere as “a mixture of fun, focus and confidence.”

Funny what winning will do. Or what helps winning happen.

“We believe our major-league club is positioned for a quality season this year, and potentially beyond, while also having a good amount of talent in the minor leagues to develop into future quality major-league players and teams,” Huntington wrote in an email.

“The Pirates are a great example of ‘the only thing that truly gets rewarded is patience,' ” O'Dowd said, speaking of the organizational plan of staying the course and building through the draft, player development and international signings, and occasional low-risk free agent signings.

It was a long, slow process, but an effective one.

“We live in a society where delayed gratification is something we don't want to deal with,” O'Dowd said. “From Clint and the staff and the player development people, they are all committed to a vision. They all pulled together and had the courage to not short-circuit that vision.”

In Colorado, O'Dowd hired Hurdle — then the team's hitting coach — to manage the Rockies before the 2003 season. The team unexpectedly won a pennant in 2007, but things turned sour, and O'Dowd fired Hurdle less than two years later.

But O'Dowd said Hurdle's bumpy experience as a first-time manager helped forge a perfect bond with the Pirates.

“Clint would get mad at me saying this, but I think he's the most important part of the picture,” he said. “When you have an environment that creates authentic love, it's transformational. Clint has the ability to create that kind of culture — where everyone feels a part of it, where everyone feels respected.”

That applies to fans, too, such as John Heichel of Tyrone, who browsed through merchandise in the PNC Park Majestic Clubhouse Store last week with his fiancee, Tina Colpetzer.

Heichel, 39, said he “pretty much lost interest” in the Pirates during the team's lean years.

“Then they started getting better players, and I got involved again,” he said. “They've come a long way.”

Heichel said the Pirates “can definitely go farther” in 2015.

“The future's looking bright,” he said.

Bob Cohn is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib. Staff writer Rob Biertempfel contributed to this report.

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