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Kovacevic: A new Pirates generation

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 9:17 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jason Grilli celebrates the final out of the National League wild-card game with catcher Russell Martin on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle watches action from the dugout during a game against the Rays Thursday, March 13, 2014, at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla.

It'll all be so different.

How could it not?

When that cannon burst comes Monday afternoon at a crammed-to-capacity PNC Park and the 128th edition of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club climbs from the dugout, sure, those will be familiar faces. Andrew McCutchen. Jason Grilli. Francisco Liriano. Russell Martin. Neil Walker. Most everyone who mattered to a magical 2013 except A.J. Burnett. All back for another swing at another sensational summer.

At the same time, there will be so little familiarity to the feel. Not on the field. Not off it.

Not with the Pirates embarking on a fresh new journey for a fresh new generation.

The clubhouse

“It's hard to explain why it's different, but it is,” Clint Barmes was saying a few days ago in Bradenton. “There was a nervousness in here last year, obviously more among the younger guys. That's gone now. I mean gone. That doesn't mean we're complacent. If anything, I think it's helped because we can just focus on getting better rather than on nervous energy.”

More than a few players brought this up unsolicited during spring training. And it makes sense.

Remember McCutchen raising his arms to the heavens in center field on the night of win No. 82?

“It wasn't just us young guys,” Jordy Mercer said. “There were guys like Cutch who'd been here a long time and hadn't been in the playoffs. Actually, even the vets who had been in the playoffs, maybe they hadn't experienced anything like what happened in Pittsburgh.”

There's more to it, of course: This camp opened with no more than a job or two on the line, maybe just long reliever. Everyone else knew they could use spring training the way it's intended: Prepare for the season.

So if that meant Gerrit Cole “throwing nothing but fastballs to a guy I could get out easily,” as he did one day in Fort Myers, so be it. It's not like he needed to put up zeroes to make the rotation.

The result could be seen across camp: Players looked more relaxed but also more locked in.

“I haven't seen anything like it,” observed 82-year-old patriarch Bill Virdon, not one prone to spring hyperbole. “The work ethic here has been amazing.”

The captain?

It's as if the team doesn't need a singular leader, much less one as vocal and visible as Burnett.

“Nothing changes about this team's leadership,” Grilli insisted. “We had people in here last season who were part of that. Nothing changes at all.”

Read into that as you will.

Burnett wasn't the ogre some are now trying to paint, but neither was he universally beloved. That was only exacerbated in the playoffs when he behaved petulantly after Clint Hurdle chose Cole for Game 5 in St. Louis.

And yet, it's telling that the Pirates still offered Burnett $12 million.

“Look, there's A.J. and there's J.A., as I always tell him,” Jeff Locke said. “The J.A. was for jackass. He could be that, and we all knew it. But he's A.J. That man did so much for this team and city, and no one can deny that.”

Locke, one of Burnett's best friends on the team, mounted an intensive one-man lobbying effort to bring him back, only to watch him sign with Philadelphia — one year, $16 million — and stay closer to his Maryland home.

“Honestly, I thought he'd retire,” Locke said. “But he made the right decision for him and his family.”

But for the Pirates?

The only certainty about this team's leadership is that there's presently no alpha male. McCutchen leads by example, not so much by word. Martin motivates the pitching staff, but that can be isolated. Liriano has the Latin quarter. Travis Snider and Walker are popular. Grilli can be loud.

Maybe Grilli was right in that it's all over the place.

“It'll be fine,” the closer said with a grin. “Hey, we can't share all our little clubhouse secrets. Trust me, we've got it under control.”

The competition

There's nothing more jarring about the Pirates' metamorphosis than how the rest of baseball has changed its view of them. The same executives and scouts and agents who were calling them a laughingstock as recently as the fall of 2012 now lavish them with praise.

Mike Matheny is offering the sincerest form of flattery by having his Cardinals adopt the defensive shifts the Pirates use more than any team. The Pirates hardly pioneered the shifts — Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon is universally credited for that — but improving from 25th in defensive efficiency to fifth in a three-year span has brought much attention.

Maddon himself said this spring that these Pirates remind him of his upstart Rays five years ago. “It's really nice,” he added, “when you can build around the best player in baseball in center field.”

The Reds, Brewers and Cubs know the Pirates are real, too. And be sure that all the public feel-good for their rise won't be shared within the Central Division. Not after they went 45-31 against their peers.

“Every year is new, but they're going to have a good team,” the Cardinals' Matt Holliday said two weeks ago in Jupiter, Fla. “They have a similar team to last year, a lot of talent, young players … and their bullpen is really good.”

Talk about different.

The community

Maybe the most moving difference will be the one that reaches across Western Pennsylvania.

Two decades of losing cost the Pirates two decades of public passion, notably with the younger generation that turned toward our other two teams. Baseball had become uncool. PNC Park became a place where parents dragged their kids.


John Miko, a Pony League coach in Portage, Cambria County, said enrollment there has increased from 192 five years ago to a record 242 this year. He's also noticed “more kids mimicking the Pirates' batting stances, tucking their ears in their hats, flashing the Zoltan.”

Jim Kelly, a Little League umpire in Allison Park, said games last summer were scheduled around the Pirates for the first time. “That was the kids,” he added. “They wanted to watch Liriano pitch or Cutch hit.”

Vinnie Deleonibus, who coaches baseball and softball in Shaler, said of his system's 42 teams, “There isn't one without a 22. And most have 18, 34 or 24.”

That's McCutchen, Walker, Burnett and Alvarez.

“For years, it was 87, 71, 36 and 86,” he continued, referring to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward. “This is a dramatic shift.”

Sure is. It'll translate into the seats, too.

The Pirates won't give out specifics, but season-ticket sales have increased 40 percent this offseason. Average attendance isn't expected to challenge PNC Park's record of 30,076, set in its inaugural season, but crowds will be up.

They'll also be more intense, more knowledgeable. There will be two-strike claps, more recognition of a player who grounds out to advance a runner.

But all that comes with extra scrutiny, and the crowds who taunted Johnny Cueto also will expect more from the home side.

“That's fine. We welcome that,” Walker said. “Sure beats the alternative.”

The climb back

There's one other difference, and it shouldn't go underestimated: These Pirates are clinging to an anger that, to hear them tell it, feels very real.

Sure, they've been mad in the past, whether it was over Tony La Russa rubbing their faces in a blowout or the Brewers bombing them all over creation. But this anger is so much more meaningful.

It's over Game 5.

“It's never left us, I can tell you that,” said Gerrit Cole, the starter in that 6-1 loss at Busch. “We had our goal right there … and it got away. It hurt. And don't get me wrong. We aren't going to dwell on it. But we do know it was there for us. And that feeling, man, that's something you don't want to lose.”

Even Hurdle, who's made a theme of putting 2013 into the past, is on board.

“The angst that you could cut with a knife in that room after Game 5, the disappointment, that wasn't our goal,” the manager said. “We took down some mile markers along the way that were very significant to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. But it's not like we're just going to look back at last season and say, ‘You know what? This'll hold ‘em for a while.' It's one out of 21. One!”

He raised one finger. One winning season out of 21.

“We are focused, this group, on building a new legacy, a new history for the Pirates and our fan base. And that starts this year. It starts now.”

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