Pirates fans in frenzy with NL wild-card game at hand
The Pirates' pulse is palpable.
From the North Shore to the West Coast, the Pirates' stirring awakening from a record two-decade lull has rejuvenated a fan base and invigorated a franchise set to make its first postseason appearance in a generation.
“I see the excitement more in (older fans) because they've experienced the winning and the losing, and now they're seeing the winning again,” center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. “Interacting with them is awesome because you can tell they feel like they're a kid again. They feel like they're younger. There's a guy I talk to who lives in my apartment complex, and he says he feels like a kid in a candy store. It's great to hear that.”
The Pirates didn't just snap their streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons. They won 94 games — their most since 1992 — and will host the Cincinnati Reds in a winner-take-all National League Wild Card Game on Tuesday in PNC Park.
Hundreds of people filled Market Square on Monday for a raucous rally.
“This has been an extraordinary season, and I really think they can go all the way,” said Sandy Rengers, 60, of Etna, attending with her husband, Tom, and their two grandchildren.
The crowd was a mix of Downtown workers in business attire on lunch breaks and black-and-gold-clad fans, many waving flags.
The Pirate Parrot danced. People chanted, “Let's go Bucs.” Music blared from huge speakers.
“It's a good day,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, working the crowd into a frenzy. “What you're feeling today is significant and important. The (players) feel it, too.”
Pat Toth, 65, of Dravosburg, a 17-year season-ticket holder, didn't need help getting fired up.
“I don't care if I'm dead. I'm going to be there tomorrow,” Toth said. “If they lose, how could anyone fault them? This season has been magical. I wish it was like the movie ‘Groundhog Day,' something I could do over and over again.”
More than 2,500 miles away, Pirates fever runs just as high.
At Giordano Bros. restaurant in San Francisco, where Pittsburgh sports memorabilia line the walls, the place always fills for Steelers and Penguins games. This year, that fan base includes more Pirates fans than bartender Mattie Vukmir can remember.
“We get more phone calls about it every day, if we're going to be showing the game,” said Vukmir, 26, who attended the University of Pittsburgh and grew up in Townville in Crawford County, northeast of Meadville. “We've definitely seen an increase in people coming in to watch the games and getting excited about the Pirates. Even people who aren't from Pittsburgh are coming in and getting excited. … Last year, we barely had anyone asking about Pirates games.”
Last Tuesday, a day after the Pirates clinched their first postseason berth in 21 years, sales of the team's merchandise on Fanatics.com increased 200 percent from the day before, with the official playoff T-shirt the top-selling Major League Baseball item. In early July, Fanatics.com reported that sales of Pirates merchandise were up more than 50 percent compared to 2012.
The Pirates' popularity has grown across social-media platforms, team officials said.
Facebook “likes” have increased 18 percent since the start of the season; the number of their Twitter followers has risen 64 percent — with trending topics including #Pirates, #LetsGoBucs and #RaiseIt — and the team's Instagram following has grown 769 percent.
Edward Bechtole, 63, of Wilkins went to games at Forbes Field as a kid. He said he'll never forget the time he threw a ball down from the stands to Roberto Clemente to sign. But no one had a pen, so Clemente tossed the ball back, and the two played catch for a minute.
Bechtole said he feels nostalgia watching this year's team with his two grandsons and granddaughter.
“This brings back some fond memories,” said Bechtole, who was at the Pirates' regular-season home finale with his wife, Linda.
“My oldest grandson calls him every single night he doesn't go to a game, and he'll go, ‘That was a bad play, Pap,' or, ‘That ump made a bad call,' ” said Linda Bechtole, 64.
Dan Noschese, 50, of Gibsonia has tailgated before Steelers games with a group of people for 20 years. On the last day of the home regular-season schedule, with the Steelers hosting the Chicago Bears that night, Noschese and crew were assembled in the lot next to PNC Park before the Pirates' afternoon game started.
It's fantastic to have a competitive baseball team late in the season, he said.
“For all the bars and people selling stuff, it couldn't be any better,” he said. “Pittsburgh's just a great town.”
From the buzz in parking lots and around the region, Noschese said, it seems as though people are more excited about the Pirates than the Steelers.
“Pirate fans, you have to give them credit,” he said. “They've been through thick and thin, and mostly thin. To get rewarded like this just warms my heart because it's fantastic for them. I feel so good about it. They're really enjoying it, you can tell. And they're good fans, period. We've got some bandwagon Steeler fans who are already saying they're done, and Pirate fans, they went through all that and they're still behind their team.”
Pirates first baseman and outfielder Garrett Jones said people approach him even when he's running errands with his family, saying: “ ‘You guys are doing a great job. Keep it going. This is awesome.'
“There's just positivity and excitement and energy just about every time I go out,” Jones said. “It's pretty cool.”