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Starkey: Pirates waking the dead

| Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Pirates matter again.

As 10 mostly miserable summers turned to 15 and finally an unfathomable 18, you had to wonder if this town's baseball spirit had been beaten to death. The pennants had long since turned to penance.

The recurring question: What would it take — short of a miracle — to recapture the public's good will?

Not much, apparently.

"We haven't done anything; we haven't proven anything to anybody," said second baseman Neil Walker, pride of Pine-Richland, before Wednesday's 5-4 victory over Baltimore. "But I know a lot of people have said to a lot of us in here, 'Thanks for making us Pirates fans again.' "

Merely by flirting with .500 into late June, the Pirates (37-37) have awoken the dead. The Boys of Bummer have a chance to reclaim the summer. Manager Clint Hurdle — scheduled to close on a house in the North Hills on Thursday — can feel it when he walks into a Giant Eagle.

"People are just very upbeat, very positive," Hurdle said.

He laughed and added, "They also have a lot of help for me, (saying) I should be doing this and this and this. I carry a notebook."

Relief pitcher Joe Beimel, like Walker, has a keen sense of what this all means. Beimel grew up a Pirates fan in St. Marys, was drafted by his hometown team in 1998 and broke into the big leagues in 2001. By the time the Pirates released him in 2004, he'd experienced enough losing to last nine lifetimes.

"By this time in the season, we were pretty much out of it and everybody was just coming in here, doing their job and leaving," Beimel said. "There was no real positivity. This year, everyone in here believes we can win. I think people in the city have picked up on that."

Go ahead and laugh, but there is much more than anecdotal evidence to support Beimel's contention.


» Pirates television ratings on Root Sports are up 34 percent from last season and are at their highest levels since June 2005.

» Sports apparel stores are reporting ridiculously large increases in Pirates-related sales from the same point last season. That includes a 46 percent spike at Hometowne Sports — where the $19.99 Walker T-shirt is most popular — and a 51 percent increase at The Pittsburgh Fan, across from PNC Park. Anne Ronan, spokesperson for The Finish Line stores, was not permitted to disclose figures but said, "(Pirates) apparel is selling at a rapid clip even in areas not Pittsburgh proper, like Johnstown."

» Attendance is up 12 percent, with three sellouts expected this weekend against the Boston Red Sox. "Weekends like this," Walker said, "are going to be really important for growing the fan base."

» Merchandise sales at PNC Park are up 32 percent, page views on the Pirates website 41 percent.

South Side native Linda Meyer runs Hometowne Sports, which has stores at Station Square, Century III Mall and Tanger Outlets. She greets each April with a renewed sense of, well, perspective.

"We go into a season not really prepared for success," she said. "But there's a huge demand right now. I think the city would be all over the Pirates being very successful."

That could be a ways from here, and the Pirates remain second to last in the National League in attendance. But the sudden burst of enthusiasm represents an opportunity, one that should not be squandered in the manner of, say, the 2005 team, which disintegrated after a 30-30 start.

If this is all it takes to generate excitement, what would happen with a contending team in late summer• One envisions the North Shore bustling like Wrigleyville in Chicago.

Tray Carlstrom can see it. He is the Chicago-based owner of The Pittsburgh Fan and has a similar store next to Wrigley Field. He bought the building outside PNC Park in 2005 and wondered if he'd made a wise investment. Retail sales were "soft," as he put it.

Now, he ponders the possibilities with glee, as he considers the 51 percent rise in Pirates-related sales, led, he says, by Andrew McCutchen items.

"I wish we could turn Pittsburgh into the kind of atmosphere we have at Wrigley," he said. "It helps if you have a good team, that's for sure."

Merely by winning 37 of their first 74 games, the Pirates have stoked the fading embers.

The dead are alive.

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