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Selig, All-Stars laud Pirates' 'wonderful story'

| Tuesday, July 12, 2011

PHOENIX - Allan H. "Bud" Selig became Major League Baseball's commissioner on Sept. 7, 1992, meaning he has presided over one whole month of the Pirates being truly competitive. And even that isolated month ended badly for the franchise with Sid Bream's slide on that fateful October night in Atlanta.

But that, like so much else in this most stunning of summers for the Pittsburgh Baseball Club, could be changing.

And there is no mistaking -- nor, apparently, any masking -- the commissioner's delight about it.

"It's a wonderful story," Selig told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in an interview here Monday. "I watch games every night, and one of the first things I do is go check on how the Buccos are doing, to see if they had 'em all the way, as Bob Prince used to say. I'm enjoying this as much as anyone."

These might not be the Gunner's Pirates, but they are 47-43 and a game off the Central Division lead -- this after 18 years of losing bottomed out with 105 losses in 2010. And when the 82nd All-Star Game takes place tonight at Chase Field, they will be represented by three players -- closer Joel Hanrahan, outfielder Andrew McCutchen and starter Kevin Correia -- for the first time since 1990.

That's back when Selig was owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and pushing for the rights of teams based in smaller cities, which might explain some of his enthusiasm for the current Pirates.

"It's manifested everything we did, everything the Pirates have done," Selig said. "Watching PNC Park jammed game after game now, it's really wonderful. It's one of the season's great success stories. The Pirates and their fans went through a lot of travails, a lot of heartache, but it's finally starting to pay off."

If baseball is a fraternity, then the Pirates were the four-eyed wallflower for nearly two decades, the punchline to jokes from taunting fans to ESPN to Jay Leno. Among Leno's one-liners from five years ago: "The sequel to 'Pirates of the Caribbean' opens next week. In these movies, the pirates always win. If you want to see the pirates lose, move to Pittsburgh."

These Pirates -- capital P -- still have a long way to go. But it was clear yesterday, in this setting that celebrates the game's best and brightest, that respect is coming.

"I think it's tremendous what they've done, especially that rotation," San Francisco starter Matt Cain said. "You always need to get offense at some point, no matter what kind of pitching you have, but there's no question to me that those guys are legit. And hey, look what we did."

Cain was part of the Giants' outstanding rotation that overcame an ordinary lineup to take the most recent World Series.

"I think it's great what the Pirates have done," Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. "It goes to show again that, in baseball, you can turn it around from one year to the next. I'm happy for the people of Pittsburgh. I really am. And I've got a special place in my heart for Clint Hurdle."

Hurdle was Tulowitzki's manager while with the Rockies.

"For a young team, Clint's the ideal guy to have," Tulowitzki said. "You can hear his voice everywhere. He has his players' back. He's the kind of guy who can get you to believe really quickly."

Even someone from the Pirates' greatest nemesis applauded them.

"It's cool, man. I like seeing Pittsburgh up there in the standings," Milwaukee first baseman Prince Fielder said. "You want to have good competition. And for the game, you don't want to have any teams that are bad for a long time. That hurts everyone."

Well, not the Brewers. They've taken 33 of the past 36 meetings with the Pirates, including all five this season. But that's an issue for next month, when the Pirates head back to Miller Park.

"It's been great to hear so many things from other players about our team, how they feel about us," McCutchen said.

"We've earned that, I think," Correia said. "We have so many exciting players here. It's a good team, a fun team, and some people are recognizing that."

There is a pragmatic element to the Pirates' revival, as well, and not just in Pittsburgh.

The primary mission for any commissioner is to grow the game. That's why Selig instituted the World Baseball Classic and has overseen expansion at the amateur level to all corners of the globe, and it's undoubtedly one reason he welcomes the Pirates' Lazarus act. But nothing grows the game better than shoring up its internal shortcomings.

"Is this good for baseball• No, it's huge for baseball," Selig said of the Pirates' success. "And it proves again - not that you needed proof of this - what a great baseball town Pittsburgh can be.

"Let me just say this to you: It's as good for baseball as anything could be."

The Pirates have been around 125 years, but this is the equivalent of adding a new, vibrant market into MLB's picture: The Pirates' average crowd is at 23,578, up by nearly 4,000 over last season. PNC Park has been sold out 10 times. Local TV ratings are up 32 percent.

As much as MLB's marketing arms relentlessly push the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, those fan bases already are so all-encompassing that room for growth would figure to be small. But Pittsburgh already is a sports-crazy city, as it demonstrates by the Steelers and Penguins each being among their respective leagues' marquee franchises, and MLB might find a boon if it taps some of that same passion.

"It's a benefit to everybody," super-agent Scott Boras said. "You have a city that's basically reinvented itself. And certainly, the other franchises in football and hockey have matched that. With baseball ... look, we all know that the Pittsburgh community is the type to breed success in sports. There's a sense of belonging, of tradition. When people walk into that beautiful ballpark, they know they've got a real history with the team and that beautiful stage. Now, they're seeing the models doing the show."

"Pittsburgh is such a sports town, anyway," the Giants' Cain said. "They'd go berserk for that team if they stay in contention. It's been a long time coming for those guys. And I semi-know how that feels. We didn't do well in San Fran for so long. But when we put it all together, it really showed how much the city loved us all along."

Some might call that a bandwagon following, but not Hanrahan as it relates to Pittsburgh.

"The way we're drawing crowds, I think, has opened a lot of eyes," he said. "I had a couple of the Cubs over the weekend tell me, 'Man, this place is fun to be in when it's like this.' A lot of players love coming to our city, anyway. I always tell them about our fans, how passionate they are, how they come out."

What about before this season?

"A lot of them were probably sitting at home cussing us out on their TVs. Now, they're coming out to the ballpark. But they still cared even back then."

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