Kevin Gorman: Pirates upbeat for spring training home opener
BRADENTON, Fla. —
An hour before the home opener, a six-pack of Pirates fans shared a drink and a sentiment, one that began with betrayal but brought them here anyway.
Neal Earl and a handful of friends who grew up in Monroeville make an annual road trip together, usually to see a Steelers game.
They came to see the Pirates, even though Earl was still upset about them trading away franchise star Andrew McCutchen.
"I grew up when they were great in the 1970s," said Earle, 54, wearing his black Dave Parker No. 39 jersey. "I always have that feeling, that there's a chance."
That's the beauty of spring training baseball. But hasn't blinded Pirates fans from the truth that this is a team in transition.
The Pirates played Saturday before a sellout crowd of 7,814 at LECOM Park. They had New York Yankees fans to thank for boosting the attendance, but there was no boycott of this home opener.
Fans celebrated the 50th anniversary of this ballpark, formerly McKechnie Field, and the Pirates greats who led them to World Series titles in 1960, '71 and '79.
"That's one thing about the fans: They always show up," Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "It's a tradition going way, way, way farther back than I can even think about. We're just trying to keep it alive, keep it going. Whenever you get out there, that's when you really soak it in. You look around, and you see all the fans."
When the fans look around, they see Pirates legends from John Candelaria and Omar Moreno to Steve Blass and Rennie Stennett to Bill Mazeroski, the 1960 World Series hero who received a standing ovation from Pirates fans and applause from the Yankees.
The Pirates love to promote their past, whether it's trotting out old ballplayers while introducing the starting lineup or celebrating the first of 16 home games at the third-oldest spring training site in MLB. Only Sunday's opponent, the Detroit Tigers (Lakeland since 1934), and the Philadelphia Phillies (Clearwater since '47) have a longer-standing relationship.
"The city of Bradenton is a special place," Hurdle said. "To watch these videos, it's history. It's cool. It's nostalgic. I don't take it for granted, and the people that put those videos together don't take it for granted, and those players in the dugout that you saw go out on that line don't take it for granted, so we'll embrace it."
Pirates fans don't want to be taken for granted, either, as suggested by their signatures on an online petition to MLB to force owner Bob Nutting to sell the team and threats of boycotting the home opener at PNC Park. There was a smattering of boos when Nutting was introduced. One fan relentlessly heckled Nutting, screaming that he should sell the team.
Yet, there is an air of optimism around these Pirates you might not get in Pittsburgh, despite players like Josh Harrison questioning its direction and David Freese criticizing the club's disconnect.
Pitcher Jameson Taillon feels the positivity around the Pirates, who required his reflection after they traded away his best friend and mentor in Gerrit Cole.
"Now I feel like I have a clear view," Taillon said. "I understand, from the fans' perspective, when you're supporting a team and buying tickets, you want the team to do everything they can to put a winner out on the field. From the players' perspective, I think it's healthy to hash out whatever was wrong in the past and address it and ask, 'How can we get better and how can we make sure it doesn't happen again?' "
Taillon sees something special building inside the Pirates' clubhouse — despite outside talk that it's toxic — with a young but talented cast that believes they will be better than expected this season.
"It's easy to judge things or be negative, but let's just wait and see because in this room there's a lot of belief in here," Taillon said, calling it the best in his six spring camps. "There's a different vibe in here."
It's a vibe the Pirates must cultivate. The addition of All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson was a good start, improving their starting lineup and bench and creating competition for the final roster spots.
"When you rally around each other, that's when your best comes out," Mercer said. "Everybody knows that there's been a lot of chatter in the offseason. We get it, but when a group of guys comes together as one it can make some crazy, magical things happen.
"There's a lot of unknown. Nobody knows what's going to happen. That's what makes it exciting."
The Pirates' home opener at PNC Park is 36 days away. The unknown will be what they do between now and then, and whether their fans will show up.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.