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Bucs allow fans to get excited

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2003

The fan said he was excited about being excited about the Pirates, a bit of circular reasoning that makes sense if one considers the context.

The Pirates have been posting losing seasons with unflinching regularity, beginning in 1993 and running through the 72-89 record in 2002.

That 2002 showing was a significant improvement from the 100-loss season of 2001. If some way the Pirates could improve another 11 games in 2003, the result would be the long-elusive winning record.

Despite operating with limited financial flexibility, general manager Dave Littlefield has made roster improvements at the margin, the most recent being the acquisition of outfielder Reggie Sanders.

Manager Lloyd McClendon addressed his troops the other day and shared with the press later, "This is not a rebuilding year. I expect to win."

Will that expectation be met• Even the jaded media would like to buy into it.

An aside is in order here. Judging by the e-mail bag, fans of the area teams believe the people who cover their teams are or should be fans, too. They can't be. The media types report, analyze and try their best to be objective. Rooting isn't part of the job description.

On the other hand, the people in the press boxes aren't idiots -- at least not total idiots. They realize it's more interesting to cover a winning team. They realize more people will read what they write when the team is winning. They realize the athletes are more eager to talk when the team is winning.

All things being equal, members of the media would like to see the teams they cover do well.

That brings us to the matter of the legitimacy of the mild swell of optimism regarding the Pirates.

Littlefield has taken great pains to discard the offered crutch of the Pirates' small-market status. Minnesota and Oakland are successful, he has said, so the Pirates can be, too.

But Minnesota and Oakland aren't saddled with mistakes the magnitude of those made by Littlefield's predecessor, Cam Bonifay.

The Pirates' hopes are severely limited by their pocketbook.

That having been said, it is possible to construct a scenario in which the Pirates could challenge or even slightly exceed the .500 mark in 2003.

It is an exercise in considerable optimism, but further short of delusion than the case has been in recent years.

Still, such optimism requires leaps of faith. Necessary assumptions regarding the starting pitching include that Kris Benson, the former top draft pick who will be in his second season after elbow surgery, will improve on last year's 9-6 record. The Pirates need consistent follow-up seasons from Kip Wells and Josh Fogg, who combined to go 24-26 last season, and a couple of newcomers, most likely Jeff D'Amico and Jeff Suppan at this point, to come through as starters.

The bullpen can be presumed to be good, anchored by Mike Williams.

Adding Sanders, and possibly another veteran outfielder, should upgrade the offense and defense of the every-day lineup. Offseason acquisition Matt Stairs also should help the outfield, at least offensively.

Keeping second baseman Pokey Reese healthy -- he missed 43 games last season -- is a key to having an infield that is outstanding, not average.

The Pirates need Aramis Ramirez picking up offensively and defensively at third, Randall Simon adding positively to the first-base picture and Jason Kendall returning to his .300 hitting form of 2000 and before.

Then there are the assumptions that good play will continue, such as that Brian Giles will continue to deliver 30-plus homers and 100 or so RBI like clockwork.

To get improvement where needed, as well as sustained excellence in areas where it already exists, is the challenge standing between the 2003 Pirates and fulfilling McClendon's goal of winning.

An offseason that rated a B-minus grade from one national sports publication even before the Sanders acquisition has raised hopes among fans that it could happen; the Pirates could be winners.

Like the man said, the fans are excited about being able to feel excited.

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