clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Move over Steelers, it's the Pirates time in Pittsburgh

It's weird saying this, but the Pittsburgh Pirates have all the ingredients for a championship baseball team. And, instead of a seventh Super Bowl for the Steelers or a fourth Stanley Cup for the Penguins, the Pirates may bring home a World Series crown this year. It's time for the other Pittsburgh teams to take a backseat for a while. The Pirates own the city.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I've watched it about 40 times so far, and I can't seem to stop.

I'm talking about the dramatic two-run home run Pirates star outfielder Andrew McCutchen hit Saturday night, as Pittsburgh came back from a 5-4 extra-inning deficit to defeat the first place Cardinals 6-5 before a crazy and excited crowd at PNC Park. The victory closed the gap for the Pirates in the National League Central Division to just 3.5 games on the brink of Major League Baseball's All-Star Game.

Then, they created even more magic Sunday night as they overcame a 2-run deficit in the 10th inning to score three runs in another walk-off victory, this time at the hands of Gregory Polanco. Amazing stuff coming from the Buccos over at PNC Park as they head into the All-Star Break.

It feels weird to say this, but the Pirates seem like the top dog in town now. And I'm not just saying this because the Steelers are still weeks away from training camp and the Penguins are in the middle of their offseason; it really does feel like the Pirates, those long-time Pittsburgh sports doormats, are the closest thing to a true championship contender we've had here in at least half a decade.

The Pirates have it all, it seems. They have McCutchen, the 2013 National League MVP, who will be heading for his fifth straight All-Star Game this Tuesday evening. They have the pitching--both starting and relief. They have a sterling supporting cast around Cutch, such as second baseman Neil Walker-- the hometown kid from Pine Richland; Starling Marte; Francisco Cervelli; and Josh "J-Hay Kid" Harrison. Unfortunately, they don't have Harrison right now, who had to have surgery recently to repair a torn thumb ligament and will be out for the foreseeable future--his hustle, heart and soul will surely be missed. However, the Pirates do have Jung-ho Kang, the offseason import from Korea, who is currently taking Harrison's spot in the lineup and doing his best impression of J-Hay by displaying hustle, heart and soul at every turn.

The Pirates even have a manager with a positive and infectious personality, in Clint Hurdle. A man who toughed it out for weeks and months last summer with a bum hip that required surgery and elected to put it off until after the season so he could lead his troops into October and a second straight postseason appearance. This might be hyperbole and cliched, but much like the late Chuck Tanner and his successor, the legendary Jim Leyland, Hurdle's players would probably run through a brick wall if he asked them to. And there's no question he's a great ambassador for the Pirates organization.

It feels weird saying all these things about the Pirates, but it sure seems real and tangible. If you're a Steelers fan who lives in Texas, California or even Argentina, you probably don't care that much. You're part of the great Steeler Nation, a fan of a marquee NFL franchise who fell in-love with the team but maybe doesn't care about Pittsburgh sports in-general. Heck, you could be a Steelers fan living on the North Side of Pittsburgh and may care less about the Buccos or baseball.

But if you were around in the early 70s for the Steelers rise from the ashes after 40 years of futility, you surely can appreciate what the Pirates have been able to accomplish as an organization the past two-and-half years after 20 years of sadness, hopelessness and losing season after losing season. For the fans, it's a zest and excitement that hasn't been seen around here since the early 90s, and boy are they embracing it with gusto.

If you click on the link to the aforementioned McCutchen heroics, at some point in the highlights, you'll hear Steve Blass, the former Pirates pitcher and World Series hero, who now does color commentary during home games, erupt with several "OMGs!" once the ball clears the centerfield fence. Speaking of ambassadors with infectious and positive personalities, Blass has been a lifer and part of the Pirates in some capacity since his minor league days in the 1960s, and he never lost the love for his team, nor the hope that it would finally put it together. Need proof of that? Check out this audio clip from 2010.The Pirates were a doormat team on the way to losing 105 games, but you wouldn't know it from Blass' reaction to a Pedro Alvarez game-winning three-run home run in extra-innings--he sounded pretty much like he did during McCutchen's much more important bomb this weekend.

The point is, Blass' passion for his favorite baseball team never waned. Oh, sure, it might have sat dormant through many lost seasons and managerial changes, but it was there, just waiting for a reason to erupt again. Same holds true for many long-time Pirates fans. People said Pittsburgh wasn't a baseball town. No town is going to be a baseball town when losing is expected before one pitch is even thrown during a season.

Steelers legendary defensive lineman Joe Greene once said about old Three Rivers Stadium in the 1970s that it was the place to be on Sunday afternoons. And he was right. Once the Steelers became good and competitive and had the stars and personalities to lead the way, out poured a love between fan and team that perhaps is unparalleled in sports history. The Steelers have sold out every home game since 1972, with Heinz Field now replacing old Three Rivers as their home on the North Side of town.

Much like Three Rivers Stadium in the 1970s, PNC Park feels like the place to be for a Pittsburgh sports fan or celebrity these days. The Pirates are averaging nearly 29,000 fans a game and are well on-pace to reaching 2,000,000 for a fourth-straight season. PNC Park looks a lot different and much more intimidating than it did in the 2000s, when the Pirates were never a serious baseball threat. Two seasons ago, when the Bucs hosted the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Wild Card Game, the crowd that night--mostly all dressed in black--may have been the greatest in Pittsburgh postseason history (and that's saying a mouthful). The fans were alive and excited for every pitch and every at-bat. Heck, they even heckled the opposing pitcher--Johnny Cueto--and rattled him so much, at one point he dropped the baseball as the fans laughed in unison.

Soccer and hockey fans often complain about stoppages in play during an American football game (well, no kidding. The players are basically destroying one another on every play--a 45-second break wouldn't hurt). And baseball gets made fun of by enthusiasts of soccer, hockey, basketball, football, you name it, and that's because there is no clock. There are innings, and each one can drag on for as long as the action of the game allows. There are step-offs, visits to the mound, pitching changes, and now, replay challenges. So many people have very little patience for this, especially today in our microwave society. But any sport is more exciting and dramatic when the fans at the venue are hanging on every second of the action. Saturday night's 14-inning victory over the Cardinals had everything. It had missed calls, dramatic twists and turns, ejections, and even a home run by the pitcher, 38 year old A.J. Burnett, who acted as his only offense during his 6.1 innings of work, as the Pirates didn't began most of their positive dramatics until the eighth inning. And, at the end of the night, it had McCutchen, the star of stars, doing what they have always done throughout the history of sports.

Last summer, as the Pirates were days away from the postseason and the Steelers were in the midst of a pleasant 2-1 start, a Penguins fan came up to me, all excited and said, "Are you ready for that game tonight?" And I said, "What game?" He said, "it's a great night for hockey, baby!" He was referring to some Pens exhibition game, obviously, and no, to quote Mark Madden (Mr. Penguin Enthusiast) and turn his words against him, "I didn't give a rat's ass about none of that."

You'll always have those fans that only care about one sport or even one team, who could care less about anything other than what they care about. As Cutch was rounding the bases Saturday night and people were hugging and crying in the stands, that guy who was super-excited about that Pens exhibition game last September may have been fantasizing about how many goals the newly-acquired Phil Kessel will score while playing on the same line as Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

If you're a Steelers fan, you may have been watching a DVD of Super Bowl XIII.

The Pirates may never truly become the top dog in Pittsburgh again, and they may never even surpass the Penguins as the distant number two to the Steelers.

But, right now, at this very moment, they own the city of Pittsburgh.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to watch the guy who probably has the key in his pocket, Andrew McCutchen, hit that home run for the 41st time.