Pittsburgh Pirates in uncharted waters

Baseball team's first winning season in 21 years sees them take postseason by storm and overshadow their NFL neighbours.

    Pittsburgh Pirates in uncharted waters
    Pedro Alvarez's RBI single helps put Pittsburgh closer to the National League Championship Series [AFP]

    If the Pittsburgh Steelers weren't having their worst start to a season since before they won the first of their six Super Bowl titles, living in "the 'Burgh" would be heaven on earth right now.

    As it is, four straight losses by the NFL's most successful team has, miraculously, only slightly tarnished the sheen of the Steel City.

    That's because Pittsburgh's sports fans – i.e. pretty much everyone – are getting a slice of paradise from an unexpected quarter.

    Before this season, the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club had the worst record in major American sports history, having not had a winning season since 1992. That means losing more games than they won for 21 painful years.

    Now the inhabitants of Allegheny County are dreaming of a first World Series appearance since 1979 – which was also the last time they won it.

    Pittsburgh are back in the postseason, and 2-1 up in their divisional series against the St Louis Cardinals.

    Victory against the Cardinals at PNC Park on Monday would see the Pirates reach the National League Championship series, just five wins away from the Fall Classic.

    Frank Ferra, 61, who owns his family's automotive repair and towing company in Pittsburgh, remembers the Pirates beating the New York Yankees in the World Series when he was eight years old.

    He has taken his three kids to watch the team since they were young, despite the far greater pull that the Steelers have for most in the city.

    "We had season tickets back in the 90s and went to pretty much every home game," Frank said over the phone a couple of hours before the first pitch on Monday.

    "I kinda liked baseball because it was something that a guy who's not even fit or physically adept can excel at. My favourite player was Mike LaValliere, a kind of overweight guy.

    "He struggled at-bat, he'd get a nick at the ball and run like heck to get to first base without seeing how it had been fielded. There were a lot of players like that."

    Hopes ended

    LaValliere was the catcher for the Pirates when his tag on Atlanta Braves first baseman Sid Bream – also a former Pittsburgh player – was a fraction late and ended Pittsburgh's World Series hopes in 1992.

    As it turned out, they would not see another postseason for 21 years.

    The Pirates' lean years coincided with a move from the Three Rivers Stadium to PNC, with empty seats doing little to lift a losing team.

    Frank Ferra was eight when he watched Pittsburgh beat the Yankees in the World Series in 1960 [Al Jazeera]

    But now the fans are pouring in to see the Bucs the same way they do to see the Steelers at nearby Heinz Field.

    And the players are riding the crest of that black-and-yellow wave with performances that belie their unfamiliarity with the postseason.

    "PNC was so crunk tonight!!! Keep it rockin like that!", third baseman Josh Harrison posted on Twitter after a wildcard win over the Cincinnati Reds last week boosted Pittsburgh into the divisional playoff series.

    But while the players understandingly enjoy the booming atmosphere, older fans feel slightly differently about it.

    "Mostly because of how the Steelers are playing, a lot of people are joining the bandwagon," Frank says of the swollen Pirates fanbase.

    "A lot of the people just like a winner, but there's some true hard-luck fans like myself – we just accepted when things didn't go well just as long as the players were trying hard.

    "You feel like everybody finally realised what you were saying about the Pirates all these years, but I'm happy."

    Lesser characters than this Pirates team might have buckled after St Louis, the 2011 World Series champions, pasted Pittsburgh with a 9-1 win in the opener in Missouri on Thursday.

    But the Pirates responded with a 7-1 win in the next game down south, before Pedro Alvarez's unlikely RBI single helped the Bucs to a 5-3 win at PNC on Sunday.

    Even a loss on Monday would mean the series could still be clinched in St Louis in game five on Wednesday.

    The turnaround in fortune has been built on steady investment in the team over the past few seasons rather than any extravagant trades, although the players have another secret weapon – Zoltan.

    But if you want an explanation of that one, you'll have to click here. The game's about to start.


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