But this summer — well, dare we say it? For 16 weeks now, the hard-core have seen their faith rewarded, the fair-weather fans have flocked back, and even the scarred-for-life fatalists are letting themselves believe again. And they’re all coming together on warm summer nights to pack PNC Park on a regular basis and root on a Pirates team that has ranked as one of the best in the game all season.
“It’s a great baseball town,” said Bob Walk, the Pirates’ longtime radio broadcaster. “Like anyplace else, if you have year after year after year of losing baseball, then all you’ve got left is that hard core of fans that’s sticking it out. But this is awesome. This is the way baseball should be here — the way it used to be.”
On October 14, 1992, Walk, a right-handed pitcher, was warming up in the Pirates’ bullpen in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series when teammate Stan Belinda threw the fateful 2-1 pitch that Atlanta Braves backup catcher Francisco Cabrera lashed into left field for a single — and when Braves base runner Sid Bream slid home ahead of left fielder Barry Bonds’s desperation throw, the Braves went to the World Series and the stunned Pirates went packing for the winter.
Little did anyone know that 21 years later, those 1992 Pirates — of Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Doug Drabek, a group that had produced three straight division titles — would still stand as the last winning team in Pirates history.
“Nobody could have seen this coming,” Walk said. “Twenty years? That’s unfathomable.”
The team’s slow build
Of those 20 losing seasons that followed, none have been more painful than the three-year stretch that preceded 2013. There was the 105-loss fiasco in 2010, the worst Pirates team in more than half a century. There was the wicked tease of 2011, when they were tied for first place in late July only to crash down the stretch to finish with 90 losses. And there was the even more gruesome collapse of 2012, when they held the wild-card lead well into August but went a staggering 16-36 over the final eight weeks to finish in fourth place at 79-83.
But even as the streak grew — becoming the longest string of losing seasons in American professional sports history — people in the industry understood the Pirates were a sleeping giant, thanks to a stockpile of young talent harvested from all those high draft picks over the years (Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez), plus a series of shrewd moves by the front office to target reclamation projects (Jason Grilli, A.J. Burnett).