BY CHRIS MUELLER
PHOTOGRAPH BY CAYLA ZAHORAN
The last time the Pittsburgh Pirates entered a summer with high hopes and the expectations and pressures that are unique to a powerhouse or heavy favorite, I was 6 years old. I am now 29 years old. To me, the idea that the team is supposed to win is a foreign one, to say the least.
Foreign or not, though, that reality is staring Pirates fans in the face, whether they realize it or not — and whether they are ready to embrace it or not. This is a good baseball team, perhaps a very good baseball team, and no amount of handwringing by the naysayers is going to change that.
This is going to be fun, Pittsburgh. But it isn’t going to be easy, not by a long shot. Gone are the days where a bad game can be passed off as meaningless because of the team’s woeful place in the standings. Gone are the days when mediocre individual player performance can be laughed off as part of the learning process. Players need to perform, they need to perform regularly, and they need to perform well.
Downtown will be fun. Certainly, it will be more fun than it has been in years. There will be lively, positive atmospheres at all the North Shore bars. The “Gosh, can you believe this?” type of happy incredulity that accompanied last year’s run to the division series will now be replaced by the same kind of near-religious, win-fueled fervor that defines every Steelers Sunday.
Hard as it is to believe, the Pirates are becoming downright trendy. The Penguins have disappointed their fans in the post-season the last few years, and we all know that the Steelers have gone through an unusual stretch of subpar football for the last two campaigns. For the Pirates, though, the luster, the freshness of winning still exists.
Jerseys bearing the names McCutchen, Cole, Walker, and Alvarez now do more than just dot the landscape or drape across the backs of true diehards. Instead, they’ve become the norm. Ever since PNC Park throbbed during an unforgettable Wild Card win over the Reds, the way this city has looked at its baseball team has changed. They are no longer a cute story. They are on the fast track back to cultural relevance and importance.
Let me reiterate, however, that this won’t be easy. Whereas last year’s Bucs fans merely fretted about the specter of a collapse, even when it was obvious that one would not take place, any prolonged stretch of even average baseball this year won’t be tolerated. Plays will be psychoanalyzed, trades will be speculated about even more endlessly than usual, and the chorus of negativity from the lunatic fringe will seem more shrill than you ever remembered it being.
It is better than the alternative, to be sure. I’m sure everyone remembers the dead feeling that accompanied every baseball season before last year, and the persistent, unfunny, but unfortunately truth-filled barbs about waiting for Steelers training camp. That wasn’t fun, at least if you were a Pirates fan.
A new era has finally dawned for the Pirates and their fans. And while you might have thought that success on the field would be accompanied by an ability to breathe easy as a fan, that isn’t the case. The stakes have been raised.
But if you start to stress out, just remember: This is what you always wanted. Enjoy it — if you can.