Amid the vehicles parked in the players' lot at Three Rivers last weekend was a lone imported luxury car: a five-year-old BMW bought used by one of the pitchers. This is a team whose NCAA basketball tournament pool made bingo night at the local ladies' auxiliary look like a game for high rollers. "In the past the pot has been four digits," Martin says. "This was most definitely three figures. We had a lot of guys thinking real hard before putting in $25. They're thinking, Hey, that's two meals."
Coupons are also treasured. Schmidt, who came up with the Atlanta Braves two years ago, recently aced out some teammates for a discount from a video store. "Rent two, get one free," he says proudly. "When I grabbed it, I was thinking, I bet Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and those guys wouldn't even have noticed it."
"Look around this room," Martin says, gesturing at the uniforms hanging on each locker. "Look at those names. You know what? With the names on or off it doesn't make much of a difference to most people—they still don't know us. But what's happening here is like something out of a movie. It makes you step back and realize what the game's about. It's a kid's game. Innocence, that's what we have. It's awesome."
In one corner of the clubhouse, the movie-star looks and storybook life of rookie shortstop Kevin Polcovich typify the young Bucs. A 30th-round pick in the '92 draft, Polcovich wanted to quit this spring when the Pirates didn't invite him to spring training and then sent him to Double A. "I almost went back to college," says Polcovich, 26, who is one semester short of a degree in sports administration at Florida. "I was going to be the first one in my family to get a degree."
The Pirates, though, persuaded him to report, explaining that they wanted him to get experience at several infield positions. They quickly promoted him to Triple A and then, after Elster broke his wrist on May 16, to the majors. "I've always wanted to be a big league shortstop," says Polcovich. "My hero was Bucky Dent. One time I went to go see him at a dinner. I waited an hour and a half to get his autograph. Then he took off through a window." At week's end Polcovich was batting .314 with a 10-game hitting streak and was being serenaded with polka music upon every at bat in Three Rivers, much to the delight of his Polish-born wife, Lisa.
Across the back wall of the clubhouse in another corner locker—one that used to belong to Bonds and then to Orlando Merced—resides reliever Ricardo Rincon (2-2, 2.67 ERA and four saves through Sunday), one of the team's three Mexican-born pitchers. His countrymen, Esteban Loaiza and Francisco Cordova, have lockers on either side of him and were a combined 9-6 with a 2.66 ERA at week's end.
Loaiza went undrafted as a high school catcher in Southern California before converting to pitcher in a Mexican minor league, where Pittsburgh discovered and signed him in '91. Loaiza hit 95 mph on the Pirates' radar gun last Thursday in beating St. Louis 9-3.
Cordova put together a 40-6 record over four seasons with the Mexico City Red Devils before Pittsburgh signed him last year. Since breaking into the Pirates' rotation last August, Cordova, through Sunday, was 6-4 with a 2.93 ERA in 18 starts. His 1.99 ERA this season was better than all National League starters, except Pedro Martinez's (1.45) of the Montreal Expos.
The clubhouse also includes Randa, the .308 hitter nicknamed the Joker for his upturned mouth, which appears to give him a perpetual grin; reliever Marc Wilkins, a 47th-round draft pick known as the Vulture for racking up the first 5-0 start by a Pirate in seven years (despite throwing only 30 innings); and second baseman Tony Womack, the Pittsburgh Stealer who at week's end had swiped 22 bases without being caught, the longest streak by a Pirate in 21 years. Gone are 16 players from the 1996 Opening Day roster, including veterans Merced, Jay Bell, Danny Darwin, Carlos Garcia, Charlie Hayes, Jeff King, Denny Neagle and Dan Plesac, all of whom were traded in a five-month stretch beginning last July. Pittsburgh also lost its manager, Jim Leyland, who left for the glamour and cash of the Florida Marlins rather than oversee what he figured would be a lengthy—perhaps perpetual—rebuilding process.
"Over the winter I read stuff like how we'd lose at least 100 games and we'd have trouble beating a good minor league team," Martin says. "I know people in this town were a little anxious about what we were doing. We got rid of eight established players and got people they had no clue about. But this is the perfect example of what a team is. It's not a bunch of guys thinking, I hope I have a big year because I'll be a free agent. It's more like, I hope I do good because I want to be here tomorrow.