Besides, there are other silver linings. Were this another, flusher team, a full half of the current Pirates might still be in the minors. "It's a great opportunity for a lot of guys," says centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, 23, a minor leaguer a little more than a year ago who was hitting .299 with 20 stolen bases through Sunday. For the few fans armed with vast reserves of patience, there are rewards. Mark Fritzges, an Atlantic Records executive based in Pittsburgh, has been a longtime Pirates season-ticket holder. For $24 per seat—the cost of a bleacher seat in some parks—he and his wife sit a few rows behind home plate. They never worry about parking or fighting traffic. "Hey, I love baseball. Sure I wish the Pirates were better—or even just more consistent—but I get to come here," he says, gesturing around PNC, "and I enjoy seeing the other teams."
But Fritzges is the exception. For all the progress at the franchise's subcutaneous layers—Nutting gushes about the success of the Double A team in Altoona; Coonelly notes the Class A Bradenton Marauders' eight All-Stars—most fans will be skeptical until they see success at the major league level. Even if Alvarez or Tabata or Lincoln is as good as advertised, will the Pirates commit the resources to keeping them? The response of Huntington, while admirably realistic, is unlikely to inspire great waves of confidence. He vows the Pirates' payroll will increase significantly in the coming years but then adds, "If a player wants to chase every last dollar, he's probably not going to be here. If he buys into what we're doing, he'll leave some money on the table and he'll stay."
And yet, justified as the fans might be in their cynicism, perhaps Pirates executives have justification for their optimism. On that gorgeous June evening, the Pirates trailed the Cubs 2--1 in the eighth inning when Neil Walker came to bat. Walker had recently been summoned from the minors to replace Aki Iwamura, the team's highest-paid position player ($4.9 million), who was hitting .172 before his benching. Yet unlike so many new Pirates, Walker's name resonated with fans. A local kid who'd grown up going to Pittsburgh games—"I was six years old," he volunteers, "the last time we had a winning season"—he came up through the system, precisely the kind of organically harvested player Nutting has been touting.
Walker turned on a Ted Lilly fastball and drove it over the leftfield fence for his first big league home run, a two-run shot that gave Pittsburgh the lead. A few minutes later the Pirates closed out the game, defeating the Cubs (and their $147 million payroll) 3--2. Fans celebrated like it was 1979. Walker was mobbed by his new teammates. Naturally, this triggered still another fireworks display. As the blazes danced in the night sky over the ballpark and the Allegheny, maybe, just maybe, they represented glimmers of hope.
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