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There are nine—count 'em, nine—Clemente jerseys waiting in the rain to buy a Primanti Bros. sandwich at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. That says three things about this town. One, people in Pittsburgh do love their Primanti Bros. sandwiches (meat, fries and coleslaw—a full meal!—between two slices of bread). Two, people in Pittsburgh are loyal. Intensely loyal. Roberto Clemente died in 1972, yet he is still a living, breathing part of this community. You walk over the Clemente Bridge to get to the ball game. You see Clemente highlights on the ballpark's big screen every day. Clemente's marvelous throwing arm is still recalled over hotcakes at Pamela's in the Strip District. Oh, and three, Pirates fans pretty much have to go back to Clemente to find something cheerful to wear.
Then again: Look around. It's a Friday night at PNC Park—whose throwback design and spectacular views of the city and riverfront make it perhaps the most wonderful park in baseball—and the Cardinals are in town, and the place shimmers in black and gold. The rain has slowed to a drizzle, and the concourses are jammed with Pirates fans. A wonderful Steel City scent of beer, pierogies and french fries fills the air. Talk radio and Internet chat boards have lit up expectations with buzz about the dazzling play of Pirates centerfielder Andrew McCutchen and the turnaround of pitcher Charlie Morton. After 18 consecutive losing seasons (a record of futility in the four North American major sports leagues), the Pirates are in first place, at least for a moment. And Pittsburgh is a baseball town again. At least for a moment.
"This is not a time for us to high-five," Pirates owner Bob Nutting is saying, and normally you would agree with him. The Pirates (on this evening) are only tied for first place. There are still two months of baseball left to play. Pittsburgh does not seem to have the talent to match up with St. Louis or Milwaukee in the NL Central, and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle talks sense when he reminds fans that teams don't get trophies for being tied for the division lead in late July.
But who wants sensible talk in Pittsburgh now? Most incoming college freshmen were not even born the last time the Pirates had a winning record. This is a team whose fans once walked out in protest. (The Pirates consistently have ranked 15th in the NL in attendance, ahead of only the forsaken Marlins.) This is a team that in 2001 christened its beautiful new ballpark with 100 losses. This is a team that traded Jose Bautista for a player to be named later, a team that once drafted a shortstop named Mark Farris one pick before Nomar Garciaparra, Paul Konerko and Jason Varitek went in quick succession.
No. There's no time for sensible talk. There's no waiting to see how it turns out. The Pirates are over .500 in July. It is time to high-five. There was no predicting this. Sure, there was talk that the Pirates were beginning to head in the right direction. Nutting took over in 2007, hired the well-regarded Neal Huntington as G.M. and began to invest in the future. The team built a new academy in the Dominican Republic. It spent money to sign players in the draft. It hired more scouts. There was hope—there is hope—for things to get better.
But nobody thought good things would happen this year. Pittsburgh lost 105 games in 2010. And the Pirates' stunning turn has not been the result of young players emerging—though McCutchen has developed into one of the most exciting players in baseball. No, it has taken Hollywood movie miracles. Soft-tossing Jeff Karstens, who came into the year with a 12--27 record and a 5.07 ERA, is suddenly among the National League leaders in earned run average. Morton, who was 2--12 last year, worked hard to copy the pitching style of Roy Halladay and is now over .500 himself. Joel Hanrahan, who was let go by the Dodgers and flamed out in Washington, is, at age 29, having a spectacular season as the Pirates' closer.
In other words: It might not last. Nutting says the Pirates' future looks bright, and he may be right. The team's emphasis on finding talent—"We're going to exploit every inefficiency in the game," he says, proving he has read Michael Lewis's Moneyball—may indeed lead to a baseball renaissance in Pittsburgh. Then again, it may not. Pittsburgh baseball fans are pretty realistic. They've seen enough losing to understand that things don't always work out. They're going to party now, and party hard. And they should.
"It's a fantastic thing," Hurdle says of the energy of the crowd and the city before the series opener with St. Louis. Yes, the Pirates lose. Yes, they drop out of first place. Yes, even a brief losing streak could put them back on pace for a 19th straight losing season. Even so, after the game the PNC Park outfield fills with Pirates season-ticket holders playing catch.
And it's all there: fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, longtime friends throwing baseballs back and forth. Someone is wearing a McCutchen jersey and another a Morton. And, yes, some are wearing Clementes. Sure, they try hard to believe in these Pirates. But Pittsburgh baseball fans know: It's good to keep a Clemente jersey in the closet, just in case.