Then, on Aug. 28, Linda McGary opened the mailbox outside her Pittsburgh home and saw the strangest thing: an invoice for playoff tickets. Since the 1940s, from Forbes Field to Three Rivers Stadium to PNC Park, McGary's family has held season tickets on the third base line—always row B, seats 5 and 6. After the Bucs win their 60th game each season, McGary, a 56-year-old consulting-firm manager, starts a tally on a yellow Post-It note in the hope that they will reach 82 and finish above .500. "When I saw the invoice, it made me realize that we're getting close," McGary says. "It might really happen."
Mark it down: This year the Pirates will post-it their first winning record since Bream's dust cloud and partake in a September chase that involves more than dumplings. After taking two out of three from the Cardinals at PNC last weekend, the Bucs were 79--57 and tied for first place in the NL Central. Of course, they are guaranteed nothing more than a month of stomach-churning anxiety—another hallmark of September baseball. But the Pirates are bolstering their roster for the stretch run—another unfamiliar happening to a generation of Pittsburghers. After dropping 11 of 17 in mid-August and tumbling to 19th in the majors in runs, they acquired Marlon Byrd from the Mets on Aug. 27, their ninth starting rightfielder of the season. ("I'm with a contender," he beamed on his first day with the team.) Four days later he was joined by first baseman Justin Morneau, who arrived with his 221 career home runs from the Twins in a trade. As it says on the T-shirt worn by the diehards, WELCOME TO THE BANDWAGON.
WHEN JIM COEN opened Yinzers in the Burgh five years ago, he stocked his sports-merchandise store in the Strip district with exactly zero Pirates shirts. "And no one bitched," he says, noting that 90% of his business came from Steelers sales. Today he carries 60 Pirates shirts and pegs the sales split between the teams at 50-50. In late August, Coen was eating dinner at nearby Roland's Seafood Grill when he nearly choked on his lobster roll. A television showing the Steelers' preseason game against the Chiefs was flipped to the Pirates. "And no one bitched about that, either," he marvels.
Pittsburgh was a baseball town first. You just need to go back 50 years to find the proof. Pitcher Tom Walker played with Clemente and helped him load relief supplies onto the plane that crashed en route to Nicaragua on New Year's Eve in 1972, killing the iconic rightfielder. Walker offered to tag along on the flight, but Clemente told him to hang back in Puerto Rico. Tom's youngest son, Neil, grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Gibsonia, listening to that story and others like it. He splashed around his grandmother's pool to the voice of Pirates play-by-play man Lanny Frattare on the radio. He studied centerfielder Andy Van Slyke and catcher Jason Kendall. When he was seven he told his parents, outside Three Rivers, "I'm going to play there someday." The younger Walker, who was born in 1985, is part of what locals call the Lost Generation: anyone who was born after 1984 and can scarcely remember a winning baseball team. "It was the Steelers, the Penguins, Pitt, Penn State—and then the Pirates," he says. "Going to the ballpark was never an activity for a group of friends. It was lost."
As a high schooler, Walker took swings at Diamond Training Center, a 30,000-square-foot baseball palace in Cranberry Township, with eight batting cages and $50,000 pitching machines that could throw 12-to-6 curveballs. "But we didn't have the turnout people expected, and it closed down," says Patrick Cutshall, a hitting instructor and former Astros farmhand. Last year Cutshall opened a new academy, albeit 26,000 square feet smaller, in a 100-year-old building in New Brighton, where a single-screen movie theater used to be. Usually, kids are hitting soft toss in the concession area, but attendance lags in late summer, after football practice begins. Even Walker's wife, Niki, who attended Pine-Richland High with him, knew the star athlete only as a wide receiver and free safety. Never mind that he was also an all-state catcher and the best amateur baseball player in Western Pennsylvania.
Walker was drafted by the Pirates out of high school in the first round in 2004, made the big leagues in '09 after switching to second base and tailgated at a Steelers game shortly thereafter. "Someone yelled, 'You guys suck!' " recalls Walker. "I love football, and I love the Steelers, but I did start to resent it a little."
Relationships can be fragile between franchises that share a zip code, especially when one is winning Super Bowls and the other is irrelevant as soon as NFL training camps open. "The Pirates were something you never thought about," says Ike Taylor, a Steelers cornerback since 2003. "You never paid any attention to them. Now I go home at night and I watch the Pirates on TV. I'm on the bandwagon. I'll tell you what I want to see: middle of October, us in a game at Heinz Field, them in a playoff game next door."
FRANK BIENKOWSKI was a poetry major at Pittsburgh in October 1992, and as the Braves rejoiced, he drove from his girlfriend's house in Greenfield to his apartment in Highland Park. He had an assignment due in Judith Vollmer's class—a denial poem, meant to understate one's deepest emotions. He scrawled a rough draft in blue ink that began:
my heart did not burst
when ex-Buc Sid Bream