PITTSBURGH — Hope Raines is such a huge fan of the resurgent Pittsburgh Pirates that she's willing to risk her well-being to attend a game.
Diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, Raines says she skipped her scheduled chemotherapy so she and her longtime boyfriend Jim Sawyers could catch the Pirates in their overdue pursuit of the playoffs.
"I'm going to beat cancer and we are going all the way," she says, then turns to Sawyers to give him, and the team, an ultimatum: "You and the Pirates need to put a ring on it."
The Pirates haven't handed out any championship rings since their last World Series win in 1979 and it's been a miserable 20 years in a row since the club even had a winning season — a record of futility for any major league sport, let alone baseball.
Finally, seemingly overnight, times have changed. Attendance is soaring. A winning season is guaranteed. And, as they head into a critical series this weekend against the Cincinnati Reds, the once-lowly Pirates are assured a playoff spot barring an epic collapse down the home stretch as the season heads to a close on Sept. 29.
"The Buccos are just killing it this year," says fan JJ Cardinale who, along with her friend Melissa Spynda, has attended 20 games this season dressed as pierogies, a staple of the many Polish-Americans in the Pittsburgh area. Cardinale and Spynda have already purchased playoff tickets, though the Pirates probably need several wins to lock down a wild-card berth or upend first-place St. Louis for the division championship.
The growing enthusiasm for the Pirates is most evident at the box office. Once one of the worst draws in baseball, the Pirates have sold out a record 20 games this year and have the second-highest attendance since PNC Park — widely considered the most picturesque field in the major leagues — opened in 2001. Over the last few months, attendance has averaged 32,576 fans a game, according to Pirates officials. In previous years, when the Pirates were well out of the playoff race, 10,000 or less often showed up for a September game.
For decades that kind of passion for Pittsburgh sports was the strict domain of the Steelers, and to a lesser degree, the Penguins hockey team.
Since the Pirates' last World Series, the Steelers have added two more Super Bowl championships to their record six and the Penguins have hoisted the Stanley Cup three times. Typically when the Steelers start training in July, and always by September, the Pirates have become an afterthought.
Not this year. The Steelers started the NFL season 0-2 and the Penguins came up short in the NHL playoffs, leading many Pittsburghers to pin their hopes on the Pirates and jump on a bandwagon that seemingly grows larger by the day.
"I go to the grocery store and people are talking baseball," says Bob Walk, a former pitcher on the Pirate's last playoff team, now TV color analyst for the local broadcaster, ROOT-TV. "It's a little unusual for this time of year, but a whole lot of fun."
Fans at home are tuned in, too. Local TV viewership has jumped 22% vs. last year, making this season the highest rated of all time, Pirates officials say. The Pirates local TV ratings are currently third among all teams in baseball, trailing only Detroit and St. Louis.
The Pirates have developed a substantial following on Facebook as well, and not just in the city itself. Fans of the Pirates' team page have jumped 75% to 454,000 the past two years. Facebook data shows that, while most live in the Pittsburgh area, 19 of the top 50 cities for Pirates fans (roughly 38%) are outside Pennsylvania, stretching from Boston to Los Angeles. Pirates merchandise sales are up 53% from last year, based on sales made on MLB.com. That represents the fourth-biggest increase among major league teams this year.
The Pirates success this year resembles that of other cash-strapped small-market teams such as the Oakland A's, which more than a decade ago wrote the playbook on remaining competitive despite having a fraction of the dollars to spend vs. teams such as the New York Yankeeswhich this year shelled out $228.8 million on player salaries — almost $150 million more than the Pirates' payroll.
The growing support for Pirates baseball isn't going unnoticed in the clubhouse. Second baseman Neil Walker, a Pittsburgh native who grew up on "Buccos" baseball, says the renewed interest is a big boost for a club hoping to add their own chapter to a storied franchise that dominated the sporting landscape here for decades until the Steelers rose to prominence.
"I remember the great players I looked up to," says Walker, who has formed a particularly close relationship with his predecessor at second base, Bill Mazeroski, a Hall of Famer who hit the ninth-inning home run that defeated the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, perhaps the most dramatic play in Series history. "This community lives and dies for its teams," Walker says.
The Pirates last saw the playoffs in 1992 when they lost a heartbreaking pennant race against the Atlanta Braves. It's a memory that still stings fans old enough to remember watching Braves first baseman Sid Bream — a former Pirate — slide home to win game seven and crush Pittsburghers' World Series dreams.
"My first baseball memory is of Sid Bream," says Dan Dunmire, 25, who like many fans is optimistic that the post-season drought is about to end.
On a recent night at PNC Park, Dunmire and his motley crew showed their exuberance by dressing up like Pirates of old, wearing tri-quarter hats, sashes and eye patches. Most of his fellow buccaneers are too young to recall the 1992 loss and have grown up knowing only losing baseball — watching a steady stream of stars such as Barry Bonds, Aramis Ramirez and Jason Bay move to bigger markets for a fatter paycheck.
"It's nice to see baseball coming back to Pittsburgh," says fellow mutineer Ben Lesko, 20.
The lore of Pirates teams of old looms large at PNC Park, where black-and-white photos of past stars line the hallways just outside the clubhouse. Older fans hold dear the memories of Roberto Clemente, the first Latin player to win a World Series MVP in 1971. Clemente died in a plane crash just a few months after getting his 3,000th career hit while bringing relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. One of the last to see him alive was former major league pitcher Tom Walker, Neil's father.
The last Pirates team to win the series was anchored by Willie Stargell, affectionately known as "Pops" and featured pitching greats Doc Ellis and reliever Kent Tekulve, who now co-anchors the team's televised pre-game and post-game shows.
Manager Clint Hurdle says all that cherished history makes the club's recent turnaround all that much sweeter. He says an older fan recently thanked him for helping him to love baseball again. "'I haven't had this feeling since I was 12 years old,' " the fan told Hurdle, who three years ago inherited a team that lost 105 games and has improved every year since. "I'm thankful for their steadfastness."
Pirate principal owner Bob Nutting says he was keenly aware of the toll that years of losing had taken on the fans. During his first few years at the helm, his management team was reviled on sports talk shows for spending too little on the roster and trading away players for prospects.
"We recognized that when we stepped in, it wasn't going to be easy," Nutting says. The Pirates completely overhauled their minor league farm system and built a new baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, which has already produced star-in-the-making left fielder Starling Marte. They also have paid their draft picks more than any club in the league. Strong-armed pitcher Gerrit Cole, the first pick in the 2010 draft, is a fireballer with a 9-7 record this year.
The new philosophy focusing on homegrown talent, coupled with a focus on strong pitching and a defense that focuses on batter-specific fielding, has paid dividends, though a recent batting slump resulted in a string of losses this week before the Pirates trounced the mediocre San Diego Padres 10-1 on Thursday.
Admittedly nervous fans such as John Vazquez say they are keeping the faith.
"It's been 20 years (since the Pirates made the playoffs) so you've got to be optimistic," says Vazquez, owner of the downtown shop "You're in Steeler Country," though most of his stock these days is in Pirates t-shirts, hats and stickers.
"It's almost impossible that they don't make it (to the playoffs)," he says, adding just a glimmer of uncertainly. "Still, anything can happen."