June 29, 2011
TORONTO, CANADA - JUNE 30: Andrew McCutchen(notes) #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates bats during MLB interleague game action against the Toronto Blue Jays June 30, 2011 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Brad White/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — No member of the Pittsburgh Pirates feels the pain of 18 consecutive losing seasons quite like Neil Walker.
"I've always bled black and gold," says Walker, raised 20 minutes north of town. "In 1992, I was 7 and I just remember the excitement in the city — how excited people were about Pirates baseball. After that season, the buzz just started to slowly fade. A lot of people kind of jumped off board."
Years of free agent defections and draft-day busts turned the Pirates from pennant winners into perennial losers. But 2011 has been different. Despite injuries, new manager Clint Hurdle has transformed a team that won 57 games last year into a band of believers who are daring to dream beyond the elusive .500 threshold.
"I have a Twitter account (@neilwalker18)," Walker says, "and a lot of people are on there saying — not just to me but to a lot of the guys — 'Thank you for helping me become a Pirates fan again.' That's really humbling. A lot of older fans remember the pre-'92 days, but younger kids between the ages of 10 and 20 don't. They've never seen (a winner)."
They might this season. After taking two of three games against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Pirates were 41-39, the latest in the season they've been above .500 since 1999.
Walker, a first-round pick out of Pine-Richland High School in Gibsonia, Pa., in 2004, is just one piece of a puzzle being pieced together by general manager Neal Huntington. In his fourth season, Huntington has been charged by owner Bob Nutting and team President Frank Coonelly with building a youthful team, primarily through a farm system dotted with blossoming draft picks.
Pirates fans have heard this tune before. What they haven't seen are as many viable young players on the roster at one time since the last century.
Hurdle, who guided the upstart Colorado Rockies to the 2007 National League pennant, says he studied Pirates history as well as the current franchise climate before accepting the managerial challenge. So he understood the city's psyche when the Pirates were swept at the Cleveland Indians (managing four runs in three games) and then dropped a fourth consecutive game when they returned home against the Baltimore Orioles last week.
"You mean the sky is falling?" says Hurdle, settling in at his desk. "Some people are going to believe. Some people are going to be only as confident as the last game we play. There are also people going to look at the body of work — people who are going to hold on to the last 18 years.
"My goal is to be a small part of a group of men trying to make a difference here and rebound a city with a baseball team."
There's no Chicken Little mentality in the clubhouse.
"We're not going to back down because of a losing streak," says Andrew McCutchen, a multitool center fielder and 2005 first-round pick, perhaps on the verge of his first All-Star Game appearance. "We'll bend, but we won't break. Clint has always stressed to us to play a hard nine innings, and that's what we do."
Walker says Hurdle has changed the culture in the Pittsburgh dugout, combining high-intensity instruction and levity .
"This team feels like it can win," says right-hander Kevin Correia, a free agent contributor who is 10-6 after signing a two-year, $8 million deal. "We're hovering around .500, and that's like a big number to people watching outside this organization. But we think we can play better than .500 baseball.
"This wasn't an organization happy with being a 100-game loser, and they're doing something to change that. Just from watching these guys play the past few years, I knew they had a good, young core that was getting better every year."
With a 2.66 ERA, pitcher Jeff Karstens is becoming the pitcher Huntington hoped for when he acquired him along with left fielder Tabata and pitchers Daniel McCutchen and Ross Ohlendorf from the New York Yankees in a mid-2008 trade for Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady.
"Last year, when we'd come to the yard, there was a hope we could win," Karstens says. "Now it's a belief. One different aspect this year: We're kind of watching the scoreboard."
"One big thing our fans don't realize is we haven't even clicked on all cylinders," Karstens says. "This is a great sports town with the Penguins and Steelers who have won championships. A lot of fans here want .500, but we're not playing for that. We're playing for a lot more."
TORONTO, CANADA - JUNE 30: Jeff Karstens(notes) #27 of the Pittsburgh Pirates delivers a pitch during MLB interleague game action against the Toronto Blue Jays June 30, 2011 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Brad White/Getty Images)
The first day of summer brings sweltering 90-degree heat to PNC Park. Coonelly manages to look cool, despite being buttoned up in a black pinstripe suit and red power tie, his typical attire as he greets fans arriving at the park in shorts and Pirates gold T-shirts.
"This is the way I dress. Must be the old lawyer in me," says Coonelly, formerly chief labor counsel for Major League Baseball. "I have a hard time giving up the suit and tie — although on Sundays I'll wear a golf shirt."
Coonelly delivers his corporate message as he mingles with fans:
"We're not done yet," he says. "We have a lot of work ahead.
"Fans are excited about the 2011 Pirates. People who have left us over some period of years are coming back. There's a buzz that hasn't been here in quite some time. People are believing in the new leader in the clubhouse, and they also believe in the young talent that's coming up."
If the June 21 crowd of 33,106 — boosted by a salute to the 1971 World Series champion team — is any indication, the city is embracing the Bucs.
"I think all of Pittsburgh is excited about the team, the stability and nucleus they've got," says Ken Bush, 60, in the stands with wife Trish to watch batting practice. The couple invested in a 10-game ticket package and plan to attend considerably more games than in past years. "We feel strongly that we're not going to trade away our good guys like we have in the past. We like the upper management now, and we like the new manager."
Even Pirates old-timers who shook their heads when players such as Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Doug Drabek were cast adrift see a team that's turning a corner.
"They started three years ago with this plan, and I think it's working because of guys like Walker and McCutchen," says Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski. "I think they've got a little more depth — some (talent) in the minor leagues that's going to be here pretty soon. They're going about it the right way, doing it from the ground up."
But Pittsburgh talk shows also want to know if the Pirates are willing to take the next, immediate step: Go beyond the $45 million payroll — smallest in the NL — and add impact players, particularly for an offense ranking 13th in the National League in runs and 15th in slugging.
It's a hot topic for a franchise accustomed to selling, not buying around the All-Star break.
"It's not a money issue," Coonelly says. "There's no question our fans are interested in seeing us add a piece. We haven't hit as well as we should. Neal and I are aggressively looking into what's out there to help this team win today. But we have some needs today we may not have in three weeks.
"If an acquisition will not set back the growth of the organization, we're prepared to make it. But we can't do it simply because we have a need now. We can't give away the future that we've worked very hard to build."
Turnaround in pitching
No question, pitching and defense are powering the Pirates.
Employing a pitch-to-contact philosophy that stresses first-pitch strikes, pitching coach Ray Searage's staff has gone from having the worst ERA in the majors in 2010 (5.00) to fifth best in the NL at 3.49.
Searage has helped Charlie Morton go from a 2-12 record to 7-4 with a new three-quarter arm slot. James McDonald is 5-4, veteran Paul Maholm has a 3.17 ERA despite a hard-luck 4-9 record, and a no-name relief corps led by workhorses Daniel McCutchen, Jose Veras and Chris Resop has come up big when starters have faltered.
And closer Joel Hanrahan is 23-for-23 in save opportunities.
"To coin a phrase that Clint uses, I'm pleased but I'm not satisfied," says Searage, who knows challenges will come as innings pitched take a toll. Morton skipped his turn in the rotation this week, giving him 11 days to re-energize.
"These guys are breaking barriers," Searage says. "This is going to be a real battle as we move forward."
Hurdle says his team's defense, spearheaded by fleet McCutchen in center field, has "improved by leaps and bounds" this season. In the middle infield, shortstop Ronny Cedeno and Walker combined to play 36 consecutive games, from April 28 through June 9, without committing an error.
"I've had more double-play balls this year than I can remember in my big-league career," Hanrahan says. "The defense has been phenomenal behind me."
But not everything has gone to plan.
Injuries to Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder have forced Mike McKenry and Dusty Brown— with fewer than 100 major league at-bats combined) into starting roles behind the plate.
Beyond McCutchen, who leads the team with a .280 average and 11 homers, and Walker, who had 51 RBI in the first 78 games, the offense has struggled.
Lyle Overbay, a $5 million offseason signing, was hitting .230 when he was benched by Hurdle last week.
The Pirates are winning without a prototypical cleanup hitter. Last week Hurdle used McCutchen and, somewhat reluctantly, Walker in that slot. He debated the Walker decision.
Hurdle appreciates out-of-the-box thinking ("I'm not big on vacu-forming things," he says) and is willing to cut young players slack, as when McKenry tries to beat out a ground ball by diving into first base.
"You tell him you don't like to see it, but they're kids," Hurdle says. "Every time they dive, I just close my eyes. I watch them get up and, if they're OK, (then) we're good. They're out in the backyard playing ball."
Just as Walker did just north of town. It's enough for Pittsburgh fans to believe those good old days are coming back.