In Late June, Pittsburgh Still Excited About The Pirates

PITTSBURGH - JUNE 08: Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates is congratulated by manager Clint Hurdle #13 after scoring in the tenth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the game on June 8, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Joe Starkey has a good column on what the Pirates' improved play has meant for the city so far this year:

" Pirates television ratings on Root Sports are up 34 percent from last season and are at their highest levels since June 2005.

" Sports apparel stores are reporting ridiculously large increases in Pirates-related sales from the same point last season. That includes a 46 percent spike at Hometowne Sports — where the $19.99 Walker T-shirt is most popular — and a 51 percent increase at The Pittsburgh Fan, across from PNC Park. Anne Ronan, spokesperson for The Finish Line stores, was not permitted to disclose figures but said, "(Pirates) apparel is selling at a rapid clip even in areas not Pittsburgh proper, like Johnstown."

" Attendance is up 12 percent, with three sellouts expected this weekend against the Boston Red Sox. "Weekends like this," Walker said, "are going to be really important for growing the fan base."

" Merchandise sales at PNC Park are up 32 percent, page views on the Pirates website 41 percent.

I'll add that May 2011 was Bucs Dugout's biggest month ever, despite May not usually being a particularly big month - the biggest are usually April (which is typically the last time fans have much confidence in the Pirates), June (which has the draft) and July and August (which surround the trading deadline). June 2011 is going to annihilate May - we've already had 40,000 more page views than we had last month, and there's an entire week left to go.

Starkey focuses on the Pirates' record as the reason for the resurgence in fan interest, and he's surely right to do so, as that's the easiest and most convenient way to indicate improvement, and the metric the fans focus on the most. But I think there's also the fact that this team looks different. They still make their share of mistakes, but there's little of the Bad-News-Bears vibe the Pirates typically emanate.

If you go to PNC for a game and you see Lastings Milledge running the bases like a chicken with his head off, or Adam LaRoche looking bored while going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, or Charlie Morton or Ian Snell throwing complete cookies for opposing batters to smack over the Clemente Wall, or Ronny Paulino completely flubbing yet another throw from home, or Jeromy Burnitz jogging down to first, you probably aren't going to feel particularly good about coming back to the park, whether the team ended up winning the game or not. (And yeah, I feel bad about including a decent player in LaRoche in that group, but his April failures were a big part of what made some earlier editions of the team hard to watch.) 

This year, they're playing much better defense. They're pitching better. They look alert and competent. It's no surprise that wins have come along with that.

But there's also the fact that one reason we like sports is because they appeal to us on an aesthetic level - we like to see great athletes do things well. Not only do the Pirates now have a guy in Andrew McCutchen who is the most aesthetically-appealing baseball player to suit up for the Bucs in decades, but they're also surrounding him with players who at least aren't aesthetically objectionable. Even putting aside the results for a second, that makes the games a lot more fun to watch than they were even a year ago.

Clint Hurdle probably deserves a fair amount of credit for that - I don't always agree with him tactically, but I can't remember a Pirates team that looked as focused as the 2011 edition does. I don't think this is a contending team, and I'm not even sure this is a .500 team, but I do think that as a group, these guys are worthy of the name on the fronts of their jerseys, and it's been a long time since I felt I could say that.

*     *     *

I'm heading to Ontario in the morning to visit friends and will be back at the end of the weekend. I'll still be checking in, but updates may be a little less timely than usual.

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