Pittsburgh eager to prove solid start is no mirage

During their journey together through the Pittsburgh Pirates
minor league organization, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker would
talk on long bus rides through sleepy towns about how great it
would be when they helped make the long-suffering big-league club
relevant again.

McCutchen, the speedy center fielder and Walker, the talented
second baseman, never set a timetable.

All that mattered was the destination.

”We want to beat the odds,” McCutchen said. ”We want to be
the team that turns things around. That’s what I feel that we have,
that’s what I feel we’re shooting for. And we’re doing a pretty
good job at it.”

At least, by Pittsburgh’s relatively modest standards.

A year after a miserable 105-loss campaign that served as an
ugly exclamation point to an 18th straight losing season – a North
American professional sports league record – the Pirates are
looking decidedly, well, un-Piratelike.

A week before Memorial Day, Pittsburgh is sitting at a
respectable, if not spectacular, 22-24.

It’s not much, but it’s something.

”I can tell you firsthand that it’s not a mirage,” Walker
said. ”This is a different team. This is a different attitude.
This is a different daily grind than it’s been in the past, and we
know that.”

Even if the city appears to be taking a wait-and-see
approach.

The NFL lockout and the Penguins’ early exit from the NHL
playoffs have allowed the Pirates to command center stage in a town
where they’re often an afterthought by Memorial Day. Yet, the
public has been slow to hop on the bandwagon.

Pittsburgh ranks 26th in average attendance, with the stands
less than half full for most games at quirky and comfortable PNC
Park.

It’s nothing new.

Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland managed the Pirates from
1986-96 and led them to three straight division titles from
1990-92. Leyland still lives in the city during the offseason, and
can sense the frustration.

”I’m sure the people here have grown impatient and rightfully
so,” Leyland said. ”But I believe they’re definitely (heading) in
the right direction.”

He recalls feeling ”sad” when he’d sit in a nearly vacant
ballpark watching the Pirates slog through another listless summer.
These days, the word he prefers to use when talking about his old
team is ”impressed.”

Then again, Leyland has more of a vested interest than most. He
encouraged Clint Hurdle to take the job when the former Colorado
Rockies manager interviewed with the Pirates last winter.

”It’s kind of the same way (as when) I came here,” Leyland
said. ”For a little bit, it was a no-lose situation because they
had been struggling so long and we felt the only place we could go
would be up possibly and we did at some point obviously.”

Hurdle, who led the Rockies to the 2007 World Series, is well
aware of the black cloud that has hung over the organization for
years. And he couldn’t care less.

After all, focusing on the rearview mirror isn’t his style.

”We don’t look at the past,” Hurdle said. ”There’s a lot of
things that haven’t worked out historically here that we’re trying
to change.”

Apathy and skepticism are just a few.

Pitcher Paul Maholm has endured five years of losing. He tries
his best to avoid negativity, opting for satellite radio or his
iPod when he’s driving through town instead of sports radio. And he
avoids the local papers at all costs.

He knows the organization has underperformed. He doesn’t need to
be reminded.

”It (stinks) to be out of it early,” Maholm said. ”The fans
aren’t getting what they deserve when you’re just playing the
season out.”

The games, at least for the moment, mean something. If the
Pirates can find a way to take two from the Atlanta Braves starting
on Tuesday, they’ll be at .500 this late in the season for the
first time in seven years.

Not bad for a team that appeared to be in a free-fall a week
ago. Pittsburgh briefly put its head above water at 18-17 on May 9,
then promptly lost six straight games.

As the losses mounted, Hurdle sensed his team was at a delicate
point in its development. Rather than wait, he called the players
together and repeated a message he’s sent consistently since spring
training: hold fast.

”(He said) `The pilot has put on the seatbelt sign and now go
back to your seats, sit down and get back to the fundamentals and
we’ll get smooth skies again’,” outfielder Matt Diaz said.
”Again, he has not lied to us once as a team. So, we believe
him.”

Hurdle understands being a psychologist is part of his job
description. Books with titles like ”Courage” and ”Encouragement
Changes Everything” occupy his clubhouse desk, alongside
biographies of Pirate greats like Roberto Clemente and Bill
Mazeroski.

And he’s less concerned with what his players have done, as
opposed to what they can do.

”If you can’t take risk out there to the field and play outside
your comfort zone,” he said, ”I don’t know how good you can ever
be.”

And he’s not afraid to take a stand when he sees players
slacking, benching both McCutchen and shortstop Ronny Cedeno for a
lack of hustle. McCutchen didn’t take it personally, calling it a
lesson learned.

It worked. He’s surged since the sit-down, hitting .343 over the
last nine games.

Taking a stand against a franchise cornerstone can be a
dangerous thing for a team that has made a habit of trading away
building blocks when it looks like they’ll get too expensive to
keep. Yet the 24-year-old McCutchen says he wants to stick around
and fulfill the promise he and Walker made to each other on their
way up through the ranks.

”We’ve had guys that didn’t want to be here and the guys that
are here now, they want to be here,” he said. ”We have a group of
guys, we’re prepared and we’re ready for anything.”

Winning being chief among them.