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.