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.