Even as the Pittsburgh Pirates have ventured out to their best start in two decades, there has been a noticeable “enthusiasm gap” in the Tri-State Area.
As discussed on yesterday’s Three Rivers, One Show podcast, it seems the Penguins’ ongoing Stanley Cup playoff run has at least partially blunted the ‘Burgh’s enthusiasm for its local ballclub. Moreover, the hockey postseason was been pushed back a couple of weeks due to a lengthy lockout, taking more of the Pirates’ all-important window of exclusivity away.
But while the Penguins could be in action until late June, that doesn’t fully explain why Pittsburgh sports fans have been slow to get engaged with a Pirates team whose 27-18 record is the third-best in the National League and sixth-best in MLB. Attendance traditionally rises later in the season, but PNC Park has been filled to just 54.3 percent capacity through 25 home dates.
(As an aside, what’s Cleveland’s excuse? The Tribe’s in first place and the Cavaliers didn’t make the NBA playoffs.)
For sake of comparison, Pirates fans occupied 68.2 percent of the blue PNC Park seats last season, equating to an attendance average of just over 26,000. If memory serves, Pittsburgh didn’t warm to the 2012 Bucs until their bats heated up in June and July, pushing them into playoff contention.
Ah yes, last year, when the Pirates dropped from 16 games over .500 to a 20th consecutive losing season in truly gut-wrenching fashion. Stack that on top of a late-season downturn in 2011 and it’s evident that at least part of the Bucs’ fanbase is taking a “wait and see” approach this time around.
With that emotional baggage in mind, perhaps Tuesday night’s action on the North Side will soften some hearts. The struggling Cubs came to town to start a three-game series with the surging Pirates, owners of eight wins in their previous 10 games. The stage seemed ripe for a third straight series victory, but Chicago starter Matt Garza shut down the Bucs through five innings and the Cubs had a 3-0 lead.
But with Garza removed due to pitch-count concerns – it was his first start of the year after injury – the Pirates took advantage of the middling Chicago bullpen. Pedro Alvarez’ bases-loaded walk off James Russell cut the deficit to two, then pinch-hitter Travis Snider did this to Shawn Camp:
(MLB.com video player not behaving, but the fan video tells the story, too.)
It was one of those flashpoints that occurs just a few times per season: an unlikely player does something special in a big situation to turn a game around. Like Michael McKenry in 2011 or Rob Mackowiak a decade ago, Snider authored a signature PNC Park moment against the Cubs.
On the pitching side, starter Wandy Rodriguez held it together for six innings, followed by a frame apiece for Justin Wilson, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli. Although Grilli had a rare shaky ninth, it was enough to make Snider’s slam hold up as the deciding blow. It was just one win out of 27 and one game out of 162, but the 5-4 decision felt like a night that could wake more people up to a team that has been strong in all facets.
Pittsburgh sports fans are used to fighting for their teams to get national attention. In this case, the war is on home soil, pitting detachment against engagement. Maybe the scales will to tip in favor of the latter from now on.