Skip to main content
Original Issue

Welcome To the Bandwagon

To a generation of Pittsburgh fans, September has always been about school, football ... and the irrelevance of the Pirates. But the franchise's 20-season losing streak is about to end, and now a reawakened baseball town is asking: ARE YINZ READY FOR OCTOBER?

IN HIS second-floor study Sid Bream keeps the head of the buffalo he shot with his bow and arrow in Wyoming, the body of the bear he bagged in Alberta, the hide of the zebra he slew in Africa and the skin of the alligator he speared in South Carolina. He also keeps the photograph of the catcher he slid around in Atlanta. It's not surprising to see that image, which is also on display in Bream's basement and again in his living room, in a watercolor rendering autographed by Francisco Cabrera. The snapshot captures the most memorable moment in the life of Sid Bream and the most damaging play in the history of the Pirates: Cabrera's single to left with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, sending Bream, then the Braves' first baseman, sliding ahead of the throw from Barry Bonds and past catcher Mike LaValliere for a 3--2 win in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. "The agent for 20 years of losing," Bream says.

What's astonishing, though, is that Bream wears a Pirates polo shirt as he gives a tour, that four Pirates caps rest over his fireplace and that he watches the Pirates nightly on Root Sports from his two-story brick home in a borough called Zelienople, 29 miles north of PNC Park. This is like Bucky Dent buying a Back Bay brownstone and decorating it with Dustin Pedroia posters.

Bream could have moved to Georgia in November 1992 and probably been handed the keys to Tara. But he preferred to live as a villain rather than a hero. He grew up in central Pennsylvania and spent six seasons with the Bucs before signing with the Braves as a free agent in December '90. He wanted to raise his family in Pittsburgh, even after he picked up his phone that fall and a voice said, "We're going to kill you, your wife and every one of your kids." He figured the Bucs would win again, their slide stopped and his forgotten.

He was wrong on both counts. It's not just that the Pirates haven't returned to the postseason since 1992 (which was also Bonds's last year in black and gold). They haven't even had a winning season. Bream retired in '95 and became a motivational speaker for Christian Sports International. During speeches in the Pittsburgh area, audience members would holler, "You were out!" In 2008 he was hired as the hitting coach for the State College Spikes, at the time the Pirates' rookie league team. But club officials told him that fans complained, and he stayed only a year.

Now 53, Bream looks almost exactly as he did when he emerged from the dog pile at Fulton County Stadium that October night, with jet-black hair and a matching mustache. Last week he was at a car wash when a man told him, "I want you to know I was on my honeymoon. I'll never forgive you." Bream looked at the man's wife. "If that messed up your honeymoon with her," he replied, "you're in bad shape."

Bream elicits much confusion around Pittsburgh—over why he is still here, and how a true Yinzer should feel about his presence. It would be easy to resent him if he hadn't played for the Pirates and then wept when he left; if he didn't speak so often to youth groups and charities; if he and his wife, Michele, weren't raising four children in the area, including a 16-year-old adopted daughter from Russia. He also considers himself a Pirates fan, even though the cleat he stuck in the franchise's soul hasn't been excised for two decades. In this case, home is where the hecklers are. "The Pirates are in my heart," he says. "I want more than anyone for them to break the Bream Curse. I pray that they're the ones celebrating this time."

EVERY APRIL, Pastor Scott Stevens takes the pulpit at North Way Community Church in Wexford and tells his congregants that the Pirates are going to win the World Series. Every April they laugh in his face. He sprinkles the Bucs into sermons ("God calls us not to be bandwagon fans of faith. It's easy to be a bandwagon Pirates fan"), Bible verses ("Psalms 74 says, 'How long will you allow our foes to scoff at us?' That's like rooting for the Pirates") and historical time lines ("Jerusalem's temple was destroyed, the Pirates had a winning season and then Jesus was born"). His office contains 21 Pirates bobbleheads, and there is a Pirates Kleenex box on the coffee table. Pirates tickets sit on his desk. Stevens buys a 10-pack every year. "But I stack my games early," he explains, "knowing I'll get freebies later because no one will want them."

This season Stevens, 52, is not getting the handouts. He turns to face the Pirates calendar on his wall, with a picture of shortstop Clint Barmes fielding a chopper. It is the last week of August. He lets his mind drift to September and the picture of second baseman Neil Walker throwing to first. "Meaningful baseball after Labor Day," Stevens crows, as if describing a Tahitian vacation. "That's all I really wanted. As a kid, I remember flipping through the newspaper during the pennant race to see what everybody around us did. Now, I've got this MLB app on my phone, and I've dreamed of a time when we were seriously looking at the standings again."

September baseball, that forgotten friend, is returning to Pittsburgh, with the usual harbingers: sellout crowds and soaring TV ratings, a chill in the air and a buzz on the bridge. Men order a second shot of espresso because last night's game went to extra innings. Kids calculate magic numbers in algebra class. College freshmen, away for the first time, seem a little more homesick. Football feels a little less significant. A street performer perched on a ledge of the Roberto Clemente Bridge, which carries pedestrians from downtown to PNC and back, pauses from blowing his saxophone to tell three Brewers players strolling to their hotel that they have no chance the next day. "This is how it's supposed to be," says Bobby Faloon, a vendor who started selling seat cushions in the upper deck at Forbes Field for 25 cents when he was 11, in 1968, and has since graduated to $8 Miller Lites behind home plate at PNC. He used to catch rides to work with Clemente and home with Willie Stargell. "Look at everything we've missed."

Commissioner Bud Selig tried to make September baseball every fan's birthright, building a playoff system that included three division winners in each league, one wild-card team, then another. But for two decades in Pittsburgh, September baseball was 10,000 people in the stands getting drunk on Faloon's Miller Lites and watching call-ups bide time until the season finale. Only once since 1992 did the Pirates head into September facing a division deficit of less than nine games. Ten times it was more than 20. Once it was more than 30. Pittsburgh's version of a race was the Pierogis running around the outfield after the fifth inning.

Then, on Aug. 28, Linda McGary opened the mailbox outside her Pittsburgh home and saw the strangest thing: an invoice for playoff tickets. Since the 1940s, from Forbes Field to Three Rivers Stadium to PNC Park, McGary's family has held season tickets on the third base line—always row B, seats 5 and 6. After the Bucs win their 60th game each season, McGary, a 56-year-old consulting-firm manager, starts a tally on a yellow Post-It note in the hope that they will reach 82 and finish above .500. "When I saw the invoice, it made me realize that we're getting close," McGary says. "It might really happen."

Mark it down: This year the Pirates will post-it their first winning record since Bream's dust cloud and partake in a September chase that involves more than dumplings. After taking two out of three from the Cardinals at PNC last weekend, the Bucs were 79--57 and tied for first place in the NL Central. Of course, they are guaranteed nothing more than a month of stomach-churning anxiety—another hallmark of September baseball. But the Pirates are bolstering their roster for the stretch run—another unfamiliar happening to a generation of Pittsburghers. After dropping 11 of 17 in mid-August and tumbling to 19th in the majors in runs, they acquired Marlon Byrd from the Mets on Aug. 27, their ninth starting rightfielder of the season. ("I'm with a contender," he beamed on his first day with the team.) Four days later he was joined by first baseman Justin Morneau, who arrived with his 221 career home runs from the Twins in a trade. As it says on the T-shirt worn by the diehards, WELCOME TO THE BANDWAGON.

WHEN JIM COEN opened Yinzers in the Burgh five years ago, he stocked his sports-merchandise store in the Strip district with exactly zero Pirates shirts. "And no one bitched," he says, noting that 90% of his business came from Steelers sales. Today he carries 60 Pirates shirts and pegs the sales split between the teams at 50-50. In late August, Coen was eating dinner at nearby Roland's Seafood Grill when he nearly choked on his lobster roll. A television showing the Steelers' preseason game against the Chiefs was flipped to the Pirates. "And no one bitched about that, either," he marvels.

Pittsburgh was a baseball town first. You just need to go back 50 years to find the proof. Pitcher Tom Walker played with Clemente and helped him load relief supplies onto the plane that crashed en route to Nicaragua on New Year's Eve in 1972, killing the iconic rightfielder. Walker offered to tag along on the flight, but Clemente told him to hang back in Puerto Rico. Tom's youngest son, Neil, grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Gibsonia, listening to that story and others like it. He splashed around his grandmother's pool to the voice of Pirates play-by-play man Lanny Frattare on the radio. He studied centerfielder Andy Van Slyke and catcher Jason Kendall. When he was seven he told his parents, outside Three Rivers, "I'm going to play there someday." The younger Walker, who was born in 1985, is part of what locals call the Lost Generation: anyone who was born after 1984 and can scarcely remember a winning baseball team. "It was the Steelers, the Penguins, Pitt, Penn State—and then the Pirates," he says. "Going to the ballpark was never an activity for a group of friends. It was lost."

As a high schooler, Walker took swings at Diamond Training Center, a 30,000-square-foot baseball palace in Cranberry Township, with eight batting cages and $50,000 pitching machines that could throw 12-to-6 curveballs. "But we didn't have the turnout people expected, and it closed down," says Patrick Cutshall, a hitting instructor and former Astros farmhand. Last year Cutshall opened a new academy, albeit 26,000 square feet smaller, in a 100-year-old building in New Brighton, where a single-screen movie theater used to be. Usually, kids are hitting soft toss in the concession area, but attendance lags in late summer, after football practice begins. Even Walker's wife, Niki, who attended Pine-Richland High with him, knew the star athlete only as a wide receiver and free safety. Never mind that he was also an all-state catcher and the best amateur baseball player in Western Pennsylvania.

Walker was drafted by the Pirates out of high school in the first round in 2004, made the big leagues in '09 after switching to second base and tailgated at a Steelers game shortly thereafter. "Someone yelled, 'You guys suck!' " recalls Walker. "I love football, and I love the Steelers, but I did start to resent it a little."

Relationships can be fragile between franchises that share a zip code, especially when one is winning Super Bowls and the other is irrelevant as soon as NFL training camps open. "The Pirates were something you never thought about," says Ike Taylor, a Steelers cornerback since 2003. "You never paid any attention to them. Now I go home at night and I watch the Pirates on TV. I'm on the bandwagon. I'll tell you what I want to see: middle of October, us in a game at Heinz Field, them in a playoff game next door."

FRANK BIENKOWSKI was a poetry major at Pittsburgh in October 1992, and as the Braves rejoiced, he drove from his girlfriend's house in Greenfield to his apartment in Highland Park. He had an assignment due in Judith Vollmer's class—a denial poem, meant to understate one's deepest emotions. He scrawled a rough draft in blue ink that began:

my heart did not burst

when ex-Buc Sid Bream

slid his dirty slide all over the once white plate

just past our pudgy catcher's

too late tag and the umpire

in the same instant spread both arms

in either direction

signaling an end to world serious hope

for my precious Pirates

Bienkowski typed his composition a few days later at Pitt's Cathedral of Learning, the 42-story tower he had called "the Umpire State Building" when he was a boy, watching games across the street at Forbes Field with his father. "My dad used to yell at me a lot," Bienkowski, 54, remembers, "but he never yelled at me when we were at Pirates games." In the 20 years after he wrote the poem, Bienkowski became a songwriter and then a therapist. He was married, divorced and married again. He buried his father in 2006, and his poem was published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the next year, part of a 15th-anniversary retrospective on the Bucs' last postseason appearance. He still followed the Pirates, but his connection waned, a common side effect of extended futility.

When newspaper publisher Bob Nutting bought the franchise in 2007, he wanted to recoup the Lost Generation and rekindle the disaffected one. He sat in on a front-office meeting and heard an executive say, "The cupboard is bare. We don't have anybody to bring in and we don't have anybody to trade." Nutting flew to the Pirates' academy in the Dominican Republic and saw chickens roaming the clubhouse. He talked to a player in the system who told him, "Every time I move from one minor league level to another here, I feel like I'm being traded to a completely different organization." Nutting immediately started construction on a new complex in the Dominican and overhauled the minor league headquarters in Bradenton, Fla. He keeps photos of the two facilities next to each other in his office. It's no coincidence that they look almost identical, part of a plan to ease Latin players into an American program.

Since 2008 the Pirates have spent more money on the draft than any other team. But grassroots investments need time to grow. In 2010 the Bucs lost 105 games. That number dropped to 90 in '11, and last season they were a respectable 79--83. TV ratings jumped 20%. This year they're up another 15%, and the Pirates are on pace for the second-highest attendance in club history. Bienkowski is going to the park again, and on the shop floor of the Allegheny Ludlum steel mill, men working the 3-to-11 p.m. shift are asking roller Don Poorman for score updates. Poorman never abandoned the Pirates—"It's like your kids," he says. "You don't like everything they do, but you still love them"—and made sure that the radio in the mill locker room was tuned to their games and the schedule magnet was on the refrigerator door. Last Friday, Poorman pulled up a chair inside the United Steelworkers union building in Brackenridge (District 10, Local 11196). That night the Pirates would begin a three-game set with the Cardinals, arguably the most anticipated series in Western Pennsylvania in 20 years.

Representatives of every generation paraded en masse across the Clemente Bridge a little after six on Friday evening. You'd have thought the Ravens were in town. The fans came to PNC not for the fireworks or the giveaways but because first place was at stake in the final rustling of summer. Speedboats anchored in the Allegheny and a small cruise ship blew its horn. "The only downside," cracked Tom Walker, "is it takes a whole inning to get a hot dog now."

The franks do taste better, though. After starting pitcher Francisco Liriano dealt eight shutout innings and first baseman Garrett Jones tucked a home run inside the rightfield foul pole for a 5--0 win, the Pirates pulled into a tie with St. Louis atop the Central. Walker pumped a fist in his seat under the overhang in section 115. "Let go of what's happened behind you," Bucs manager Clint Hurdle said in his postgame press conference. He was referring to Jones, who snapped a 1-for-29 skid with three hits and four RBIs. He might as well have been talking about the whole city.

Even with third baseman Pedro Alvarez leading the league in home runs and centerfielder Andrew McCutchen burnishing his MVP credentials, the Pirates' lineup still has some leaks. The rotation is weary, and lefthander Jeff Locke, an All-Star in July, has been demoted to Double A. The Bucs may not win the World Series, but sometimes the ultimate reward is more modest. School is in session. Football is kicking off. Autumn is drawing near. And four young men are killing time on the Clemente bridge. You stop to ask their ages. "We're all 20," says Jaron Lutton, thoroughly understanding the weight of that number. They were born in 1993. They're going to the Pirates game.

This year there are no free tickets for Pastor Stevens. "Meaningful baseball after Labor Day," he says. "That's all I ever really wanted."

Coen's store once carried no Pirates jerseys—and no one complained. Now the Bucs and the Steelers split his sales 50-50.

After his heart was broken in '92, Bienkowski vented his ire in verse and became a distant fan. But these Pirates have brought him back.

McGary will finally count all the way down to a winning season: Seeing her playoff invoice "made me realize that we're getting close."


Photograph by GENE J. PUSKAR/AP

YOUNG BUCS At last, Pittsburghers born after the mid-1980s are experiencing something that was once familiar to their forebears: the thrill of a pennant race.





REVERSING THE SLIDE Native son Walker (this page) is helping to end the tailspin that began after Bream, a former Buc, scored in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS (left).



[See caption above]



HAPPY CONFLUENCE Outfielders Felix Pie, Byrd and McCutchen (left to right) were sky-high last Saturday after a win over the Cardinals put the Pirates in first place.



[See caption above]