Yesterday morning, while boarding the R train at Union Square, I was surprised to find myself standing next to a young woman wearing a gray Pirates T-shirt that bore Pedro Alvarez's name and number on the back. This being New York City, it's almost never unusual to encounter sports fans from all over the country, if not the world. But those who identify with Pittsburgh tend to show their allegiance, nearly without fail, to the Steelers, Penguins or even Pitt or Penn State, at least based on their wardrobe selections. Pirates fans have mainly been a dormant lot, known largely for their apathy or their willingness to laugh right along as the franchise has flailed about with miserable consistency in these last two decades.
But, as we noted the other day, these are strange times. It's July 19, the Pirates are 50-44, and they're in first place in the National League Central Division. To some baseball fans, these facts would be a pleasant barometer of a competitive season that is a little more than halfway completed. To others — looking at you, Yankees, Phillies and Red Sox fans — being six over would be cause for alarm, for shrill calls to dump the dimwitted manager who's already won a World Series or to trade for some luxury spare part like a backup catcher who bats lefthanded.
But for Pirates fans, for those of us who have endured what now stands at 18 consecutive seasons with losing records — the longest such streak in the history of North American sports —including nine last-place finishes, this otherwise modest moment is something altogether different. This is a cause around which to congregate again. Saturday night, I was meeting friends at a bar in Philly. Before I even arrived, one of them had asked the bartender to put the Pirates-Astros game on one of the TVs. As recently as a few weeks ago, that never would have happened. We'd have all hung out, I might have checked the score on my phone a few times, and that would have been that.
A little perspective: Here is a list of things that were happening in the world on July 17, 1997, the last time the Buccos were in first place this late in the season.
• No. 1 song on the Billboard chart: "I'll Be Missing You," by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans featuring 112. It was in the midst of an 11-week run.
• The Space Shuttle Columbia landed at Kennedy Space Center, the conclusion of its 23rd flight.
• Michael Jackson performed at London's Wembley Stadium, sometime after which the glove he wore was auctioned off.
• It was the first anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800, which went down shortly after takeoff from New York's Kennedy Airport, killing all 230 people on board.
• Joe Camel had been retired for exactly one week.
• After 11 seasons with the Eagles, Randall Cunningham was in training camp with the Vikings.
• The Scorpions played a seven-song show in Kiev, Ukraine. And they didn't close it with "Rock You Like a Hurricane."
• Some guy named Shane got a pie in the face.
Here's where the Pirates have been on July 18 (since their one-half game lead over the Brewers and Cardinals can change based on tonight) every year since 1993, followed by the brutal reality of where they wound up finishing in all of those seasons:
There is a sizable contingent of Pirates die-hards out there, and while they're enjoying every moment they can in these heady times, they're also well aware of what this franchise is capable of doing when something bordering on success is within striking distance. Take 2005, when the team was 30-30 (!) after an 18-2 win over Tampa Bay in front of more than 31,000 at PNC Park on June 11. They then went 37-65 the rest of the way.
And you know what? This year's success may not last. The Cardinals will probably become the Cardinals again, or the Brewers will assert themselves in a season in which they went for broke, and the Pirates will fall back to being something to laugh at or ignore until the Steelers put the pads back on. That casual observers, whether it's that girl on the subway or my friend in Philly, are taking notice does matter for something. And something is far better than pretty much everything that's happened with the Pirates in all these years.
Previously: The Losingest Losers: A Pirates Fan Looks At 17
David Roher contributed to this post