PITTSBURGH -- I had heard that the Pittsburgh Pirates, long-storied National League franchise, but victim of 20 straight losing seasons, were returning to their older, more successful ways.
Still, encountering a man in a full 1935 Pirates uniform, complete with hat and old-timey mustache in the press box Tuesday afternoon still caught me by surprise.
He is Rick Szeflinski, six-year Pirates employee, lifelong Pirates fan. And he says the decision to wear the uniform (uniforms, actually, he rotates several retro outfits) "happened organically," one turn-back-the-clock night leading to regular demand from Pirates fans.
Szeflinski hasn't seen a winning team since before his voice changed. Accordingly, he is optimistic, but not too optimistic, about this group that's 40-28, good for a tie for the third-best record in the National League.
"I think they'll definitely have a winning record," Szeflinski told me, considering what he expected, a large bag of popcorn for the press box slung over his shoulder. "More than that, I don't know yet."
And that was the overwhelming feeling I got in Pittsburgh, whether it was in discussion with fans, players, or even observing those still staying away from watching this immensely entertaining team. No one is quite sure what they've got in Pittsburgh. And after 20 years of futility, and a pair of strong starts in 2011 and 2012 before a late-season fade each year, they're not going to buy in so easily.
"I think for everybody else, they just want us to have a winning record," star center fielder Andrew McCutchen, this team's best player, said as we talked about perceptions of his team on Wednesday afternoon by his locker. "That's the turning point. But for us, we know we're capable of doing it. We know we're capable of having a team making it to the playoffs."
That's the thing: a winning record seems like a low bar for this Pirates team, 40-28, 4.5 games up on Colorado for the final wild card spot, and just three games out of first place. But one barrier broken at a time, I guess, and those two decades of losing hang over every analysis of the team.
I approached a man wearing an autographed Dick Groat jersey to ask him whether the Pirates were ready to contend.
"Ask me September 1," he said, backing away from me, seeming fearful of jinxing his Pirates merely by having the conversation about contention. "Ask me September 1."
But the primary reason the Pirates lost for 20 years wasn't some kind of jinx. It was due to teams without enough talent. These Pirates, however, do a lot of things well. They pitch well, with a 3.33 ERA good for third in the National League, and with a bullpen ERA of 3.07 that's eighth-best in baseball.
And while the hitting has lagged so far, the Pirates can boast six regulars with an O.P.S. of 106 or greater, while a seventh, Jordy Mercer, is at 112 and getting more regular time at shortstop.
And the Pirates have the kind of depth they simply haven't enjoyed for many, many seasons. Take the starting pitching staff: Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett at the top would make the Pirates formidable in a short series. But they've also gotten a 2.19 ERA over 81 ⅓ innings from Jeff Locke and a 3.07 ERA in 44 innings from Jeanmar Gomez. Wandy Rodriguez has excelled so far, though he's on the disabled list at the moment. No matter: the Pirates just brought up top prospect Gerrit Cole to fill his spot. Should Cole falter, Charlie Morton, just back from Tommy John surgery, is a candidate to fill a rotation spot, as is the rehabbing James McDonald.
Nor is the bullpen in much danger of overheating: five separate Pirates relievers, led by closer Jason Grilli's 0.91 ERA, have marks under 2.41, so no one needs to be overused.
"Part of it [is depth]," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, the skipper for both strong starts and late fades in 2011 and 2012, said of why 2013 is different, as he sat in his office and talked with reporters Wednesday afternoon. Hurdle's desk is overflowing with books stacked three deep, titles like "The Will to Win" and other motivational tracts leaving him without an inch of free space. "Part of it was talent as well. We have better talent. Lineup's longer. Rotational depth's better. Overall, starting rotation: better. The bullpen is playing out better as we speak, right now, with more options, more depth... so it's the best team that I've had, that we've had, since I've been here."
For his part, McCutchen believes this is just a question of young talent figuring out how to win. And there's certainly an argument to be made for that view. Pedro Alvarez, tirelessly working on his defense at third base, has become a plus defender, according to Ultimate Zone Rating, Hurdle, and what I saw of him. The talented outfielder Starling Marte, who didn't debut until late July last year, has been up all season in 2013. McCutchen and second baseman Neil Walker are another year into their primes.
"It should be," McCutchen said on whether the Pirates were better in 2013. "We should continue to get better as a team, as a whole. We can't say we're the young team. We're young, but we have some experience now. So we should be better offensively and defensively."
But this is also a veteran team. Grilli is 36, Burnett is 36, Rodriguez is 34. Liriano is 29, with a fair amount of mileage on his arm. Russell Martin, the big winter addition at catcher, is 30, and first baseman Garrett Jones is 32. So merely posting a winning record as a stepping stone to bigger things may not be enough for these Pirates, who are built in many ways to win right now.
"The Pirates, at this point, [are] young and old," pitching coach Ray Searage, also a veteran of the past few seasons under Hurdle, said after Wednesday night's win as we chatted outside the coach's locker room. "Veterans and guys that are just starting to figure out the game... We always had the talent. But they didn't know how to use the talent. The kids didn't know how to use it. Now we've got some experienced guys to help them along. That's what it was all about when I was coming through. Mentors."
Still, a return to the postseason won't be easy, based purely on geography. The Pirates have the third-best record in the National League. But they also have the third-best record in the National League Central, where the Reds and Cardinals have played even better. The Pirates would be in first place in either the N.L. East or West, and even the American League Central.
And on nights like Tuesday, when better than 30,000 packed PNC Park and made it the noisiest little ballpark in America for Gerrit Cole's debut, it was easy to close your eyes and dream about what an October on the river would feel like. But a night later, just 19,966 watched Liriano and the Pirates bats beat up on the Giants, 12-8.
McCutchen knows what a winning summer will mean for the atmosphere at PNC Park, and for fans that are ready to embrace a winning baseball team at last, in what Szeflinski described as "a baseball town, just one that missed a generation."
"Definitely, if we keep winning, every single day, this city has the capability of having sellout crowds every single day," McCutchen said. "Look at hockey. Look at football. So it can happen here. But we've got to do our part."
Searage had zero doubts that the Pirates would.
"They've got a better idea of what to expect," Searage said. "And they know how to take care of themselves, to take care of business. The attitude that's in that locker room right now is: 'That's not gonna happen again.' Not, okay, what do we do if -- it's not."
I saw Szeflinski well after Wednesday night's game, still working in the hallway under the stadium where the clubhouses are located. He'd gone with the 1979 Pirates uniform this time, the last Pirate World Series-winning team. How was he feeling, confidence-wise, after two more wins over the defending champs? He wasn't quite ready to declare the Pirates a pennant winner.
"Feeling more confident every day, though," Szeflinski said, smiling beneath the mustache.