Here is the attendance at PNC Park in Pittsburgh over the past eight years:
Now, this is still only the 19th best attendance in the major leagues, behind much-maligned fanbases like Cincinnati, Atlanta and Toronto. But that number was 28th in 2009, when the Pirates lost 99 games. It was 27th in 2010, when they lost 105. Then, the last three years, it moved. People started coming back.
It is a maxim in baseball that no matter how much you want to court positive publicity through signing beloved local players, making ill-advised go-for-it trades at the deadline that show you have the will to win or just hosting a bunch of bobblehead days, the best way -- the only proven way -- to get fans to come to your games is to win. (The Rays, as always, being the exception to everything.) It takes a while, as the Indians are discovering right now, even if that place will be packed tomorrow night. But if you construct something with some staying power, people will come back. You can get them to return.
You can even recover from what Pirates fans have been through. Remember, until this season, the Pirates hadn't had a winning season since the year Bill Clinton was elected president. (A month before, actually.) Most Pirates fans I talked to would have been happy with simply ending that streak and working on the playoffs next year. This is, after all, the most fundamental act of a sports fan: When you watch your team play, outside of any context, you merely want them to win. Pirates fans watched their team lose more often than it won for 21 straight years.
Twenty-one years of watching a losing team. The more you think about that, the more it makes your brain swim. The New York Yankees' fanbase hates its team right now; the 2013 season is considered, by many, as the 25-year nadir of the franchise, an embarrassment, a black mark that can never be erased. The Yankees won 85 games this season. That's six more than the Pirates won any time in the last 21 years. And forget the Yankees. Think about struggling fanbases in other towns, in other sports. The Buffalo Bills? Nine non-losing seasons in 21 years. The Detroit Lions? Seven. The Arizona Cardinals? Six. Kansas City Royals? Three. It's flabbergasting. It is cruel and wrong what Pirates fans have been through.
It is also fair that it took them a while to return, even as the Pirates were making truncated, shambling playoff runs the past two years. Two years ago, the Pirates were briefly in first place in August, the year they made lateral (and wisely prudent) trades for Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee to show they were "trying." The fans didn't return then, at least not in droves. Fans always know what's real and what isn't. (In the macro, collective sense, anyway; there are always mouthbreathers and committed malcontents.) It takes time to turn around 21 years. But they knew it when they saw it.
This Pirates team is not a dominant one. It's one that outperformed its Pythagorean record by six games. It has one superstar, presumptive NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, and a series of slightly above-average hitters. (The second-highest OPS+ on the team? Starling Marte.) They have two middle-shelf-ace starters (Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett) who were run off by other teams, as well as a potential No. 1 guy (Gerrit Cole) who just got to the majors in June. Their two biggest strengths, their bullpen and their defense, are the two aspects of the game most often underappreciated by casual fans. This is not what a 94-win team typically looks like.
And yet, here they are. Every fan of every team that makes the playoffs feels like there's something "special" about their team, that they have that unique mix of honed skill and collective chemistry, that This Is The Year. (The only exception I could come up with was the 2006 Cardinals, a team even its fans were sick of once the playoffs started. And then, well, you know.) The playoffs have a way of making such delicate concoctions evaporate quickly; these days, it can happen in one night. Somewhere this morning, there's a Rangers fan who was certain 2013 was the breakthrough season.
The Pirates have had the special sauce from the get-go this year, from the emergence of underdogs like Jordy Mercer to local kids like Neil Walker to fantastic out-of-nowhere stories like Jason Grilli. It's a team that is impossible to dislike, even if they were all wearing Yankees uniforms. This is the type of team you cheer for, even if they weren't playing for a fanbase that just mucked through 21 years of dreary, dull pain. This, any Pirates fan would tell you, is the sort of team they wanted to end the streak all along.
So, there is tonight. PNC Park, one of the most gorgeous stadiums in all of sports, finally gets its closeup. That place has been begging for postseason baseball since it was built, and tonight, it gets it. If you've been to PNC Park, you know. And you've had that thought: This building was built for October baseball. You can feel the roar right now, 10 hours from game time.
It can't end tonight, can it? It would be awful, wouldn't it, if this breakthrough year, this pardon from two decades of losing, went down in one night? If the one-game wild-card, coin-flip game ends the Pirates' playoff run before it started? So much has built up to this game. They have been waiting for so long.
The Cincinnati Reds are a storied franchise, with (some) likable players and a fanbase with its share of diehards like the rest of us. They are not an evil empire; this is not an organization you reflexively cheer against. You want them to do well. But I don't understand how anyone outside the Cincinnati metropolitan area could be rooting against the Pirates tonight.