The unlikeliest success story of the Major League Baseball season is being penned in its longest-suffering market.
With one win this weekend, the Pittsburgh Pirates will be assured of entering the All-Star Break with a winning record for the first time since 1992 — back when Josh Bell, whom the Pirates selected with their second pick in last month’s amateur draft, was still a month away from being born. The Pirates (45-42) could even enter the Break with at least a share of first place if they sweep the woebegone Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers and/or St. Louis Cardinals, each of whom are a game ahead of the Pirates in the NL Central, lose at least one game over the weekend.
Such success seemed unimaginable late last season, when the Pirates completed the worst of their American professional sports record 18 straight losing seasons with a 57-105 record. And part of this year’s surge into contention is a matter of fortuitous location: The Brewers and Cardinals have the worst record of any division leaders and the NL Central features the two worst teams in baseball in the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros. The Pirates are 9 ½ games behind the Philadelphia Phillies, who have the best record in the majors, and seven games behind the Atlanta Braves, who lead the NL wild card race.
But after waiting this long to see the Pirates field a winner — another measure of just how long it’s been: In 1992, which was also the last time the Pirates made the playoffs, Derek Jeter was in rookie ball fresh off being drafted by the Yankees — Pirates fans aren’t complaining and aren’t judging their favorite team on style points.
The Pirates are drawing an average of 22,695 fans through their first 42 home dates at 38,496-seat capacity PNC Park, an increase of 2,138 from last year’s average. That’s the sixth-biggest increase in baseball and puts the Pirates on pace to draw 1,838,295 fans, which would be their most since 2006 (1,861,549) and their third-most overall since opening PNC Park in 2001. Presuming the Pirates remain in the race into late summer, they would shoot past the 2006 figures and flirt with 2 million for the first time since that debut season in 2001.
The Pirates have already played to six plus-capacity crowds, and while the schedule has helped a bit in that regard — they drew three SRO crowds when the Boston Red Sox visited June 24-26, including a PNC-record 39,511 for the finale, as well as two beyond-capacity crowds for games against the regional rivals Phillies and New York Mets — the team’s solid play has had far more to do with the increased numbers.
The Pirates drew four crowds of less than 10,000 in their first 12 home games, during which their average attendance was 16,247. In their last 30 home games, though, the Pirates have drawn an average of 25,275 per date. Included in that stretch were near-sellouts against such typically meager draws as the Detroit Tigers (37,958 on Saturday, May 21), Baltimore Orioles (33,806 on Tuesday, June 21) and Astros (36,942 on Monday, July 4).