Jason Bush and Bryan Nemanic were tailgating at 5 p.m. yesterday in a parking lot adjacent to PNC Park -- each with legs dangling, sitting on the open tailgate of Bush's pickup truck.
Both had a beer, both talked baseball and both, in what might seem the strangest of conversations, spoke glowingly about their hometown team, the Pirates.
Yes, the same Pirates who were 38-50 and 9 1/2 games behind the National League Central Division-leading St. Louis Cardinals going into last night's action.
Yes, the same Pirates who had lost four consecutive games and seven of nine before the just completed All-Star Game break.
And, yes, the same Pirates who haven't had a winning season since the Curse of the Cabrera. That occurred on Oct. 14, 1992, in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series in Atlanta with the Pirates leading, 2-1, with two outs when pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera drilled a Stan Belinda fastball into left field, scoring David Justice and Sid Bream and denying the Pirates a trip to the World Series.
Now, the Pirates could become the first American major pro sports team to endure 17 consecutive losing seasons.
But Bush, 31, from Murrysville, and his buddy, Nemanic, 26, from Monroeville, were in the parking lot a few hours early, even as rain-threatening weather moved in and one of the National League's elite pitchers -- San Francisco Giants phenom Tim Lincecum -- was due to start for a team 10 games above .500 against the struggling home club.
The questions are these: Taking everything into consideration, why are fans still coming out? And why were there about 20,000 pre-sold tickets and 26,709 in attendance last night?
"Because I'm a loyal Pirates fan," Bush said. "I feel like, no matter what happened in the past, you owe it to these guys to be here."
Quickly, Nemanic chimed in: "Exactly."
All things considered, Pirates attendance this season has to be deemed a success. Through 39 home games, the Pirates have drawn 720,947 fans -- an average of 18,485.
While there is no denying that the total attendance was 28th out of 30 teams in Major League Baseball, there is also this: The figure marked a 2.4 percent increase from a year ago.
Tonight's crowd is an anticipated sellout, or close to it. Truth be told, a postgame fireworks display has more than just a little to do with that.
The notion that there is growth, though, could be a shocker to some, when you first factor in the economy and possibly an even bigger variable in these parts -- a season filled with what has become the ritual personnel moves.
Since the April 13 home opener, much has changed with the makeup of this ball club.
Gone is center fielder Nate McLouth.
Gone, too, is left fielder Nyjer Morgan.
Their trades in June shipped two ultra-popular players away.
At mid-season last year, the Pirates similarly traded away outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady.
Players such as Garrett Jones, Andrew McCutchen, Charlie Morton and Joel Hanrahan now dot the major league roster, and youngsters Pedro Alvarez, Gorkys Hernandez and Jose Tabata constitute the crux of a youth movement in the minor leagues.
Alvarez, Hernandez and Tabata are prime examples of the how the management team in its second season -- particularly president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington -- is looking to acquire young talent, cultivate it within the organization's development system and have it produce someday in Pittsburgh.
Bush understands as much. Which is why the Pirates' losing doesn't keep him away.
"The Pirates are not going to win in the next two, three years, and people need to understand that and live with it," Bush said. "But what Coonelly and Huntington are doing is great. They are trying to make it better and you have to support this team."
Again, his friend chimed in.
"And if the yinzers, and that is what they are, if the yinzers who aren't coming now start coming to games when the Pirates win, they are hypocrite bandwagoners," Nemanic said. "That's what happened with the Penguins. They couldn't get anyone to go to games five years ago, they started winning and, all of a sudden, everyone is a fan. Whatever.
"That is why we are here now. That is why the people who are here now are true fans."
That "true fans," as Nemanic calls them, are still coming out to the ballpark even through all the losing isn't lost on management.
"One of the best things we have going for us is the passion of these fans; it is something that drives us," Huntington said. "We are working to build a winner because these people deserve it. If you cheer for a team as passionately as these people have, and you lose for 16-going-on-17 years, I absolutely understand their frustration.
"The toughest part is that it is a long-term process."
And why is that so?
Because what so many in the fan base see as the first item on the to-do list -- finishing at least at .500 -- Huntington doesn't acknowledge as a goal.
"Eighty-one wins is meaningless," he said. "It is a step in the process, but that is not where we are ultimately headed. We have larger objectives. We just ask that people remain patient with us."
Judging by a growth in attendance, it would seem that patience remains -- at least for now.
Colin Dunlap can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1459.