Season of promise: The winning Pirates return with more to prove

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After a Pittsburgh winter that overstayed like a bad relative, the most welcome words in the land today will be “Play ball!”

The first pitch from Pirates ace Francisco Liriano will cross the plate at PNC Park at 1:05 p.m. There’s no telling if the Chicago Cubs will be ready, but Pittsburgh baseball fans certainly are. This season, they and their team have some unfinished business.

Last year the Pirates not only broke the curse of two decades of losing but also clawed their way into the playoffs. All those promises by owners and management — that the team’s goal was not merely to end its dismal streak, but to return to the playoffs — had finally come true. Now on to the future.

At a minimum, the fans expect more winning baseball and they’ll turn out in big numbers, as they did in last year’s record 23 sellouts, despite the higher ticket prices. Although the faithful will debate the meaning of the A.J. Burnett and Marlon Byrd departures (what else was there to talk about during the cold and snow?), most of those responsible for 2013’s success are still in Pittsburgh.

Andrew McCutchen’s on-field impact was certified by his being named the National League’s Most Valuable Player. Budding star Starling Marte just signed a six-year contract extension. And slugger Pedro Alvarez, coming off a productive spring, may not have his typical slow start at the plate. This could be a season of many raised Jolly Rogers.

On an opening day when hope springs eternal, there’s more reason than ever to be hopeful about the Pirates. Let’s go, Bucs!

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