No fans to light the Pirates' flame

If this team's followers are unhappy with the players, ownership or results, they have a strange, almost silent way of showing it.

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Maybe Michael Keaton was right.

On opening day, when invited by the Pirates to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, he responded with a beaning to the temple of the team's owners by criticizing them for not spending enough on player payroll.

But he took another jab, too, one that seemed to garner much less public attention.

"I think fans have been gracious," he said. "And maybe not vocal enough, maybe not vociferous enough with their displeasure. That's my opinion."

It is a difficult viewpoint to refute, one that requires no more than a casual glance around PNC Park to reinforce.

There are no brown bags over anyone's heads, no banners advocating change, no boycotts being staged. Rarely are there boos when the home side fares poorly.

"Back in 2001, I brought a paper bag for a couple of games but, in the end, I just felt silly doing it," said Chris Rossetti of Shippenville. "I do a lot of booing, but my friends who have season tickets with me just look at me like I'm crazy and tell me to just enjoy the game. I think the biggest problem is people have come to accept the fact they're bad."

So, if not mass outrage, what are those fans feeling?

The answers to that question are varied, based on an informal survey this week as the team fell to 5-12 and stayed sharply on target for a 14th consecutive losing season.

For most respondents, as might surprise some, the sentiment was hope.

If not for contention, then at least mediocrity.

"The Pirates can turn their season around," said Sean Lokmer of Monaca, a 20-game season-ticket holder. "The rotation is slowly starting to come together, the bullpen has looked much better, and we actually have some offensive punch. I think 80 wins is a possibility."

"I have hope," said Chris Hilf of Jefferson. "I don't expect the offense to score as many runs as they have been, but I also don't expect the pitching to be as bad. But they still won't reach .500."

"Yes, I have great hope," said Marda Hook, a Pittsburgh native living in New York. "There have been flashes of excellence and, the more experience they get, the more the excellence will prevail."

There was pessimism, too.

"Are you nuts?" replied Anthony Markovich of Allison Park when asked if he had hope. "I expect this team to finish fourth or fifth in the division. Trust me: This team will not have a turnaround like the Astros did last year. And they'll be sellers at the trade deadline."

There also was outright anger, most focused on the front office rather than the field, specifically owner Kevin McClatchy and general manager Dave Littlefield.

William Craig of Bridgeville said he dropped his season tickets after the Pirates raised prices following a 100-loss season in 2001 and that he has no plan to return.

"Not only do I have no hope for this season, but I have no hope that current ownership is committed to providing a winning product to the fan base," he said.

"Pirates fans should be knocking down Mark Cuban's door to convince him to buy his hometown team," said Porter Bessinger of Highland Park. "I don't doubt he'd turn the Pirates into winners within two or three years."

"Why can't we ever get a big-time player?" asked Jim Grier of Ambridge. "Just once, I'd like to see the ownership dig deep into their pockets and buy a player of some importance. I understand we need to be patient with the youth movement and everything, but it's been 13 years already!"

"Hope for the Pirates comes down to the firing of the GM and ownership selling the franchise," said John Gilger, an Oil City native living in Lexington, Ky. "If that won't happen, the GM should start looking at long-term solutions instead of picking off the bone pile these short-term rentals."

Gilger was far from alone in that latter view.

Even among those who felt good about the Pirates, the dominant complaint was the offseason acquisition of free-agent veterans Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa.

"Craig Wilson and Freddy Sanchez are at least equals to these players and have a much more reasonable price tag," said Denny Rowlands of Bethel Park. "I realize the Pirates already invest a great amount of their revenue in the minor-league system. Invest more. Stop dumping money into players like Burnitz and Randa. Find the next Aramis Ramirez and Zach Duke, not the next Chris Stynes."

Public reaction has been similarly scattered in the various interactive media.

Recent discussion on blogs and message boards dedicated to the team has centered not on the current plight but on Chris Shelton, the Detroit Tigers' slugging rookie cut loose by the Pirates in 2003.

Protests, petitions and the like? Even in the wide world of the Web, where a collection of cyber-signatures was started last year to save the Penguins and drew heavy publicity, there is nothing comparable in regard to the Pirates.

Pat Lackey, a local student who writes and moderates the "Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?" blog, said he has received "a total of two really negative e-mails" about the Pirates since the season started. His readers' reaction, he said,, is disappointment with an unexpected, unfortunate scenario.

"It's been like a perfect storm," Lackey said. "The front office spent a lot of money and at least implied we were going to be better. All of a sudden, we come out of the gate with an ugly start, and Shelton, a guy we gave away, comes into national prominence. And, of course, I think people are just plain tired of watching a losing team."

Mark Madden, a talk-show host on ESPN Radio 1250, said his audience has "mostly given up" on the season.

"S.O.P. ... same old Pirates," Madden said. "I get very little analysis on the show because how can you analyze 14 straight losing seasons? No point debating the batting order or the rotation when positive solutions just aren't there."

Tim Benz, another host from that station, sounded a similar note.

"It's been mostly the here-we-go-again experience," Benz said. "People were led to believe this was going to be the year some things would change, and there was that excitement of the All-Star Game, so this feels to some like the worst year that this could have happened."

Asked to gauge whether fans remain passionately interested in the Pirates, Benz answered: "I always say on my show that the feeling out there is apathy masking as frustration. We'll get people who stay on hold for 37 minutes just to say, 'I don't care anymore.' "

That might be the most difficult aspect to measure when it comes to Pirates fans:

How many are there, really?

Not casual, but diehard.

Attendance does not make much of a barometer. For one, PNC Park is to many as much a Kennywood-style destination as it is a sporting facility. For another, ticket sales this year will be up regardless of team performance because season-ticket purchases were the only method to guarantee All-Star seats.

Opinions vary on this topic, too.

Josh Schidlmeier of Carrick has been a 20-game plan holder the past three years, and he acknowledged renewing, in part, because of the All-Star lure.

"But I also bought them because I love the Pirates," he said "I'm in my mid-20s, and I know there are a lot of people my age who love them, as well."

Few of those surveyed shared that view.

"This team is in third place in terms of this city's interest in professional sports," said Terry Brown of Monroeville. "No one under 25 cares about this team. The Steelers are king, and the Pens are actually garnering more interest with Sidney Crosby."

"The level of intense fans is poor and getting worse," said Brian Kane of Pleasant Hills. "I define intense interest as passionate and obsessive, but in a healthy way. The Pirates' fan base that meets this criteria is comprised primarily of over-40, white males. The Steelers and Penguins have larger intense fan bases."

"I'm a 29-year-old female and consider myself to be a big Pirates fan," said Jaime Brewer of Cranberry. "But I run into more people who make fun of me for being such a Pirates fan than people who feel the same way."

Ted Klimek, who moved to Point Breeze from outside the region three years ago and attends "10-15 games a year," rated the current intensity of the Pirates' fan base as "nonexistent" and blamed it on McClatchy.

"This town is hungry for winning baseball," Klimek said. "But they won't give themselves over to a directionless and possibly exploitative loser. They're not masochists."

Albert Ciuksza Jr. of West Homestead pleaded for a more upbeat approach.

"I would most like to see a change in the attitude among Pirates fans," he said. "A dismal start by a relatively young team isn't surprising."

2006 baseball home attendance

Through April 19, the Pirates have the NL's second-lowest average attendance:

National League
             Dates     Total     Average
Los Angeles    9     387,778     43,086
St. Louis      6     244,527     40,755
New York      11     434,272     39,479
Chicago        6     235,731     39,289
San Francisco  6     226,205     37,701
Atlanta        6     208,496     34,749
Washington     3      95,980     31,993
San Diego      5     159,936     31,987
Houston       10     313,700     31,370
Philadelphia   7     197,143     28,163
Milwaukee      6     159,046     26,508
Colorado       9     213,992     23,777
Arizona        9     213,457     23,717
Cincinnati     9     198,237     22,026
Pirates       10     204,302     20,430
Florida        6      87,370     14,562
NL Totals    118   3,580,172     30,340

American League
              Dates     Total     Average
New York        3     150,527     50,176
Los Angeles     6     253,211     42,202
Boston          9     326,117     36,235
Texas           7     222,365     31,766
Chicago         9     277,898     30,878
Toronto         8     221,058     27,632
Minnesota       8     217,893     27,237
Seattle         9     240,856     26,762
Baltimore      12     314,861     26,238
Cleveland       6     147,833     24,639
Detroit         7     161,701     23,100
Oakland         8     183,183     22,898
Kansas City     5     108,648     21,730
Tampa Bay       7     120,495     17,214
AL Totals     104   2,946,646     28,333

MLB Totals    222   6,526,818     29,400 Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Gary Love, 46, of Etna waves the Jolly Rodger in the outfield at the Pirates home opener April 10 against the Dodgers. Love has been attending Pirates games since he was 6 years old.
Click photo for larger image.
Scouting Report

Opponent: Houston Astros (10-5).

Site: Minute Maid Park, Houston.

Times: 8:05 p.m. today, 7:05 p.m. tomorrow, 2:05 p.m. Sunday.

TV, radio: All games on FSN Pittsburgh, KDKA-AM (1020) and Pirates Radio Network.

Starting matchups: LHP Zach Duke (1-1, 4.50) vs. LHP Wandy Rodriguez (2-0, 2.84), RHP Ian Snell (0-1, 9.60) vs. RHP Taylor Buchholz (0-1, 3.38), LHP Paul Maholm (0-2, 6.11) vs. RHP Roy Oswalt (3-0, 2.76).

Season series: First meeting. Houston won series last year, 9-7.

Three things to know about the Astros: 1. They are the only National League team hotter at the plate than the Pirates. In their current 5-2 run, they have scored 50 runs, an average of 7.1 per game. The catalyst: 3B Morgan Ensberg, who is batting .415 and has homered in each of the past five games to match a franchise record. 2. At the opposite end of that spectrum is CF Preston Wilson, Houston's No. 5 hitter. He has struck out 11 times in his past 14 at-bats, including five whiffs Monday. 3. Missing Roger Clemens? Maybe in October, but not at the moment. The rotation is 7-3 with a 3.49 ERA that is second lowest in the majors.

The Pirates' key to success: Have Snell pitch tomorrow as he did Sept. 19 in blanking the Astros through eight and recording his first career victory.

The intangible: The Pirates were 4-2 at Minute Maid last season, a dramatic improvement over 2-19 in their first 21 games there. Jim Tracy said he is eager to see the team shed more of such baggage: "We're very hopeful of beginning a lot of new expectations for this ballclub. I don't think you should ever let environmental changes remotely suggest you shouldn't play well."

On deck: The road trip concludes with three in St. Louis' new Busch Stadium.

-- By Dejan Kovacevic

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Thursday's results

INDIANAPOLIS (6-9) lost to Ottawa, 5-1. LHP Sean Burnett (2-1, 4.40) allowed five runs and six in 4 1/3 innings. He struck out one, walked four and threw 43 of 79 pitches for strikes. RHP Scott Strickland (0.00) pitched 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. He has not given up a run in his six appearances. DH Yurendell DeCaster (.255) and SS J.J. Furmaniak (.188) each went 2 for 4.

ALTOONA (11-3) beat Akron, 18-4. LHP Josh Shortslef (3-0, 1.69) allowed one unearned run in six innings. 2B Craig Stansberry (.271) went 2 for 4 with his third home run and four RBIs.

LYNCHBURG (7-6) was off.

HICKORY (6-8) won at Delmarva, 13-3. RHP Todd Redmond (2-1, 4.50) allowed three runs, two earned, in six innings. RHP Romulo Sanchez (4.50) pitched three scoreless innings of relief. CF Andrew McCutchen (.328) went 2 for 5 with a walk and his fourth RBI


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at .


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