Thousands of fans braved the snow and sleet Saturday to attend PirateFest. As the better-known players emerged from behind a curtain to the autograph area, the long lines of people waiting to have their memorabilia signed began to cheer.
This setting served as the introduction to being Pirates for Chris Stewart and Jaff Decker, two of the new additions to the roster.
“Watching the playoff games, the atmosphere they had in the stands, seeing the fans kind of getting what they’d been waiting for — for a whole long time now — it was exciting,” Stewart said.
The Pirates acquired Stewart, a catcher, from the New York Yankees in early December in exchange for minor league pitcher Kyle Haynes. Stewart will back up Russell Martin.
Decker, whose first name is pronounced Jeff, came along with pitcher Miles Mikolas from the San Diego Padres, who received outfielder Alex Dickerson in the deal.
By adding Stewart, the Pirates upgraded their defense at the backup catcher position. They also can keep Tony Sanchez in Class AAA Indianapolis to get more experience playing every day until there is an injury or Russell Martin leaves via free agency after the 2014 season. Stewart and Martin played together with the Yankees in 2012.
“I know that they spoke to [Martin], kind of picking his brain about me,” Stewart said. “What I am behind the plate, what I am in the clubhouse. I know he had a big influence on getting me over here.”
Stewart, 31, hit .211 with a .566 on-base plus slugging percentage this past season but is known for his defense. He said he is not familiar with the Pirates pitching staff, but he will ask the team to send him video so he can learn the pitchers’ tendencies. He believes in preparation.
“I want to make sure that I know every single hitter, what they’ve been doing last month, last week, the last game,” Stewart said. “That way I know how to go about calling a game plan against a certain guy in a certain moment.”
Decker, 23, made his major league debut in 2013, receiving 31 plate appearances with the Padres. He hit .286 with a .381 on-base percentage for Class AAA Tucson in 2013, a year after an injury cost him most of the season. He struggled with plantar fasciitis in 2012 before eventually tearing the plantar tendon. He didn’t need surgery, but was in a cast for six weeks.
“You want to be out there with the guys playing every day,” Decker said. “We’re competitors. If I’m not dead, then I can be out there playing. That’s what I try to do. It’s tough. Sometimes you got to make the smarter choice instead of following your heart and being out on the field.”
Decker will join Travis Snider, Jose Tabata and Andrew Lambo in the competition for playing time in right field.
“They said I have every opportunity to go out and play and have a spot in the outfield,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to go in to do and be ready to go.”
Decker’s brother kept him abreast of the Pirates’ success and the two watched the wild-card game together.
“The fans standing up every pitch, every out,” Decker said. “When you’re growing up, you want to be a part of that situation, you want to be a part of that atmosphere. You want to win a World Series, win a playoff game.”
Stewart consulted Yankees pitcher David Phelps, whose wife is from Pittsburgh, about where to look for houses in the area. He has yet to talk to Martin, but looked forward to re-uniting with him.
“Watching on TV, watching what the Pirates did last year, it’s an amazing thing,” Stewart said. “The young core that they had bringing up and trying to cohesively come together as a group and winning a whole lot of ballgames, it was really exciting.”
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG.