Pirates start new season with great expectations



This is New Age stuff that arrives with a new baseball season today at PNC Park, so when someone asks you what's new around America's most beautiful diamond, speak not of foodstuffs nor magnetic schedules.

Wanna know what's new?

Serious baseball in Pittsburgh.

Pirates fans, Pedro Alvarez excited about Opening Day

Pirates fans weigh in about their excitement for the start of a new season. Pedro Alvarez does likewise. (video by Andrew Rush; 3/31/2014)

Bonds, Leyland talk about their days with the Pirates

Barry Bonds and Jim Leyland talk about their days with the Pirates, as well the jobs done by Andrew McCutchen and Clint Hurdle. They were at PNC Park to present the MVP and Manager of the Year awards. (Video by Andrew Rush; 3/31/2014)

Seriously.

In little more than a month, ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball -- absent the Three Rivers confluence since about forever -- is bringing the varsity.

On purpose.

All baseball seasons at their birth are to be swaddled by anticipation, goes the catechism, but here's what we've learned about Opening Day anticipation over the course of a lost generation:

We can fake it.

From the distracted calorie hunters in the All You Can Eat Seats to the beleaguered season ticket holders bleeding a small fortune for their All You Can Stand Plans, anticipation for the dawn of the new season around here has mostly been as hollow as a pre-corked bat.

No more.

Last we convened, 40,493 squeezed themselves into the North Side cathedral to see the Pirates wrestle the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. After a staggering 97 victories, the Pirates suddenly had nothing left, and the wait for this day was officially on.

This time, the anticipation was real, albeit with all conceivable psychological pathways bottlenecked through the winter from hell. Pirates fans from New Castle to Uniontown, from Wheeling to Punxsutawney, all wound up setting career highs in windshield scrapings, embittered shoveling and iced-over driveway pratfalls.

That wintry mix thing was practically a condiment.

All of that misery surely vulcanized the anticipation, but in this New Age of Pittsburgh baseball, standard Opening Day anticipation, whether 100 percent vulcanized or 100 percent phony, has lost its relevance.

We no longer deal in anticipation at the birth of the baseball season.

We deal in expectation.

We needn't expect miracles; the Pirates no longer need one. What we should expect, however, as we've been given license to expect, are naturally positive outcomes, more often than not, from seriously talented people doing things correctly within baseball's comfortable quotidian rhythms, more often than not.

This is what they mean when the dramatists say baseball is life.

In the New Age, PNC Park is home to the National League's Most Valuable Player, Andrew McCutchen, and to the league's home run leader, Pedro Alvarez, the only player in Major League Baseball's history to drive in at least one run in his first six postseason games.

The trick is to get him to see what he can do in not just six, but 12 games or 15 or 20.

This isn't to convince anyone that they're crossing into another dimension by walking through a turnstile on this first home stand. In more than a few ways, the place is still The Nut(ting) House, where the question of who's on first can somehow come back, "Well, Travis Ishikawa, of course!" And the only definitive thing about right field is that it's somehow off limits to Garrett Jones, not re-signed despite his singular status as the only Pirate ever to hit a baseball on the fly into the Allegheny River.

But at some point while you were bloodying another knuckle with that window scraper, the respected editors of Baseball America designated the Pirates' minor league talent pipeline as the most promising in the game. Thus electrifying corner outfielder Starling Marte might soon enough be bookended by Gregory Polanco, who's already popped up on some prognosticated Rookie of the Year radar.

As Gerrit Cole arrived in mid-summer 2013 to take a spot on one of the best pitching staffs in the game, so might one Jameson Taillon at some point in the next few months.

The Pirates will need that talent infusion to sustain the urgency of last season's delicious entanglements with the Cardinals, who visit this weekend to resume what the game's uber focused analysts consider the most compelling National League Central conflict of the looming summer.

Clint Hurdle's team must recognize the opportunity for a fast start this month, as six of their first nine games are against the Cubs, whom most of those same analysts agree are ... the Cubs.

Hurdle begins his fourth season as Pittsburgh's manager, having taken the disheveled 57-win team he inherited to 72 wins in 2011, 79 in 2012, and 94 (plus three playoff victories) last year. If he starts 2-7, of course, the talk show bloodhounds will bay for his head.

The wailings of the few must necessarily accompany the patience of the many, as this, too, is metronomed into baseball's rhythm. The hope -- no, the expectation -- of all is that the Pirates might again, by early autumn, be aching to unleash the Black Army of the Allegheny, the kind of rollicking dark-armored sellout that so inspired last season's Hunt for Red(s) October.

Welcome to the New Age.


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