PITTSBURGH – Listen, America. Considering your alleged team scored 48 points in a football game and still couldn't win, it might be time to consider permanent abandonment due to excessive emotional distress. For all those new sporting orphans, fear not. There is a team yearning to capture your heart.
OK, promise not to laugh. It's the Pittsburgh Pirates. Don't laugh! The Pirates deserve the support. They are everything we love about sports. They haven't won in forever, and they're backed by a fan base that screams like it's being tased every time something good happens, and they've got eminently likeable players, and after a 5-3 victory Sunday against their regular-season conquerors, the St. Louis Cardinals, they're one victory away from the National League Championship Series.
[Photos : Best of NLDS – Pirates vs. Cardinals]
The Pirates' last triumph in a playoff series: 1979. You know what was awesome in 1979? These guys. Understand why the Pirates deserve your support? Anything that harkens back to the Village People deserves to be set aflame.
This is not a lament against the Cardinals. They are their typical boring selves, which suits their city just fine. St. Louisans like to call themselves the best fans in baseball. Not this year, or at least not right now. Nobody – not St. Louis, not Boston, not Los Angeles, not Oakland, not Detroit – comes close to the 40,000-plus turning PNC Park into a house of horror. Two decades of losing baseball and nearly two more of postseason heartbreak transmogrifies an average fan into a zombie ravenous for success. The constant din at PNC isn't yelling as much as it is a Gregorian groan for some sort of deity to cast upon the Pirates what has been given to the Steelers and Penguins in recent years.
"Share the wealth," Pirates closer Jason Grilli said. "Why not us? It's our turn. It's our time. We're considered the underdog. People like that. People find a reason to make us the underdog. We're a pretty good team, so they can call us the underdog if they want to. We're exciting to watch.
"I love bandwagon fans, man. There's even a Japanese station here doing a documentary. I don't think they knew we had the Pittsburgh Pirates in the major leagues."
So there you have it: Yes, the Pirates are a major league team and, yes, their closer has declared their bandwagon hoppable. Surely anybody without Cardinals allegiance tuning into Sunday's game felt the tug toward black and gold. The Pirates took a 2-0 lead, blew it on a two-run Carlos Beltran single, recaptured it and frittered it away once more on a Beltran home run. Even if Beltran is the modern-day postseason equivalent to Babe Ruth – Beltran's career postseason line is .360/.463/.794 with 16 home runs and 31 RBIs in 164 plate appearances, almost identical to Ruth's World Series-only .326/.467/.744 with 15 home runs and 33 RBIs in 167 plate appearances – Pittsburgh had Pedro Alvarez, who ... uh ... hmmmm.
Fine. So Alvarez was awful against left-handed pitching in 2013, batting .180/.252/.286 going into the game, and here he was in the eighth inning of a 3-3 game, with runners on first and second and one out, facing Kevin Siegrist, who happened to set the record for lowest ERA in history among pitchers with at least 45 appearances: 0.45. And what did Alvarez do? Yank a single to right field to score pinch runner Josh Harrison with the go-ahead run. The Pirates tacked on another with a Russell Martin single, and this jewel of a stadium started to shake, much as it had during the win-or-go-home wild card game that reminded Pittsburgh what playoff baseball felt like.
"It makes you think that the stadium isn't even outside," Harrison said. "It makes you think it's a dome. That's how loud they are."
It's football loud. Or hockey loud. Certainly baseball's maximum decibels reach those others sports', but because the game is played at such a languid pace, such moments are often standalone. From introductions, in which they sing loudly with the national anthem, to razzing the opposing pitcher, which happened again Sunday, this baseball crowd is football, hockey and soccer combined. Normally the roar in Pittsburgh on Sundays comes from across the street at Heinz Field. Not this time. Not even the Steelers could've distracted the city from this game.
"It helped that the Steelers were on a bye week," admitted second baseman Neil Walker, a Pittsburgh native. "We're getting the support we deserve. We knew that it would come. It took a little while."
A little while? That's like saying it took a little while to build the Panama Canal. (It was 34 years, by the way. The same amount of time since the Pirates won a postseason series.) Any dubiousness about this team certainly was warranted. It takes grand institutional failure to be as bad for as long as the Pirates were, and after teases in each of the last two seasons, even late into September people here wondered just how real this team is.
So far, real good. Though all of this does come with a few caveats: In recent years, the Cardinals have performed their best when pressured. Rookie Michael Wacha is starting Game 4, nearly threw a no-hitter last time out and limited the Pirates earlier this season to two hits over seven shutout innings. Pittsburgh starter Charlie Morton enters the game having allowed 12 runs in 13 2/3 innings over three starts against the Cardinals this season. And if St. Louis evens the series, that means a Game 5 at home with ace Adam Wainwright pitching against the flammable A.J. Burnett in St. Louis.
Sure, it's possible that this invitation onto the bandwagon ends with it derailing on I-376 amid a mob of angry Yinzers. Such is the Faustian bargain of sports fandom: great rewards necessitate great risks. Even though this isn't Cleveland or Kansas City or Buffalo or some truly tortured sports city that would spontaneously combust the moment it won a championship, the Pirates are worthy of that risk. The prospect of the $70 million Pirates whitewashing the $230 million Dodgers is too rich not to savor.
"We are somewhat of the Cinderella story for baseball and for all of sports, considering where we've come from to where we are now," said Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates' 26-year-old star who happened to get on base all four times he came to the plate Sunday, justifying the M-V-P chants that will likely be rewarded with the honor come November. "We've seen teams in the past have done that. We're doing what the teams in the past have.
"We're the new team," he continued. "The Rays have been here. The Oakland A's, they were here last year. I guess you can say we're fresh meat. Everybody wants a piece. Everybody wants to get in. They want to see what the Pirates are all about."
[Jeff Passan: David Ortiz can stare all he wants]
Come and see. What are you waiting for? Game 4 is at 3 p.m. ET, and the Pirates could celebrate like after their wild-card win, which would be something. Inside their clubhouse Sunday, the carpet was wet from that celebration five days earlier. An industrial-sized fan aimed at the booze-logged area blew, and it still couldn't get the thing dry.
Play hard. Party hard. Sounds like the type of guys America is ready to love.