by John Wawrow
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP)—Andrew Neft stood with his family in the Black and Gold Forever store in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Strip District—looking to see what Steelers jersey or Penguins gear he might add to his collection—when he spotted six Pirates shirts hanging high up on the wall, nearly out of view.
With a smirk, Neft approached the clerk and asked when the store might be giving those away for free.
In a town where the “The Stillers”—as the locals affectionally call them—rule, and Sidney Crosby may well be king, the pitiful Pirates, with their 18 consecutive losing seasons, have been rendered near irrelevant even before spring arrives and as the team held its first full workout last weekend in Bradenton, Fla.
“Let them stay there. I couldn’t care less,” said the 48-year-old Neft, a born-and-raised Pittsburgher. “They’re (bad), OK? They’re the worst team in major league baseball.”
Over at the Pirates home, PNC Park, the sentiment is similar even from fans still willing to buy tickets for the upcoming season—the franchise’s 125th.
“We used to go to more games and now we’ve cut down to one or two a year until I see something in a positive light,” said Jeff Fliss, 55, shortly after purchasing four tickets for a game against Detroit on May 21. “It’s just the frustration of being a loser for so long.”
Losing doesn’t come easy in any town — see Cleveland or Buffalo. In Pittsburgh, though, it’s unacceptable, given the Steelers’ perennial dominance and the Penguins’ new era of success under Crosby.
The Pirates once had all that, too, with Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Barry Bonds. But they’ve instead become mere afterthoughts now—a bad team with a pretty ballpark.
Their 18-season stretch without a winning record is the longest in North American pro sports.
They’ve gone 186-299 in the past three seasons, capped by a 57-105 finish last year, in which they earned a notorious Triple Crown by finishing last in the National League in batting, pitching and defense. Only the 1952 Pirates (42-112) lost more games in baseball’s modern era.
In Florida, there is upbeat talk coming from the front office and newly hired manager, Clint Hurdle, of how the team intends to improve this season.
Pirates owner Bob Nutting was quoted in The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review this week as saying last year’s finish was unacceptable and that he’s intent on building a winner by developing and retaining star players.
“It’s critically important that they understand that 2011 is not going to be a year where small bits of incremental progress are adequate,” Nutting said, referring to the message he delivered his players. “Until we win a National League championship, we’re not going to be satisfied with incremental progress.”
The Pirates project a payroll of about $45 million, which will be among the lowest in the majors. Though the team’s pitching rotation remains suspect, they do have a group of young players to build around, such as outfielder Andrew McCutchen, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, second baseman Neil Walker and left fielder Jose Tabata.
It’s going to take more than talk, though, to convince the fans up north, such as Neft.
“We’ve got an ownership group that doesn’t want to do anything to make them a good team other than make them a major league farm club,” said Neft, who attended one game last year and wore a White Sox jersey to it. “They promised us a winning team when we bought them a stadium. They’ve had their stadium coming up on 11 years, and we have a (bad) team.”
Greta Dunn is a bartender at Mullen’s Bar and Grill, located across the street from PNC Park. She said the place is only busy when the Pirates hold a big home promotion—the fireworks displays are popular—or if a high-profile team, such as the New York Mets, are in town.
“It’s sad,” Dunn said. “Fireworks night, that’s when you know we’re going to be busy. It’s none of this, ‘This is a great team or something.'”
Now 26 years old, Dunn was 11 when her family relocated to Pittsburgh. She never warmed to the Pirates, reflecting a generation of young fans that the franchise has lost and neglected.
Asked where one might find Pirates fans in the city, Dunn said: “You’ve got to find the old men.”