Flashback to ten years ago in the Steel City.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have one of the most aesthetically-pleasing ballparks in the majors in PNC Park; the clear view of the skyline, the immortal shot of the bridge, the overlay of the riverside location, and the timelessness that makes you feel immersed in the Yinzer community. The city of black and gold with rabid fans feels like a familial college town.

Andrew McCutchen is still arguably one of the most universally-beloved figures in sports (Uncle Larry is still to this day) and is your 2013 MVP. The Buccos are hosting a Wild Card game against the Cincinnati Reds, and the collective chants to get into Johnny Cueto’s head, “CUUEEEEETTTOOOOOO” are so loud that he drops the ball on the mound. It was one of the most electrifying postseason environments of this generation in what would be 3 straight playoff appearances.

Then came the departure of McCutchen and 6 of 7 losing seasons, all in either 4th or 5th in the NL Central. Bob Nutting refused to spend money on the roster, ranking in the bottom 4 in the league in payroll as they traded away players like Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, Shane Baz, Austin Meadows, Josh Bell, and Joe Musgrove. The uncensored tanking and refusing to invest in a sports-crazed city with a ballpark as beautiful as that in a salary cap-less league was inexcusable and shameful. There was no joy in that Jolly Rodger being raised on the few nights that it was lifted.

Going into this year, the Pirates were anticipating another season at the bottom of the NL Central with some possible bright spots on the roster, nothing more, nothing less. The entire opening day roster was only around $10 million more than what Max Scherzer alone will make PER YEAR. Their lack of investment into winning caused Bryan Reynolds, the captain, to NBA-style, formally request a trade heading into the year, to which they simply replied with, we hear you, and we are choosing to ignore this complaining request.

Then, the Pirates started rolling… beating teams like the Red Sox, Astros, and Cardinals, as Reynolds was at one point the leader in home runs and RBIs. 

Then, Oneil Cruz, their 24-year-old freakazoid prospect built like a basketball superstar at shortstop that throws nothing but heat-seeking missiles, went out with a fractured ankle. It was a devastating blow that made the collective minds think, “Well, I guess we’re back to the old Pirates team that will trade off assets to invest when Cruz is back and healthy next year. The Cardinals are sure to get their mojo back in the division after their slow start.”

The Jolly Roger joke was on us as they just continued to win. They ripped off a 7-game win streak, took 2 of 3 from the mighty titanous Los Angeles Dodgers, and did the unthinkable: they spent money. The Reynolds stalemate is over, as he’s now been locked up in the Steel City for the next 8 years at $106.75 million. They even rallied around and extended the manager, Derek Shelton, after their hottest start in decades at 14-7 and becoming the first team in the NL to reach 20 wins this season. 

The resilience that they’ve shown and the Reynolds contract just feels different. We’ve seen so often that a “fluky” Cinderella team that’s had cheap ownership in the past praise their early progress only for them to flame out or sell off pieces for the next season to invest in the long-term. Just last year, the Baltimore Orioles were on the precipice of reaching the postseason after seasons of misery and could have easily been buyers. Still, they decided to sell off assets like Trey Mancini rather than go for it. The willingness to be bought-in from the top down with this Reynolds contract

Photo: Justice delos Santos / Pirates Beat

is what makes this hot start in Pittsburgh feel different. There’s a feeling of magic that feels sustainable should they keep up their winning ways into the All-Star Break.

They’ve remained committed to the formula that they had established and keeping up the positivity in the clubhouse. Andrew McCutchen’s reunion has been more than just a swan song to get fans in the stands- he’s been a culture-setter that’s batting .258. Austin Hedges is virtually a net zero at the plate offensively but was lauded by the prestigious Cleveland pitching staff for what he means behind the plate to improve their pitching staff. Well, the Pirates signed him this offseason, and now they’ve got a top-10 bullpen and a top-5 ERA in the majors. You’ve even got the players celebrating with a home run SWORD and the pitching staff getting a plush Pikachu to the pitcher of the game following every victory. This stuff is ludicrous, but so is sports. The energy, the camaraderie, and the superstitions are what legends are made of.

The Pirates have been the redheaded stepchild of a sports-crazed city with the prestige and competence of their other two franchises dedicated to winning, the Steelers and the Penguins (less-so now, but…). It was uncalled for with a city that invested into their hometown and with a ballpark atmosphere that deserves a winning club.

The Reynolds extension proves that this start is no fluke and could truly be special. The Bucs are a team that, at the very least, have a vision and are raising up something that feels miraculous.


Photo: Pittsburgh Pirates Twitter

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