We’re halfway through the season, which is far enough that what is happening with the Pirates appears real. And yet the question I get, still, is, “Do you believe?” Not, "How about all those wins," or, "Where do you think the team will finish?" Definitely not the completely reasonable, "Think their pitching can keep this up?" It's "Do you believe," and it’s a good enough question, if one with some disbelief and disrespect pretty clearly embedded in it. Like God, love and politics, it's less logic and more gut. It’s a question of belief.
Two decades of losing will do this to fans, tilt things away from the rational and towards a sort of goofy supernatural. The sense emerges that it will take a miracle, or at least a nudge from a higher power, to make a change. Even Pirates manager Clint Hurdle hinted at feeling that way, invoking the word “believe” four different times in one day when while talking to reporters in late June.
So here we are in early July, and the miracle seems to be happening in plain sight. They have more wins than the New York Yankees, the universal metric for Doing Pretty Well among non-Yankees fans, but the Pirates also have more wins than every other team in the league. They are nearly a dozen games above .500. Great defense and improved pitching buoy the team’s so-so hitting. Rookie pitcher Gerrit Cole looks like a star. Andrew McCutchen is a star. All is good.
So let’s say it again, because it feels so good: Better than the Yankees. Let’s say it again, because it feels so strange: Best record in baseball. If this doesn't make Buccos fans believe in a higher power, then it’s hard to guess what will. The stickier question is whether it’s enough to make us believe in this team, this season, with all the supernatural stuff to the side. Even after these last two decades, it’s tough not to believe that, either.
From April’s steady balance of wins and losses through June's nine-game win streak, the entire ride has been crazy, inspiring, entertaining and, if you’re a long-time Pirates fan, practically life-affirming. But nothing captures the magic like Cole's first hit. It’s the kind of moment that can be watched over and over again because, somehow, knowing what happens doesn't take away from the surprise. I know this because I have watched it over and over again.
Cole walks up to the plate in the kind of situation fans habitually shrug away: a pitcher up to bat. The bases are loaded; the first thought is “don’t hit into a double play.” It is already accepted that Cole will get out, somehow. These are pitchers, after all. And this pitcher is in his first ever Major League game after getting called up from the minors. Expectations are low.
Strike one, strike two, and Cole is quickly in a deep hole. Going as expected. But then ball, ball, ball. Hmmm...
The bases are still loaded and, with a big hitter at the plate, hopes might get high. But still, this is a pitcher and... excuse that thwack! The bat cracks, the runners take off and somehow a pitcher, for-the-love-of-God-how-does-he-even-know-how-to-hit-National-friggin-League pitcher smacks a solid drive. The ball lifts into the air, hanging for just a moment before dropping into the sweet, grassy spot between the right and center fielders, beyond their gloves. Cole, safely at first base, has the first lead in his first start, with runs he knocked in himself.
Weeks later, that moment has both lingered and, astonishingly, never quite ended. The moment when Cole hits the ball, when it drops in the empty grass with no players in sight, the runners dash home, the crowd goes insane, Cole does the Zoltan sign all the Buccos do, the silly Pirates mascot is dancing and, suddenly, dancing like a giddy mascot seems to make pretty good sense.
Since then, it seems everyone who talks and writes about the Buccos is getting in on the giddy dance. A Forbes writer called the team one of baseball's “hallowed franchises.” Power rankings actually put them at the top. Baseball Prospectus, where logic and math reign, cooly projects the team to finish above .500 -- an achievement enough after twenty years of failing to do so -- and gave them a playoff percentage of a whopping 94 percent.
So. So, maybe the turnaround is happening, and we are in the miracle and finding that it’s just a baseball team catching some breaks and figuring some things out. Can we all finally wear our Pirates gear outside of Pittsburgh without getting questioned about it? And will those questions change?
The answers are a ways away, as they should be: it’s not even the All-Star break yet. But two things I know for sure. I'm excited, and I believe. I have no choice on the former, and the latter is heading in that direction.