- DJ Gallo, ESPN.com
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The Pittsburgh Pirates are the story of the 2012 baseball season. Out of nowhere, they are 10 games over .500 and have the fourth-best record in baseball.
With the Heat-Thunder NBA Finals long over, sports fans may be looking for a new bandwagon to jump on. But no bandwagon fan wants to sound like a bandwagon fan. This A-to-Z Pittsburgh Pirates guide will help you learn about the team and sound like you have followed the Pirates since way back in the olden times of the early '90s.
A -- Andrew McCutchen
It all starts with McCutchen. At 25, he is one of the best young players in baseball and, for the past month, the best player in all of baseball. "Yeah, but the Pirates will just lose him when he becomes a free agent." You might be right. Except thanks to an offseason contract extension worth $51.5 million, the Pirates control his rights through the 2018 season.
B -- Burnett
After being banished from New York, A.J. Burnett is in the midst of his best season since he was a Toronto Blue Jay. The Pirates got him in exchange for two mediocre prospects, plus the Yankees still have to pay 58 percent of his contract through next season. If you are considering jumping aboard the Pirates bandwagon, that means you like underdogs. That also means you probably despise the Yankees. It might still be unlikely that the Pirates play deep into October, but we all can agree that Burnett beating the Yankees in the World Series -- while still earning big money from them -- would be close to the greatest baseball thing ever.
C -- Clints
The Pirates have two of them: manager Clint Hurdle and starting shortstop Clint Barmes. The latter's on-base percentage is 226 points higher than the former's this season. The Pirates are playing good baseball, but no one said they are flawless.
D -- Disaster
"The Pirates were in first place last July too, but then they fell apart. The same thing will happen this year."
Maybe. But there are big differences between the 2012 Pirates and 2011 Pirates. Last year's team never got more than seven games over .500; this year's team is 10 games over. Last year's team never had a positive run differential; this year's team does. This year's team had the toughest schedule in the National League through the first six weeks of the season; the Pirates end the season with one of baseball's easiest.
After 19 years of losing, it's easy to think that failure is always around the corner. Because it is. The Pirates play the Cubs and Astros 23 times in the second half.
E -- Eighty-one
Sadly, the magical land of 81 wins has been the goal for many Pirates fans over the past three decades. The "best" team of the sub-.500 eternity was 15 years ago. That 1997 team had 79 wins. Only eight Pirates teams since 1992 have had even 70-win seasons. Holy crap, this is depressing. Let's get back to the positive stuff.
F -- The Fort
That's the nickname for miniature Pirates backup catcher Michael McKenry. He has six home runs in 100 at-bats, even though he can barely see over home plate. All great baseball teams throughout history have had a scraptastic folk hero. Look it up. Perhaps McKenry is the biggest reason to believe in the Pirates.
G -- Grilli
Jason Grilli has been a lights-out reliever for the Pirates since last July, when he was released by the Phillies, which had him relegated to Triple-A. By the way, if you’re going to root for a Pittsburgh team, you also have to root against Philadelphia. So the fact that the $174 million Phillies have an awful bullpen this year and just gave away Grilli for free? This should bring you great joy.
H -- Home runs
Pittsburgh's offense over the past month has been fueled by a barrage of home runs. Left-for-bust third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft, suddenly has 15 home runs and 48 RBIs. No one quite knows yet if he'll revert to being awful, become the new Adam Dunn or turn into an all-around star. But for a team who gave away Aramis Ramirez and Jose Bautista, he is allowing more people to move past the fact that the Pirates gave away Aramis Ramirez and Jose Bautista.
I -- Indians
Remember when the Pirates signed those two Indian guys? Well, now they’re the aces of the staff! No, they're not. The 2012 Pirates aren't quite that improbable. But Rinku Singh is still in the system and has a 2.70 ERA at Class-A West Virginia.
The Indianapolis Indians, Pittsburgh's Triple-A team, have the best winning percentage in the International League and start a lineup that not long ago would have been good enough to play for the Pirates. So there is plenty of depth in the system, much of it in Indian form.
J -- Jameson Taillon
Taillon, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, and Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 overall pick last year, are Pittsburgh's two best prospects. Since general manager Neal Huntington took over the team in September 2007, he shifted the team's drafting approach to picking good baseball players. Smart move.
K -- Karstens
Pirates starter Jeff Karstens makes you appreciate the beauty of a 64 mph fastball, if not physical beauty.
L -- Leyland
After playing the Pirates two weeks ago, Jim Leyland said, "I think they're going to be good. I think they're going to hang in this division race. A lot of people don't. I think they will. They've got good pitching. They've got young legs." If Leyland had 16 years more patience, he could still be in Pittsburgh instead of managing that hopeless Tigers outfit. Live and learn.
M -- McDonald
James McDonald is the ace of the Pirates staff. He has a 2.45 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 90 strikeouts in 103 innings. He was a legitimate All-Star snub. In 2003, Pittsburgh's sole All-Star was "closer" Mike Williams. He had a 6.29 ERA at the break, the highest ERA ever for an All-Star. Yes, things have definitely improved in Pittsburgh.
N -- National League
If the National League playoffs started today, the Pirates, the historically awful Nationals and the recently broke Mets and Dodgers would all make it. Maybe the 2012 Pirates aren’t so improbable.
O -- Okobi
Chukky Okobi is a former Steelers center who won a Super Bowl ring in 2005. He now creates Pittsburgh Pirates-related hip hop. Really. Maybe if Dermontti Dawson had been willing to sing about the Pirates, they wouldn't have been bad for so long. It's a theory.
P -- PNC Park
Throughout its 12-year history, PNC Park is most often used in this context: "PNC Park is the best stadium in baseball. Too bad there isn't a team to play in it." The stadium might have to get a new slogan.
Q -- Quit
Hurdle said earlier this season that there is "no quit" in the 2012 Pirates. That's a cliché, uninteresting quote. On the other hand, it's always hard to find a good Q for these kind of columns. Thanks, Mr. Hurdle!
R -- Rebuilding
Go to any Pirates game and you'll see fans wearing T-shirts that read "Rebuilding since 1992." There's still a lot of baseball left to be played, but local novelty T-shirt makers might want to at least produce a small run of "Rebuilt since 2012" shirts. (I get a 10 percent cut. No, 40 percent. Let's make it 80.)
S -- Sid Bream and the Braves
Everyone knows the story. Sid Bream slid home, the Pirates lost and were never heard from again. The Braves appeared again last year too. Remember the 19-inning Pirates-Braves game last July that ended with the awful Jerry Meals' call? The Pirates never saw first place again after that.
Guess who Pittsburgh is playing to end the regular season? Yes. Oct. 1-3, three games against the Braves. Oh, crap.
T -- Trade deadline
For the second consecutive year, the Pirates will be buyers at the deadline. And not like in 2007, when former GM Dave Littlefield acquired Matt Morris. That was a desperate move to clinch his status as worst baseball general manager of all time before he got fired.
U -- Ugly
OK. That’s enough. Let's stop being mean to Jeff Karstens.
V -- Voting
People who were born since the Pirates last had a winning season can drive a car, serve in the military and vote for president. Speaking of, don’t be surprised if Andrew McCutchen wins Pennsylvania this year thanks to write-in votes from Western PA.
W -- Whaa?
Daughtry is performing after the Pirates game Saturday night. If the Pirates do collapse in the second half of the season, this concert should get the blame. Agreed? Cool.
X -- X___________
The Pirates have most of their core under contract for the near future. Only Kevin Correia, Erik Bedard, Juan Cruz and Grilli will be free agents after this season. Maybe the Phillies will give Grilli a huge contract to replace Jonathan Papelbon.
Y -- YOLO
There's debate about whether the Pirates should try to win now -- i.e., package some of their prospects for a veteran star or two to shift them from "surprise" status to "favorite" status -- or let this season play out, keep the prospects and possibly set themselves up for a long period of winning. It's a tough question, but it's better than most recent Pirates debates, such as "Why do the Pirates suck so bad?" and "When will Steelers training camp rescue us from this depression?"
Z -- Zoltan
The Pirates now flash a Z sign with their hands after every big hit. There are even Z T-shirts. It’s all because of this scene in "Dude, Where's My Car?" Seriously. What does that have to do with baseball or the Pirates? I have no idea. It makes as much sense as the Pittsburgh Pirates being good at baseball. Just go with it.