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Can Pirates Fans Keep the Faith?

Another late-season improvement raises questions

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Is it safe to reserve a seat on the Pirates bandwagon for next year? Since the All-Star break, we've seen this year's players produce; as I write this, they're flirting with a .500 record in the season's second half. But was the winning for real? Can we trust the brain trust at Pirates headquarters to keep the most vital talent together, and to get some needed punch this winter?

I spent a recent night at PNC Park talking to the one group of folks who have to watch the Pirates play every day: the vendors. Asked what they thought of the Pirates this season and of their prospects next year, they were overwhelmingly optimistic about this group. But they all agreed that the Pirates need a proper big stick, preferably a left-handed one. Some right-handed pitching probably wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

Which raises the question: Are the Pirates playing well simply because they're the team that can win when nothing's on the line? Or have they shown enough evidence to suggest they can translate this late-season improvement into at least a .500 season next year?

Rooting for a sports team is in many ways like taking a leap of faith. There are no guarantees and — in Pittsburgh, at least — there is often very little evidence to support your belief. And in that way, it's really almost a religious experience, only with less gravitas … depending on whom you ask.

I'm just a secular hack, so I asked for some advice from upstairs. I spoke with Sister Kathy Adamski, OSF, a Millvale Franciscan sister and sports fan, about faith and baseball.

"Faith, I believe, is a gift from God; the letter to the Hebrews in the Christian scriptures states that 'faith is the assurance of that which is hoped for,'" Sister Kathy told me. On the other hand, she says, "I believe we can have faith in a team — but I also feel there has to be some talent. I feel somewhat saddened that [third baseman] Freddy Sanchez is heading for the batting title and playing for the Buccos. McClatchy and the other owners, in my humble opinion, need to put out some bucks to get a winner back here in Pittsburgh. Once they do that, I think the 'gift of faith' I once had in the Buccos will return."

As the good Sister points out, faith is a two-way street, and the Pirates organization hasn't given us many reasons to believe.

After all, isn't the old saying that the Lord helps those who help themselves? Walking in runs against divisional opponents — as the Pirates did playing the Astros — is hardly helping oneself.

And it does feel like we've been here before. Haven't we been led down the garden path by late-achieving Pirates before? They followed strong outings against the Mets and Dodgers with a seven-game slide. It feels like the real Pirates were lurking inside all along, and came out of the dugout in an all-too-familiar routine against the Padres and Astros. Even so, a quick check of the record book indicates that the Bucs have not produced like this in a good, long time. Last year, they were a putrid 28-47 after the All-Star Break. In 2004 their record of 33-42 was only slightly less smelly. On and on it goes: In 2003 they were 34-38 (which I suppose is pretty good for this franchise); in 2002, they were 34-40. Another nadir was 2001, when they went 29-47 after the break.

In short, we've actually not been tempted by a late-season surge in a long, long time. We haven't had a batting champ like Sanchez walking among us in even longer. It's little wonder that Pirates fans start tuning out when the Steelers show up.

But despite all that, I'm not a Doubting Thomas. This off-season should tell us a lot about the ownership's commitment to bringing a winner to PNC Park. But even if the powers-that-be don't deserve our faith, Freddy Sanchez does. And Ronny Paulino, Jose Bautista and Matt Capps do too.

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