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For Pirates Fans, Hope Springs Eternal

Reasons for optimism as spring training ends

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Everywhere I turn, it seems, some national media type is pointing to the Pirates as a baseball team to watch. And I want to believe. I do. But you can't blame Pirates fans if we adopt an "I'll believe it when I see it" stance.

Sports media outlets are so competitive that the heat is on to be the guy who picks the sleeper in spring training. It would be dull to say the Yankees will be good, or the Braves will be in the playoffs, and, oh yeah, the Cardinals will be solid. But if you're the guy who said to watch the White Sox, you seemed like a genius last October.

So it goes with the 2006 Pirates, who seem to be a sexy pick to go from terminally moribund to competitive -- at least within their division.

Wait, did I just write the words "sexy" and "Pirates" in the same sentence? I did; and in spite of my skepticism toward the national punditry, I remain hopeful for the Bucs, who open their season in Milwaukee on April 3.

Maybe that optimism doesn't make much sense in the Kevin McClatchy era. If it's not "Operation Shutdown," it's Ollie Perez kicking a laundry cart. If it's not David Littlefield trading Aramis Ramirez for the equivalent of a box of batting-practice balls, it's Kip Wells beginning spring training by going down with an injury. If it's not Pat Meares' broken wrist, it's Pat Meares himself.

Being this bad for this long makes fans reach for all kinds of explanations -- the financial inequity of Major League Baseball, cheap owners, bad scouting and even just dumb bad luck. If you Google "Kevin McClatchy," the fourth entry to appear is a link to an online petition to oust him from the executive suite.

It was either Einstein or Yogi Berra who said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So does it mean that I'm insane because -- despite everything I've witnessed since Barry Bonds was lithe -- I'm buying into the hype and the hope?

In spite of the past 13 years, the Pirates do have a very talented, albeit wet-behind-the-ears, pitching staff. We've seen enough of Perez to know that, assuming he's had counseling to manage his anger toward all things laundry-related, he can be more entertaining than a photo-finish pierogie race. He's followed in the rotation by Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, who were both shockingly good last year. That's no guarantee of how they'll perform over the long haul -- especially when you consider the top three starters have started a combined 103 games in the bigs. Still, compared to years we've entered the season with starters such as Jimmy Anderson, Josh Fogg and Todd Ritchie, I'll take these guys, experience be damned.

Are the injury problems of Kip Wells and Sean Burnett another bad omen? It's hard to believe that Ian Snell and Brian Duckworth were on Jim Tracy's short list of potential starters, but hey, you play the hand you're dealt. With the Pirates, you often start the season with a full house and end up with a pair of 3s. And yet, I am hopeful.

In the field, the magnificence of the Jack Wilson/Jose Castillo combo remains, as does fielder extraordinaire Jason Bay. True, the Pirates finished 67-95 with those guys last year, but they've upgraded at both corners, despite age and injury. Compared to Kevin Young, Randall Simon and Darryl Ward, Sean Casey looks like Keith Hernandez -- sans cheesy porn star mustache. Likewise, Joe Randa is a huge improvement at the hot corner over the likes of Ty Wiggington and Ed Sprague. He's not Aramis Ramirez, but I'm promising my therapist that I'll let that bitterness go soon. Really, I will.

They really can do it. They really could finish 82-80 this year. Even if they don't, we can always look on the bright side: The franchise is completely unscathed by the stain of steroids that hangs over the rest of MLB. And besides that, they're due.

Right?

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