CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After the season's first month or so, the Pirates began winning relentlessly and by Aug. 8 owned a 63-47 record.The city of Pittsburgh almost took for granted that the streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons would end and conjured up glorious images of postseason play - images that theretofore had been unimaginable for a franchise steeped in two decades of failure. "Heck, I was going out in public the first four months of the season,'' joked Steve Blass, a former Pirate pitcher and one of the team's radio and television analysts.But in an epic collapse, the Pirates squandered their chance for both a playoff bid and a winning record, playing the season's final seven weeks at 20 games under .500 for a final 79-83 record.
The Pirates Winter Caravan made a stop Tuesday night at Charleston's Ramada Inn, during which Blass, second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and pitcher Brian Morris met with fans, signed autographs and posed for pictures.Keynote speaker was Lanny Frattare, a former Charleston Charlies broadcaster who spent 33 years as the Pirates' play-by-play voice. Also participating was Rick Sofield, who managed the West Virginia Power last year and will work as the Pirates' first base coach in 2013."The early part of the season,'' said Blass, "was like a carnival. We always thought it would be like a circus if we got a team to match the ballpark because the ballpark is so great. We had 17 sellouts. The whole town got involved. I was driving to the ballpark, and kids were wearing the [Andrew] McCutchen and Walker T-shirts, so it was a lot of fun.''"We have a great group of guys,'' said Alvarez, "and we have the best fans in baseball. It was a very good atmosphere.''
If nothing else, said Walker, maybe it was a learning experience."We learned to be resilient last year, especially through the tough times,'' he said. "But we know we have to play better baseball down the stretch, and we're going to get there soon. We learned a lot from 2011, and we learned a lot from this past year. There were a lot of things that happened at the end of the year. I missed almost the last month of the season [with an injury], so I wasn't able to contribute like I know I'm capable of doing. We had some guys who kind of slowed down at the end of the year, and we know they're capable of much more than they showed.''The hitting and pitching seemed to falter simultaneously, said Blass."In the first four months, we were having good at-bats,'' he said. "We were making good pitches. And that stopped. Both aspects - the pitching and the hitting stopped. If the hitting had stayed hot, we could have carried the pitching. If the pitching had stayed hot, we could have carried the hitting. But both elements went down at once. It was the same way the previous year.
"We're hoping that guys like Pedro and Neil and Andrew can use last year as a stepping stone, a maturation process and continue to go. I'm still optimistic. We won more games [than the previous year]. We hit a bunch of home runs that I didn't expect. The team ERA was down, so there are some plusses. But I'm not trying to gild the lily. It is what it is. But we need to finish.'' The caravan participants touched on other subjects:Blass on the 1974 season with the Charlies when he was trying to overcome a serious bout of wildness: "Coming down to Charleston, we couldn't have been treated any nicer by the people here and the ballclub under a very difficult situation. We remember the summer, and we certainly made the best of it because of the people here in the city.''
Frattare, who retired as a broadcaster in 2008, on his final seasons behind the microphone: "I probably should have left sooner than I did. I was there 33 years, but my last three years I got tired of the losing, I got tired of the travel and I just wasn't doing a good job. I just didn't put the same enthusiasm and the same effort into it. The reason I didn't [step down] was because I was making - and this will sound somewhat selfish - a decent salary, and I didn't know what else I would do.'' (He now teaches broadcasting at Waynesburg College.)Walker, who played for the Hickory Crawdads in 2005, on his memories of Appalachian Power Park: "That was the first year for the ballpark, right? Greensboro and here had new ballparks that year, and both were obviously fantastic. I remember Ryan Braun was on that team [in Charleston].''Alvarez, who batted .203 in April and .207 in May but finished at .244 with 30 home runs and 85 RBIs, on his turnaround: "It was tough. I just kept working hard, kept going at it and kept trusting my abilities. What kept me going was the confidence I had in myself, and I knew I had the ability to step out of that funk. And I have a great support staff from my teammates and coaches and everybody. It was just one of those things that you have to battle through.''Walker on the Pirates' August-September collapse: "It's typical in any sport. When things are going well, morale is high. Things start to fall your way, whether it's luck or not having injuries. And when things are not going your way, you can't catch a break. That seemed to be the case.''Blass on the collapse: "Psychologically, it's kind of interesting. We had the collapse in August and September, but what if they had played [poorly] in April and May, and then had the [outstanding] four months at the end, we'd be chomping at the bit. But that's perception.''Walker, a Pittsburgh-area native on his desire to remain a Pirate for his entire career: "What better guy to have in a Pirate uniform for the rest of their career than me? I was born and raised 20 minutes north of Pittsburgh. I was a Pirates fans growing up. I know the history a little more than the guys on the team, and I'm the longest-tenured guy in this organization. So hopefully we can make that happen.''
Blass on the city of Pittsburgh's love for baseball: "Pittsburgh is a better baseball town than people give it credit for. It was a baseball town before football and hockey got real popular. Not that there's anything wrong with football and hockey. I'm a big Penguins and Steelers fan, but it reminded us of how good a baseball town Pittsburgh is.''Reach Mike Whiteford at email@example.com.