CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The losing streak is only a bad memory. The playoff drought has been vanquished. Sid Bream can't hurt us anymore.On Tuesday night, the Pittsburgh Pirates didn't just beat the Reds in the one-game wild-card playoff. They also dismantled an also-ran reputation that was two decades in the making.And they did it with style. Big hits, great pitching, smooth fielding. And the fans in the baseball-starved city went absolutely wild over every play, every strike. They rattled the Reds' starting pitcher so much, that he - literally - dropped the ball. PNC Park set an attendance record. The TV ratings were through the roof. One fan jumped off the Clemente Bridge into the Allegheny River after the game (never do that).After 20 years of sub-.500 baseball, Pittsburgh never gave up on the Buccos. Yes, the fans were embarrassed by the losing, and, no, we weren't exactly stocking up on Pirates' merchandise or filling the park. But the true fans - and most 'Burgh fans are true fans - didn't defect to another team. That would just feel dirty.
All we ever wanted was a winning team. It's a Pittsburgh tradition that the Steelers and Penguins have been able to prop up, as the mighty Pirates spiraled down. And now, as the Steelers falter in a way that I haven't seen in my lifetime, it is the Pirates who are donning the mantle for a city cluttered with Cups and Bowls.The Steelers and Penguins sell out every game. I'm used to that atmosphere when I go to their games. But when I took my seat at PNC Park this season, it was so strange to see it packed full of loud, excited, happy
fans. So wonderfully strange.The incident with Mat Latos' wife notwithstanding, when it comes to pro sports - football, baseball and hockey, anyway - there are no fans like Pittsburgh fans.Having grown up about 45 minutes south of the city, I'm proud to count myself among them. I've been in West Virginia for more than 25 years, but if my obituary doesn't mention that I was a devoted follower of the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates, then somebody had better fire the obit writer.At the beginning of this baseball season, I repeated my annual prayer to the baseball gods: Please, just let them break .500.
But by the time they hit that magic 82-win mark a few weeks ago, I'd been spoiled by success. I wanted more. A one-and-done wild card loss to the Reds would have been like a Primanti sandwich without the fries on top.So, here come the Cardinals. An excellent team. Proven winners, time and time again. Can I really expect the Pirates to win this thing, after all the blessings they've already bestowed this season?Oh, yeah.That's just what it's like to be a Pittsburgh (Penguins, Steelers . . . and, yes, Pirates) fan.Byers is the Gazette's executive editor.