PITTSBURGH -- Parents can do a lot to bring smiles to their children's faces. One thing they can't do, though, is magically make the local baseball team a talented and exciting ballclub. For so many Pittsburgh kids who grew up over the past two decades, a club worth watching is all they ever wanted. And now that the dream has finally become a reality, well, let's just say it's better than they ever imagined it could be. The Pittsburgh Pirates, who took the field in 2012 having finished below .500 in each of the past 19 seasons, are winners once again. Everybody has noticed them, but perhaps nobody has appreciated them more than the city's younger fans, who are quickly getting used to what life is like during a thrilling pennant race.
"The whole season just kind of caught everybody by surprise, and it's a good surprise," said Jake Linsenbigler, a 23-year-old Pittsburgh native. "It's definitely the buzz of the town now," added his buddy, Mike Barnes. After ace A.J. Burnett and slugger Garrett Jones guided Pittsburgh to a lively victory over Los Angeles on Thursday, the Pirates rolled into St. Louis for a weekend series 12 games over .500 at 65-53, trailing the Reds by six games in the National League Central but in control of one of the NL's two Wild Card spots Before the season began, folks in these parts didn't dare dream beyond an 81-81 finish. But now, most fans believe the Bucs can catch Cincinnati in the division race, and few, if any, can find a reason that would prevent them from making the postseason as a Wild Card team. "I already have money set aside," Christopher Wolfe said. "Instead of paying for college books, I'd rather come to a playoff game here." Here would be PNC Park, an indisputably beautiful stadium that had always been missing one thing: a team whose play could reflect its stunning surroundings. It took 12 seasons, but that team has finally arrived, encouraging people to come out and root for its success. There have been 13 sellouts at PNC Park this year, six shy of the record set in 2001, the stadium's inaugural season. The fan support hasn't gone unnoticed by Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, whose club has a 37-23 record at home, among the best in baseball. "The noise, the interaction, the cheering -- it all connects and resonates with the players," Hurdle said. "You take pride in going out there and playing well in front of your hometown crowd. "Our fans, they've been loud, and they've been boisterous, and they've been very supportive this year. It makes a difference. There's no doubt about it." At home and away, the Pirates are led by All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen, an MVP candidate who enters the weekend leading the league with a .359 batting average and a .606 slugging percentage. He also has 24 homers, 72 RBIs and 14 stolen bases. "I mean, I knew he was good, but I didn't think he was this good," said Von Ruefle, an 18-year-old. McCutchen is the favorite player of practically every Pirates fan. People gush about about his on-field ability, and no one else's name is seen on the backs of more jerseys at PNC Park. While Pittsburgh has seen the likes of star players such as Jason Kendall, Brian Giles and Jason Bay in recent years, none of them were quite as outlandishly talented as McCutchen, who has also had the benefit of playing alongside a none-too-shabby supporting cast. "We have so many good hitters," said Donny Trapp, a 21-year-old from Mars, Pa. "Now that we have a whole squad, and we can rely on each player, it's changed so much." Like many, Trapp appreciates how the Pirates continue to fight regardless of the score. The team has come from behind to win 35 games this season, tied with the New York Yankees for the most such victories in baseball. The Bucs have rallied past deficits as large as five runs, and have walked off in six wins. "They're never out of it," 18-year-old Zack Bresnay said. "They always find a way." It's hard not to admire a team full of players who hustle, especially if they do so while noticeably enjoying it. For the better part of the summer, the Pirates have been all smiles, laughing with one another and flashing the "Zoltan" symbol after clutch hits. Taken from the comedy "Dude, Where's My Car?," the Zoltan has become as synonymous with the Bucs as the beloved Jolly Roger, which of course is happily raised after every victory. "I like how they work together as a team," said 18-year-old Derek Allinder, "and they're always light-hearted, especially with the 'Zoltan' -- always carrying on and having a good time." That type of personality was a trademark of the 1979 Pirates, who latched onto the disco hit "We are Family" by Sister Sledge on their way to a World Series championship -- the most recent of the organization's five World Series titles. And while there's nothing wrong with honoring that club and its legends, the younger generation of Pirates fans is ready to embrace a new era. "You always see those old guys rooting for their '79 team and everything, praising that team," Trapp said. "I love them, but I'm sick of that. I want some new history." History will be made if the Pirates simply finish this season above .500. If they make the playoffs, Bucco Fever might approach epidemic proportions. That's what people are bracing for, though -- and not just as it relates to 2012. "It's this year, and the years to come," said Mike Marasco, a 19-year-old from Pittsburgh. "It's not just a one-year thing. It's just going to get better and better as we go. "I could definitely get used to this."
Mark Emery is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.