Zak of All Trades: It's time a winning tradition returns to Pittsburgh

For those of us who are sports fans, it's been a rough couple of days.

I'm writing this column on Friday morning, and it's been about five days now since I've watched or listened to a meaningful game for one of our Pittsburgh teams.

With a sports schedule specifically designed to keep the fan constantly entertained, this is a rarity in Pittsburgh.

All year, we have something going on, and only in football season do we encounter such a regular layoff. We've grown accustomed to that.

During the dog days of summer, I'm used to my constant activity. I hate an off day, let alone a four-day break.

Sure, we had the All-Star game thrown in there to keep us "entertained," but to be honest with you, despite the fact that there were five Pirates players in it this year and that the game "means something" now, I still find the exhibition hard to watch.

If it weren't for checking the stat lines for the Pirates players and for giving props to Mariano Rivera, who is writing the final chapter of his incredible career this season, the story lines around baseball's greatest exhibition game just wouldn't have done it for me at all this year.

Four days is too long. And I don't like seeing my favorite players fraternizing with other players on teams I consider our rivals. I know they do it, but I'd rather not see it.

But the All-Star break is in the rearview now. And as a Pirates fan, I've been in this spot before — not nearly as often as I'd like to, but often enough over the past few years.

The Bucs, as those of us who have loved them for so long lovingly know them, have come up short of the .500 mark for more years in a row than I'd like to admit — and because this is my column, I won't even say the number.

As a very young fan, having just celebrated my 10th birthday, I vividly remember the image of Sid Bream sliding safely into home plate on a play where I was convinced I could have thrown him out — even with my not-good-enough-for-Little-League arm.

For me — a fan who loves baseball more than any other sport — the pain that comes with the losing streak is bad enough.

But for fans who have a longer history with the Pirates, the streak has to hurt even more, because they've been around in the glory days, and they remember what it's like to be a winning team over a period of time.

Of course, I must say that having the Steelers and Penguins in town has helped my sports fandom immensely.

Though both teams have had their rough years in my lifetime, I've still had plenty of winning seasons — enough to feel like my team is a winner in both of those sports.

As hard as I try, though, I can't feel that way about the Pirates. But, there is certainly hope this year — as there has been over the past few years — that the feeling is changing.

The Pirates are a team with a rich history that has had eras where winning was the tradition, not just a pleasant surprise.

Right now — as of Friday afternoon — the Pirates are one game out of first place in their division and — as much as I hate this expression — "if the season ended today," they'd be in a one-game playoff for the Wild Card spot. In other words, they'd make the "postseason."

As a Buccos fan, I can't help but get a bit excited about that. But we've been here before over the last two years, and, so, as a Buccos fan — one familiar with the newest tradition — I also can't help but reserve my excitement and pretend that I'm not excited at all.

Winning used to be a tradition when it came to the Pirates. Names like Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell and Honus Wagner bring back good memories. The song "We Are Family" makes every Pirates fan — even those of us who may not have been around for that tour — smile.

The tradition that's set in since that fateful game in 1992, though, that game where Barry Bonds — one of the best arms in baseball — couldn't throw out Sid Bream — one of the slowest runners in baseball — hasn't been a tradition of winning.

It's time for that to change, and the players in the Pirates' clubhouse are calling for the management to keep the pieces to this puzzle together. They say that the chemistry is more important than acquiring the big name in a trade. And in a way, I agree with them.

There are some names already in the clubhouse that need to step up — players who have performed better in the past than they have this year, names like Garrett Jones and Neil Walker.

But if those players even return to their average form, and the others keep playing at the level they've been playing, this team could be something special.

And the team consists of a bunch of players who enjoy playing baseball with each other and enjoy playing for their coach, Clint Hurdle, whose role in this magical turn-around has been underrated.

Three years ago, we had no hope of a winning season any time soon, but Hurdle's mentality has transformed that idea.

It's time for the winning tradition to return to Pittsburgh, and this just might be the team to do it. All the pieces just feel right. (Was I saying that last year? I can't recall.)

As a fan, I know I am ready for it. If you're a fan — or even just someone who kind-of likes the Pirates — you're ready for it too.

The city of Pittsburgh has been faithful to its team, and it deserves it.

Could this be the year the winning tradition returns?

Here's to hoping. Let's go Bucs.

Zak Lantz is the editor of The Spirit. He's been a Pirates fan for as long as he can remember, and he's starting to believe (again) that this may be the year.