The Zak Zone

The mid-summer heat that has been smothering the area over the past week or so is an obvious reminder: We are in the midst of the dog days of summer.

And with All-Star baseball and softball in full swing — congrats to the 11- and 12-year-old softball team on its run to the Section 1 final already and good luck to the numerous other teams still competing — and the Legion and Fed League schedules nearing playoff time, baseball is heavy on my mind.

And as much as I love following the plethora of local baseball and softball teams, my first love as a sports fan was the Pittsburgh Pirates, and its been a long time since there's been so much buzz this late in the season for a Pirates team — excepting a mini-run and collapse last season.

Now, I may be writing this column too soon, and many Pirate-hating folks may come up to me and rub it in my face if the young team collapses again, but in the games, replays and post-game interviews I've been watching, there's just something different about this team.

I rarely try to mix my theology with my passion for sports, but when I talk about my beloved Buccos, using one of my favorite Bible verses really is one of the best ways to describe my feelings for them.

I'm not sure which translation he was using when he stuck this phrase in his classic song after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, but Alan Jackson's translation is still my favorite way it's worded: "Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us, and the greatest is love."

If you've ever been to a Christian wedding, you've probably heard that passage — or another translation like it — read aloud. It's the common-at-weddings chapter of 1 Corinthians 13.

But when it comes to sports fandom, I don't think things are all that different. If there are three words I need to prove my fandom of the Pirates, the three would be faith, hope and love.

Having faith in the Buccos has been a longstanding tradition. When I was a child, it was easy to put my faith in the Pirates. In the late 1980s and early 1990s (very early, as in 1991 and 1992), the Pirates were the cream of the crop.

I wasn't quite around for the last time the Pirates were crowned champions in 1979 — the "We Are Family" tour. I missed that by three years, but as a kid, I tuned in to whichever station was covering the Pirates that summer, and my radio dial never budged for fear of missing an afternoon game.

But still, without winning championships, my early years' Pirates were still competitive, and it was easy to have faith in a winning team. It really was.

But the faith phase of my cheering for the Pirates came to an abrupt end without my even knowing it with two words — two words that would make any fan my age or older cringe — Sid Bream.

It all unfolded in Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series with the Pirates leading 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth — three outs away from a trip to the World Series.

Barry Bonds, one of the game's premiere players at that time and of all time, had the ball in his hand on a short hit with the chance to throw out the world's slowest runner, and his former teammate, at the plate to keep the game tied. Bonds' throw was late, and Bream slid safely behind Pirates catcher Mike LaValliere, dashing the Pirates' — and their fans' — hopes of winning the World Series.

Little did Pirates fans know, Bream's slide into home was just the beginning of the wheels coming off for the Pirates — and thus, the beginning of my "hope phase" as a Pirates fan.

The Pirates finished the 1992 season with a 96-66 record, but when the 1993 season began, Pittsburgh's roster was missing two of its marquee players from the season before: Bonds and star hurler Doug Drabek.

Household names like Bonds and Drabek were replaced with less-known names like Al Martin and Steve Cooke.

In 1992, the Pirates finished 30 games above .500, and in 1993, they finished 12 games below .500. They went from finishing first in the National League East to finishing fifth of seven teams.

After three straight trips to the NLCS, the Pirates missed the playoffs, and so it began: The hope phase.

And to this day, the hope phase continues. Since 1992, the Pirates haven't finished with a winning record — an all-time record for most seasons by a professional team without finishing above the .500 mark.

Every year since 1992, in the early months of the year while the Pirates players were preparing for the new season at Spring Training, I hoped and prayed that this would be the year.

At first, my hope was for another trip to the playoffs. Then, my yearning turned to just a winning season. Despite some promising signs and short glimmers of hope, though, my Buccos haven't climbed above the half-way mark yet in 20 years.

But this year, something just feels different. There is a new excitement; a new mentality, and it's all bred by a new manager: Clint Hurdle.

Hearing the man talk, he inspires fans, and so we know he must inspire the players. He didn't promise an immediate turn-around in the win column. But he did promise us all a transformation of mentality and attitude. He expects the most of his players, and all the while, he cares for them and their needs.

And he's giving new hope to the fans of the Pirates, as well. The ones whose hearts still break at the mention of Sid Bream's name.

But that's the thing about fandom. The greatest facet of it is love: Love for one's team. I loved the Pirates as a kid, and I love them to this day. And because I love them, I have faith and hope in their future. If I didn't, I just wouldn't be a fan.

I'm not saying, "This is the year we go all the way." I'm not even certain they'll eclipse the 82-win mark and break the 20-year drought. But I do see something different about this team — the one that as of Wednesday is nine games over .500, a first since 1992.

.500? NL Central crown? World Series? Those are all questions that will be left unanswered until the end of the season. But for the first time in a long time, on the Fourth of July, my faith, my hope and my love for the Pirates are just hitting their stride.

Go get 'em Bucs.