Optimistic start at gate for Pirates

Clint Hurdle smiled and accepted best wishes as if he was a politician. He had a pen in one hand, and waved with the other.

It was Opening Day in Pittsburgh, and the Pirates new manager was starting to lay a new foundation with the fan base. With each new autograph he signed, it seemed as if it was another step toward a better relationship between the two parties.

The Pirates may have one of the true beauties in baseball — PNC Park — to call home, but it's long been a struggle to keep fans coming back to the facility. Of course, when you've had 18 consecutive losing seasons, it makes things difficult.

But, with Hurdle and a mix of promising prospects and veterans in uniform, change may be on the horizon. And if the opening four-game series with the Colorado Rockies is any indication, the Pirates are on their way.

Pittsburgh drew an announced total of 111,852 fans vs. the Rockies, despite the fact that the Pirates won only one of the games. You can, of course, understand the figure of 39,219 on Opening Day. But the series maintained its pop the rest of the way, drawing 29,192, 25,398 and 18,043 to close it out.

Through four home games last season, when the Pirates had the worst record in baseball (57-105), they had drawn just 94,195, 17,657 fans less than this year.

"We're starting to get more comfortable, definitely. Last year, as a group, we weren't together for too long," outfielder Jose Tabata said. "Now, we have a full year ahead with this particular group, and it will come together for us. I think the fans see that in us."

Granted, there are still more jerseys in the stands of past Pirates greats — Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Barry Bonds, among them — than the current group, which is 5-5. But, perhaps, the important thing is that there are jerseys in the stands, period.

"The fans have been awesome," first baseman Lyle Overbay said. "When you come out, before a game, and you hear them going through their chants, it's really great to see."

Overbay signed with the Pirates this offseason and brings a veteran presence to the club. Plus, having already played in Arizona, Milwaukee and Toronto, he's no stranger to the economics of baseball in smaller markets.

"One thing you can say about these fans in Pittsburgh, at any time, is that they know baseball," Overbay said. "You can tell that right away. They know the game, and they know how they want us to play."

This week will present a test. The Pirates will welcome the Milwaukee Brewers for a three-game set beginning on Tuesday. But across town, the Penguins will begin their first-round NHL playoff series vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday. And with or without injured star forward Sidney Crosby, the Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup just two seasons ago, will always be an attention-grabber in Pittsburgh.

So, their work is cut out for them. But what's important for the Pirates, in the early going, is that things do seem like they may be changing. And they do have something to build off.

Of course, Opening Weekend was not without incident. On Saturday, during the Pirates' 6-4 loss, Pittsburgh police had to use a stun gun and batons on an unruly fan. Authorities said 41-year-old Scott James Ashley, of Friendship, Pa., was being escorted from his seat when he threatened another man. A video of the incident was posted on YouTube.

Last year's average attendance at PNC Park was 19,919. And as always, things began to dip toward the end of the season, when the Steelers pick up, and school begins. The Pirates will have to deal with that again this season, clearly. But for now, they have to be pleased with the average mark of 27,963. Through two weeks of the season, they actually rank 20th in attendance out of the 30 major league teams.

Last year, they finished 27th, and in 2009, they ranked 28th.

"It will always come back to the way we're playing," Overbay said. "We want to give them something they can take hold of, and be proud of, and we really feel like we have the group that can go out and do that."