Baseball returned to Bradenton on Wednesday with the first spring training workout for Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers and catchers at Pirate City.
That return usually brings optimism for the season ahead. But reaction from Pirates fans offered a different feel.
“I think they’re going to lose close to 100 games,” said 40-year-old Kevin Popovich, a lifelong Pirates fan from Beaver Falls, Pa., who made the trek to Bradenton for spring training for a fifth time.
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Pittsburgh traded pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros in January, then dealt franchise cornerstone Andrew McCutchen two days later to the San Francisco Giants.
The latter move was especially gut-wrenching for Pirates fans.
I think they're going to lose close to 100 games.
Lifelong Pittsburgh Pirates fan Kevin Popovich
“He (was) the face of the Pirates,” said Kristine Strickler, who is also from Beaver Falls and was with Popovich on Wednesday to catch the action.
McCutchen was a fan favorite to many. The bond he had with the Steel City was immeasurable. Cutch even named his son, Steel, during the offseason.
“The only (home) game we will go to (in the regular season) will be a Giants game,” Popovich said. “We’re not supporting (Pirates owner) Bob Nutting’s pocketbook. We’re going to go pay respect to Andrew McCutchen for what he did.”
There’s a petition on Change.org seeking Major League Baseball to force Nutting to sell the team. It had more than 60,000 signatures as of Wednesday.
Al Dawson, who is a former Pittsburgh Pirates Booster Club president, said there’s a decrease in spring training season tickets sold this season for games at LECOM Park.
The fan base souring on Pittsburgh’s chances to contend this season was also indicative of how many fans arrived to Pirate City to see the first workout.
There were a smattering of fans watching the action compared to the past few years when Pittsburgh commanded more attention based off a winning product that yielded three consecutive playoff berths from 2013-15 after so many seasons as one of baseball’s doormats.
Fans lining the roped off area separating a walkway for players and coaches to walk between two of the complex’s four fields was always a hot spot to see bullpen action.
On Wednesday, there weren’t as many fans lining that area.
“I was expecting to have to walk for a long ways to park my car and walk,” Bradenton resident Jack Steele said. “But I pulled right up there and boom.”
Steele is a longtime season-ticket holder for Pirates spring training.
He’s also a diehard baseball fan – his grandfather, Fred “Jack” Steele Sr., played professional baseball from 1897-1914 for various non-major league clubs, he said.
“It’s in our blood,” Steele said.
Pittsburgh’s chances this season? Steele said it’s grim on paper, but you have to go out and play the game.
“It’s almost like Opening Day to the season,” said Steele, a retired United States Air Force colonel, about Wednesday’s first workout. “You’ve got to be there. It’s celebratory and a fun atmosphere. It’s good to be here.”
Most Pirates fans aren’t as optimistic as Steele, but spring training’s opening act has a way of creating belief ... to some.