BY PAUL HINES
MT. VERNON —
A funny thing happened in the sports world while I was on vacation a week ago.
The Pittsburgh Pirates became the best team in baseball.
The Pirates went on a tear and took the top spot away from the St. Louis Cardinals.
For cursory fans of the sport, it might just seem like innocuous mid-summer jostling between two teams. For people who remember anything about the early 1990s in baseball and what has happened to the Pirates since, it's something a bit more significant.
The Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992. But during a three-year run from 1990 to 1992 Pittsburgh won 90-plus games every season. It culminated with their 96 wins in 1992. That set the stage for one of the most memorable moments of baseball's illustrious history.
The Atlanta Braves, another 90s dynasty, clashed with the Pirates in the NLCS. The series went seven games. The Braves won in the most dramatic way possible with little-used Francisco Cabrera knocking a single that scored two-runs and winning the game. Sid Bream scored the final tally and just slide home safely past a a throw from Barry Bonds. A season later Bonds left for San Francisco. The Pirates have been terrible ever since.
Just twice since 1992 have the Pirates even threatened to complete a winning season. Pittsburgh won 79 games in 1997 and again last season.
The Pirates were in a similar situation a year ago. They appeared on their way, not only to a winning season, but also contending for a spot in the playoffs.
It could be a different story this year.
They appear to have a solid blend of offense and pitching. They have several youthful star powering the offense and took a chance on the reclamation project of A.J. Burnett. It's paid off.
For someone who has rooted for a primarily losing franchise, I'll be cheering for the Pirates this season and their quest to end the drought.
They'll be in for a tough test against the traditionally powerful Cardinals and Reds as well.
It seems like everything always goes the way of St. Louis. It did a year ago when the Pirates cracked and faded in the second-half of the year. St. Louis will be a challenge again this year.
The Cardinals are again loaded with depth and talent and going into Thursday's action sat just a game and a half on the heels of the upstart Pirates.
The All-Star game is approaching and then the season will really start to get interesting. With the NBA and NHL concluding its respective playoffs, more eyes will turn to baseball and the pressure on the Pirates will increase.
I wouldn't bet against the Cardinals, but who knows maybe the Pirates will return to some of that early 90s magic.
Paul Hines is the sports editor at the Register-News.