COMMENTARY | Pittsburgh Pirates fans have long suffered since Sid Bream safely slid into home plate, sealing the Pirates' fate in Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship series against the Atlanta Braves.
What followed has been 20 years of futility the likes of which baseball, or any other North American professional sports league, has never seen before.
That futility includes eight 90-loss seasons, two 100-loss seasons and a string of managers less impressive than the last.
The Pirates still haven't broken the infamous streak of consecutive losing seasons, even after two epic collapses the past two seasons. Pirates fans have been hearing the same spin from team owners and management for decades: The future is now.
Here are three reasons why it's time to start believing that:
The Pirates' pitching staff finished with a 3.86 ERA last year, only the second time in the last 20 years the staff has finished with a sub-4.00 earned run average. The staff also finished with a 7.48 strikeouts per nine-innings ratio, the highest mark since 1969.
The bad news is that the Pirates' average age on the pitching staff was 30. Not surprising with aged veterans like A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and Kevin Correia tossing the ball. The average age was the highest it's been since 1962.
The good news is that the team has an impending infusion of youth in Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. While the latter almost certainly won't impact the major-league ballclub this year, the same can't be said for Cole.
The 22-year-old former No. 1 draft pick lit up the minors last year, posting a 2.55 ERA in 67 games for High-A Bradenton. That success continued in Double-A Altoona, where he allowed a 2.90 ERA in 59 innings. And while it's an incredibly small sample size, Cole struck out seven batters during his only start at Triple-A Indianapolis.
It's always a risky bet to rely on prospects for optimism. But Cole has already shown he could be the real deal for a Pirates team desperate for young arms.
Gone are the days when nobody outside of Pittsburgh knew the name of Andrew McCutchen. The star center fielder nearly won the National League batting title last year and finished with a .327 batting average.
The same can be said of third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who belted 30 home runs and drove in 85 runs last season. With a stranglehold on the starting job, it isn't unreasonable to expect a 100-plus RBI season hitting in the middle of the lineup.
Unfortunately, there isn't much to be proud of after that. But that could change with the emergence of several young bats this year.
The first is Starling Marte, who struggled at times last year but has speed that cannot be overlooked. Serving as the likely leadoff hitter in Clint Hurdle's opening-day lineup, Marte will get the chance to raise his OPS and stolen-base numbers during his first full season in the big leagues.
Another is Gaby Sanchez, an All-Star in 2011 whom the Pirates acquired last year via trade. Although he posted less-than-spectacular numbers last year during a timeshare at first base, Sanchez is hitting .320 in spring training with three home runs in 12 games. He is expected to still cede time to Garrett Jones at first base, but Sanchez's power could bring a huge boost to a lineup lacking in the long ball.
However, Sanchez isn't getting any younger. The 29-year-old might realize his time in the majors could be limited if he doesn't start producing.
If not now, when?
Pirates fans are at the end of the line, especially in a rabid sports town with successful franchises in other professional sports. But fans have indicated their willingness to support the team if it puts a competitive product on the diamond.
PNC Park welcomed 2 million fans into its confines last year, the second-highest mark since 1992. The only higher mark was in 2001 when more than 2.4 million fans flocked in for PNC Park's inaugural season, according to the Baseball Almanac.
But that doesn't mean a fan base starved for winning baseball will continue to support the club or its owners. Despite setting high attendance marks both last season and in 2011, the Pirates still ranked 15th out of the 16 teams in the National League both years. In fact, you'd have to go back to 2003 to find the last time the Pirates didn't finish last, or second-to-last, in National League attendance.
Then came last year's ticket-price hike. Team owner Bob Nutting linked the price increase to the need for a bigger payroll. For now, he seems true to his word: The team's $70 million payroll last year easily eclipsed the $45 million mark set in 2011, according to Baseball Reference.
But the fans won't wait forever. If young pitching talent like Cole and Taillon go the way of so many other draft picks (e.g. Bryan Bullington), the fan base could easily deteriorate.
Jared Stonesifer has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates for MLB.com on a freelance basis since 2010. He lives in Pittsburgh.