CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After the season's first month or so, the Pirates began winning relentlessly and by Aug. 8 owned a 63-47 record.
The city of Pittsburgh almost took for granted that the streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons would end and conjured up glorious images of postseason play - images that theretofore had been unimaginable for a franchise steeped in two decades of failure.
"Heck, I was going out in public the first four months of the season,'' joked Steve Blass, a former Pirate pitcher and one of the team's radio and television analysts.
But in an epic collapse, the Pirates squandered their chance for both a playoff bid and a winning record, playing the season's final seven weeks at 20 games under .500 for a final 79-83 record.
The Pirates Winter Caravan made a stop Tuesday night at Charleston's Ramada Inn, during which Blass, second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and pitcher Brian Morris met with fans, signed autographs and posed for pictures.
Keynote speaker was Lanny Frattare, a former Charleston Charlies broadcaster who spent 33 years as the Pirates' play-by-play voice. Also participating was Rick Sofield, who managed the West Virginia Power last year and will work as the Pirates' first base coach in 2013.
"The early part of the season,'' said Blass, "was like a carnival. We always thought it would be like a circus if we got a team to match the ballpark because the ballpark is so great. We had 17 sellouts. The whole town got involved. I was driving to the ballpark, and kids were wearing the [Andrew] McCutchen and Walker T-shirts, so it was a lot of fun.''
"We have a great group of guys,'' said Alvarez, "and we have the best fans in baseball. It was a very good atmosphere.''
If nothing else, said Walker, maybe it was a learning experience.
"We learned to be resilient last year, especially through the tough times,'' he said. "But we know we have to play better baseball down the stretch, and we're going to get there soon. We learned a lot from 2011, and we learned a lot from this past year. There were a lot of things that happened at the end of the year. I missed almost the last month of the season [with an injury], so I wasn't able to contribute like I know I'm capable of doing. We had some guys who kind of slowed down at the end of the year, and we know they're capable of much more than they showed.''
The hitting and pitching seemed to falter simultaneously, said Blass.
"In the first four months, we were having good at-bats,'' he said. "We were making good pitches. And that stopped. Both aspects - the pitching and the hitting stopped. If the hitting had stayed hot, we could have carried the pitching. If the pitching had stayed hot, we could have carried the hitting. But both elements went down at once. It was the same way the previous year.