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Being a Pirates fan means more than believing in what you haven't seen. It also means disbelieving what your eyes are telling you.

"It's the same thing every year," says David Gilson, a junior at Duquesne University. "They look all right in spring training ... and then come May, we're already like 10 games back."

But Gilson and others like him have stuck with the Buccos, even as the team readies itself to break the record for most consecutive losing seasons in professional sports history.

So why would someone willingly board a sinking ship?

"Certain people are stuck in the hope that things can change," says Richard Lustberg, a psychologist and blogger at psychologyofsports.blog.com. For others, backing a team "gives them an identity."

In the case of a perennial loser like the Pirates, he adds, being a fan "becomes a hokey identity: 'I'm a lovable loser.'"

"I never remember them being good," concedes Gilson, who wasn't even in grade school when the team had its last winning season. But he still plans to go to about 10 games this year, including the home opener, on April 13.

"Some people just already admit that they're bad," Gilson says. "I like them to prove that they're bad."

In the former camp is Gilson's father, who watched the Pirates in their glory days and refuses to buy tickets anymore. "He's kind of numb to it," says Gilson. "He says it's a shame for me."

Gilson says that he can understand why "a lot of people are sick of hearing 'rebuilding.'" But some recent developments have given him hope.

The Pirates are opening a $5 million training facility in the Dominican Republic this summer, for example, and Gilson says they've made improvements in their drafting strategy. With "every spring comes new optimism," he says.

Not for everyone. Back in 2007, a group called Pirates Fans for Change staged a walkout during a June game at PNC Park. And resentment festers.

Adam King, president of the seven-member Boycott 2009 Pittsburgh Pirates Facebook group, says he's sick of watching a franchise that is "going on 17 consecutive losing seasons and not even trying to put a winning team on the field."

King, 20, says the ownership of the Pirates would rather make money -- by skimping on talent -- than put together a real team. And on top of that, "They've traded away key players and signed [pitcher] Matt Morris, which is a joke," he says.

The punch line: In 2008, after Morris became the highest-paid player in franchise history, he went 0-4 with a 9.67 ERA in five games, before being released.

"There's a chance that I'd come back as a fan if they actually put a team together," King says. But he doesn't see that happening.

For King, the Pirates are still operating in business-as-usual mode, not even looking at high-priced, high-powered free agents.

"During the off-season, I would have at least made an offer to Manny [Ramirez] or Pedro [Martinez], who were out there," he says.

King has no illusions that his Facebook group will effect real change, or even that it will convince many others to stop going out to the park. "People are like sheep and they just follow the flock," he says.

But even King hasn't completely extinguished the flame of enthusiasm, however faint.

"At the end of the season, if they end up with an above-.500 record, I'd be completely happy," King says. "It'd be like them winning the World Series to me."

At least some diehards would welcome him back. "I wouldn't be too resentful because I'd feel happy for myself that I stood by them for so many years," says Aaron Thompson.

Thompson, a student at Waynesburg University, is the administrator for the Facebook yin to King's yang -- 2009 Pittsburgh Baseball: I believe.

"Ultimately," he says, having a winning season "isn't the goal that I want for my team. You don't want to win half your games. You want to be a champion."

But he tempers his ambition with an honest assessment of where the Pirates stand.

"With this new management group, I've seen some things that I've liked," Thompson says. But, he adds, while "I don't think we'll see significant improvement this year," that hasn't stopped him from purchasing a 10-ticket bundle. Nor does it keep him from following players in the farm system in addition to those on the field.

"The people that are fans now," he says, "the majority are going to be hardcore fans."

Which is why there can be a communication gap between the Pirates faithful and everyone else. Thompson says he has a Red Sox-fan friend, for example, who often asks why he still puts up with the Pirates after 16 years.

"I tell my friend, 'I consider it one year,'" Thompson says. Current management like "Neil Huntington, Frank Coonelly, John Russell -- they've been with the Pirates one season. These guys had nothing to do with all that" history.

But even if they give him another 16 years of losing, he says, "I've been a Pirates fan, so I'm not going to switch."

Which is a good thing for the team. For obvious reasons, new fans won't be clamoring to fill Thompson's seat. And generating new fans isn't like it used to be, says Lustberg, the psychologist.

Kids can follow practically any team they want online or on cable. Jerseys are sold coast to coast. "Team identification now has changed dramatically from when I was a kid," he says.

On top of that, "In recent history, [Pittsburgh's] been a football city, not a baseball city," he says. "And for good reason: The Steelers win."

Fans old enough to remember know that the Pirates' skid began in an ominous fashion. In 1992 -- the team's last winning season -- the Pirates made it to the National League Championship Series to face the Atlanta Braves.

In Game 7, the Pirates had the Braves on the ropes, taking a 2-0 lead into the ninth. But Atlanta rallied and scored three in the bottom of the inning. The season ended with Barry Bonds failing to throw out Sid Bream at home plate.

"That was probably the most tragic day in sports in Pittsburgh," says Brennen Weidl. Weidl, 30, lives in New York, but grew up in Mount Lebanon and still comes back for games. "I was speechless for two hours."

It's been a sour 16 years since. But for Weidl, who has stood by the Pirates through thin and thinner, the long drought will only make it that much sweeter when the Pirates do turn it around.

"I can't wait to see how many people jump on the bandwagon," Weidl says. "I'm just gonna be like, 'You're not a true Pittsburgher.' You've got to be faithful to your city."

Even if displaying your faith means going a little nuts.

Such would be the case with Weidl's friend known as "The Hamburglar," a nickname given to him because, Weidl recalls, "He wore a Hamburglar costume to a Pirates game. It was a big hit."

And what about those days when not even an unofficial, unlicensed, unrelated McDonald's mascot can lift your spirits?

"That's why they made Iron City," Weidl advises. "That's what Iron City's for. ... When the Pirates lose 9-0, that's ridiculous."

click to enlarge Loyalist David Gilson - HEATHER MULL

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