Today, the Pittsburgh Pirates sit atop the National League Central and on the home page of ESPN.com. Nope, there is no punch line.

The Bucs haven’t been on top of their division this late in the season since 1992. 

That’s the same year the first nicotine patch was invented, Bill Clinton was gearing up for a presidential campaign and AT&T had just released a “video telephone” that cost $1,499.

Joel Hanrahan, the Pirates All-Star closer, was an 11-year-old little league phenom. 

The 18 years that followed that season have been 18 of the most miserable years for any franchise in the history of sports. In all that time, the Pirates couldn’t manage a single winning season. But now, there seems to have been a rebirth.

After a 2-0 win against the Reds last night, the Pirates are now 50-44, and with every gritty, exciting win they become more and more believable. 

Of course, by now, you’ve heard about the Bucs relentless battle with the .500 landmark. But people are moving past that, people’s hopes are getting higher — .500 isn’t the goal anymore.  The playoffs are.

For a team whose offense has been in the bottom of the league all year, Pittsburgh is still finding a way to make wins happen. The guys making the money aren’t even producing. Catchers Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit, who occupy a quarter of the measly $45 million dollar payroll, have fewer than 200 at-bats between them. 

Yet they find wins, and they do it through good pitching and strong defense.

They’re 10th in the majors in Baseball Prospectus’ team defensive efficiency listings, where they ranked 30th last year. They’re seven wins away from equaling their 2010 win total. Errors are down, and attendance is up. 

The numbers in the crowd prove they’re not just doing the little things right, but that fans are noticing.

In fact, this season, the attendance is up 3,600 per game. They’ve been smashing single-game attendance records for every big series so far this season, and people are actually wearing their Pirates gear around town. 

Whether you believe they’re going to hold onto the division or not is irrelevant, it’s time to start respecting them as a legitimate threat.

Just ask Reds second basemen Brandon Phillips.
 

"The Pirates, they’ve just had our number all year," Phillips said to Pirates.com. "They’re a good team. They’re for real. And they’re doing the small things. They’re doing things that we’re not doing."

 

 Now, though, the real battle begins. The Pirates are about to kick off the “varsity” portion of their schedule, where they play the big-time teams with the big-time players.

Their next 12 games are against the Reds, Cardinals, Phillies, and Braves. The four teams combined have a .558 winning percentage. So, if we’re going to find out whether these guys are for real or not, we’re going to find out soon.

General Manager Neal Huntington is keeping his head on his shoulders and trying his best to keep the organization focused. He’s made it very clear he won’t settle for any kind of “quick fix” or one and done season.

“We don’t want to mortgage the future to make a desperate run in 2011,” Huntington said to ESPN.com. “We have to be smart and make logical, rational decisions. That’s boring, and fans don’t like that, and I understand that. But for us to be successful, we have to remove as much emotion from the process as we can." 

For now, it’s a blessing that the Bucs have a stronger thinker at the helm. Only time will tell if his patience and the roster’s resiliency can keep them at the top.