PITTSBURGH -- There was to be a gathering of more than two dozen men wearing Pittsburgh Penguins jerseys Thursday night.
Not unexpected for a May evening on the eve of a day in which the Penguins can advance to the Eastern Conference Finals with a victory, right?
Except that this wasn't in Pittsburgh -- and it wasn't just Western Pennsylvania fans donning Penguins sweaters.
It was in, of all places, Milwaukee. And it was coming from a group of Major League Baseball players.
When the Pittsburgh Pirates left for a five-game road trip after playing the Chicago Cubs at home Thursday, they planned on doing so wearing Penguins jerseys.
"We're all in," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, adding that he has stayed up later than he should have in recent weeks because he's been captivated by the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"It's hard to beat playoff hockey... It's a wonderful time of the year, and our team's in it."
Hurdle said he and many of the Pirates players have made friends with Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and several Penguins players. It's not an uncommon sight to spot a Pirates player at Consol Energy Center for a game. Likewise, Penguins have been known to take in a ballgame at PNC Park.
When wing James Neal came to the podium to speak with the media during a day off from practice Thursday, he reported that the Pirates' afternoon game against the Cubs going on across town was what was on the Penguins' dressing room television.
"It's pretty cool -- that was the first thing I definitely noticed when I got to Pittsburgh was how big of a sports town it is, how much they love sports here, and it goes for us," Neal said.
"It's pretty cool and funny to see those guy wearing Pens jerseys. But in our position we'd do the same thing for them."
Wing Matt Cooke said he received a picture text Thursday morning of Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez wearing one of his jerseys (they each wear No. 24 -- many of the Pirates with uniform-number equivalents on the Penguins doubled up similarly).
"I think it's a really cool thing," Cooke said. "I've always said, especially in a city with the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins, you want everyone to enjoy in the fruits of the fans and winning and what this town -- this city -- is really all about.
"It's just a neat thing to see, and I think in the fall when we're back here we'll be wearing the Pirates jerseys."
One Pirates player is a native of the Pittsburgh area, second baseman Neil Walker. Another, catcher Russell Martin, is from Canada. Walker has always been a big Penguins fan and Martin has always closely followed the NHL.
The ties for some of the others to hockey in general or the Penguins in particular might not be as strong. But as Hurdle put it, those in the Pirates clubhouse who are Penguins fans "draw the others in [so] they don't have a choice."
Pirates infielder Brandon Inge took the opportunity to watch the Penguins wrap up their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series in person May 11. The Pirates won a game in Queens against the New York Mets that afternoon -- Inge made his way to Long Island to see the Penguins win Game 6 against the New York Islanders, 5-4, in overtime that night.
The Pirates clubhouse has some new additions this season: a hockey net, several hockey sticks and balls. Thursday morning before the game against the Cubs, Inge dressed in full hockey gear (helmet, rollerblades, Mario Lemieux jersey).
Bylsma joked that he and his staff discussed requiring the loser of the Penguins' monthly shootout contest -- usually reserved as the team's "mustache boy" for the next month -- to don a full Pirates uniform and baseball gear for a period of time instead.
In a town with the rich sports history of Pittsburgh, the melding of the team's loyalties has seen many manifestations in recent years. On the eve of the 2009 Super Bowl the Steelers would end up winning, Marc-Andre Fleury wore a Steelers helmet and waved a Terrible Towel when he came out onto the ice for the announcement of him as the No. 1 star.
Several Steelers players and coach Mike Tomlin regularly are seen at Penguins games. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby once took batting practice at PNC Park -- the same field the Penguins, en masse, were honored on two days after claiming the Stanley Cup in 2009. That afternoon, baseball fans roared at the sight of Crosby holding the Cup.
Only the Detroit Red Wings have won the Stanley Cup more times than the three championships the Penguins have taken since 1991. That fits right in in a city with the team that has the most Super Bowl titles (the Steelers' six) in addition to the Pirates' five World Series championships.
Although the Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992, they are among the hottest teams in Major League Baseball. Off to their best start since 1991, the Pirates left for Milwaukee on Thursday tied for the second-best record in the National League.
That prompted Bylsma to say he would love to return the favor to a new group of fans who are proudly displaying allegiance for the Penguins in the form of wearing their jerseys while on the road this weekend.
"We love the support and thought it was awesome," Bylsma said.
"Guys were jacked up about the Pirates wearing the Penguins jerseys, and I think you could definitely see a reciprocation when the Pirates are in their postseason run later this year."
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