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Title track: 57
Fan relations: 16
Stadium experience: 2
Bang for the buck: 8
Change from last year: +14
From the Pirates' gorgeous waterfront ballpark to their suddenly energized fan base, you could argue that the love affair between Pittsburgh and its baseball franchise is at its all-time peak. And in fact, the Pirates are the only team in our rankings to have moved up every year since 2010 -- from 82nd all the way to eighth, the top-ranked baseball team this year.
Neither the Pirates' popular roster (14th-ranked) nor affordable tickets (ninth best in sports and, at $36.99 per game, almost 12 bucks under the MLB average) would be possible if the organization hadn't mastered the art of building a team on a still-limited budget. Somehow, they've used a string of reworked and rehabbed pitchers -- Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, Mark Melancon, Joe Blanton, Joakim Soria -- to construct a staff that had one of the best ERAs in MLB. And to get to watch them in PNC Park, which received the highest stadium ranking in all of sports? Well, that's just the icing.
The Pirates may have taken a big leap in the ownership column of these standings, but they remain one of the most dollar-challenged franchises in their sport. They're still 25th out of 30 teams in baseball in payroll, and they haven't ranked higher than 18th since Barry Bonds left town in 1992. So they won't be out there chasing David Price, Zack Greinke and the parade of marquee free agents this winter. That's not their MO and never will be. Good thing that when it comes to finding value in the Jung Ho Kangs and Francisco Lirianos, no team does the bargain-shopping tour better.
Another of the Pirates' biggest leaps came in title track. Their faithful fans, after three straight playoff appearances, are finally starting to believe their team actually could make it back to the World Series for the first time in four decades. In the end, while many teams might outspend the Pirates, no one outthinks them. GM Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle (tied for 15th, up 19 spots from last year) have found ways to use data, baseball savvy and old-fashioned people skills in ways Honus Wagner, the Waner brothers and Wilver D. Stargell would barely comprehend.