It started on a road trip at the end of April when the Pirates were sitting below .500 and fourth in the National League Central. Second baseman Neil Walker was flipping through the channels in the clubhouse while on the road in Atlanta. “Dude, Where’s my Car?”, a comedy from 2000, was on the TV. Having not seen the movie for a while, the guys in the clubhouse left it on.
Little did they know that a scene in the movie where they flash a “Z” for Zoltan would become a craze bonding not only the club, but the Pirates fans together in part of an incredible first half of the season.
“That Zoltan thing is special,” Manager Clint Hurdle said. “My kids were trying to get me to do it at home and I did it backwards. They blew me up.”
So what exactly is the Zoltan anyway? The “Z” symbol is flashed in the following scene of the movie which stars Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott.
“One of the originators, Rod Barajas, just one day said, that’s going to be our sign,” Josh Harrison said. “Extra base hit, RBI single, we’re going to flash it. We kind of messed around with it for a couple days and it just kind of caught on. Everybody started doing it.”
The first time the “Z” was flashed was after Barajas hit a walkoff home run at PNC Park in May. After rounding third base, Barajas’ teammates were all flashing the “Z” as Barajas flashed his own as he jumped into the pile at homeplate.
And since then, it’s been everywhere.
“It’s a thing that we all look forward to doing because it means you’ve done something to help the team,” Harrison said. “At the same time, when something happens, everyone is standing on that top step waiting for that guy to make that sign.”
“It’s funny. I think when Rod started it, I don’t think he was trying to start [a craze]. It was just something with the team and didn’t expect it to catch on and get exposure like it is. It’s kind of cool that even they’ve got shirts made up. It’s kind of taken Pittsburgh by storm.”
Not only are the players having fun with it, so are the fans. Filled in the stands at PNC Park are t-shirts and signs that flash the “Z”. Even the Pirates’ chef carved the hand symbol into a watermelon before one of their games.
“They do it all the time,” Harrison said. “When we’re coming to the stadium. If they recognize who we are, they love flashing it every time no matter where you’re at.”
“I know it’s getting a lot more play now,” Hurdle said. “I got hit with it in the grocery store. Somebody came up and gave me one. I was like, ’Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.’”
It just happens that since the craze took off, so have the Pirates. The club finished May at 25-25, and saw themselves explode in June. The Pirates entered the All-Star break at 48-37 — 11 games over .500 and in sole possession in first place in the National League Central. Giving fans something to believe in.
“I think the city is really catching onto this whole Zoltan thing,” lifelong Pirate fan Dan O’Brien said. “It’s really became the catch phrase of the team. It’s fun to see them always flash it. It gets the crowd going.”
“It just adds another reason to watch them. It’s been exciting.”
The quirky fun hand symbol that the players flash whenever the come up with a big hit isn’t the first that the Pirates skipper has been a part of. When Hurdle was the hitting coach 2010 with Texas, the Rangers had ‘claw’ and ‘antler’ hand symbols whenever they came up with clutch hits. The craze there, too, took off. They went on to win the American League Division and play in the World Series.
“We had antlers and we had paws or claws. Maybe both,” Hurdle said. “We had all kinds of stuff. I think that’s just the men taking ownership of what they’re doing and having some fun with it. In Texas, we got to a place where there were people mimicking us. If it didn’t go well, or they did well they started doing it. I’ve always been in the mindset that if you don’t like somebody doing that, get them out or knock them out of the game. Just take care of it on the field. I think you lose your focus when you get distracted with those kind of things. Our guys? They’re doing it for fun. That’s it. It’s just for fun. And they’re having a good time for it.”
“Every season’s got its own story,” Hurdle said.
For the Pirates, their story so far has been an exciting one.