The late-1970s Yankees had the Bronx Zoo. In 2012, the Pirates have the 'Burgh "Z."For the most part, it is only a western Pennsylvania phenomenon. But if the Bucs streak into the postseason -- especially now that it will take a captivating stretch surge -- the "Z" could become pop culture's most prevalent hand gesture since index fingers and thumbs circled for OK. A simple hand gesture, from an utterly forgettable decade-old teen flick, has been the glue of the Bucs since late April, and all because a bored bunch of Pirates players one afternoon were browsing the DVD stack in the visiting clubhouse at Atlanta's Turner Field. There was nothing worth watching. What do you do in a situation like that? You pick the least watchable thing you come across, naturally. "Dude, Where's My Car?" sounded like a winner, in a manner of speaking. "Guys went, 'Hey, we haven't seen this in a while.' So we watched it," recalled Neil Walker, the second baseman who was the movie's target audience when it was released in 2000 -- a high school freshman. "It was just so terrible and stupid," the grown-up Walker said. Manager Clint Hurdle, drawn by the uproarious laughter filtering into his office, went out to check the source and paused five minutes in front of the set.
"OK, I'm good," Hurdle said dismissively, heading back to his office.The Pirates were virtually rolling on the floor when one of the movie's key scenes came on, the one in which leads Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott mingle with an assembly of other losers being encouraged by their leader -- Zoltan. To show their support, the cultists -- did we mentioned they are all covered by bubble wrap? -- all flash a "Z" sign: Hands facing in opposite directions, left on top, thumb-to-thumb. "That's it!" Rod Barajas exclaimed, leaping off the couch. "That's going to be our sign!" Later that night, a player got a double, pulled into second base, faced the visitors' dugout -- and flashed the "Z." A tradition was born. It's not quite the "We Are Family" Pirates, who rocked their way to the 1979 World Series title to that Sister Sledge anthem. Can these be called the "Z Are Family" Pirates? The boys tinkered around with it for several days, flashing the "Z" here and there, sometimes forgetting to do it altogether. "Then it just caught on," said the versatile Josh Harrison. "Everybody started doing it." "Everybody got on board probably within four, five games," Walker said. Z's trial run ended on the night of May 8. The Pirates were one out away from reaching a new low for the season, a 4-3 loss to Washington that would have dropped them to five games below .500 for the first time. Their last hope was Barajas, who had exactly zero RBIs in 63 at-bats as he stood in to face the Nationals' Henry Rodriguez. Barajas yanked the first pitch into the left-field seats for a 5-4 victory, and as he rounded third base, he found the whole team waiting for him around the plate, flashing the "Z." Barajas immediately responded in kind, and a team identity was forged. "But we'd been using it for a while before then," Walker said. "That was just the one that got the most play." And the one that spread throughout the Pittsburgh metropolitan area quicker than a new yummy pierogi recipe. In no time, T-shirts (Z-shirts?) with the symbol popped up in vendors' carts and on fans' backs, fans young and old started flashing it to each other. Transplanted Pittsburghers became "Z" missionaries, flashing it around the country. "Z" became a form of greeting. "That's how it works," noted Walker, not surprised by how quickly and pervasively "Z" went off the field. "That's how society works now. Like the Tim Tebow thing last year ... people, when things are going good, will jump on board." "I got hit with it in the grocery store," Hurdle said with a broad laugh weeks ago. "Somebody came up and gave me one. I was like, 'Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.' It's special -- my kids were trying to get me to do it at home, and I did it backwards. They got all over me." The rules (rules?) are simple. Get an extra-base hit, or any hit that scores run, and you exchange a "Z" with the guys on the bench. The night Drew Sutton joined the Pirates, on June 26, no one remembered to clue him in. In the seventh inning of that night's game in Philadelphia, Sutton drilled a pinch-hit RBI double and when he reached second, turned toward the dugout to see all these men giving him this weird gesture -- the puzzled look on Sutton's face truly was priceless. As was the reaction of Hal Sparks to being invited to deliver the ceremonial first pitch before a game at PNC Park. He is the actor who portrayed Zoltan. "I can think of no better reason to like a team, than for picking up a hand gesture in a movie like this -- it's absurd," Sparks said. "But it's awesome." A couple of years ago, the American League champion Rangers -- with Hurdle as their hitting coach -- had the "Claw" and the "Antler," shapes formed by hitters' hands after a key hit. Only last year, the National League Central champion Brewers went into "Beast Mode," inspired by a character in a movie favorite of Prince Fielder's young boys, "Monsters, Inc." Still, "Z" could be the wackiest -- and the most ironic. In the key "Dude, Where's My Car?" scene, Zoltan psychs up his followers for the arrival of an overdue intergalactic savior by taunting, "We are finally going to fulfill our prophecy. They laughed at us. And they mocked us. But who's laughing now? I'll tell you who's laughing now. We are!" All kidding aside, did those words resonate with a group of Pirates intent on ending 19 consecutive seasons of losing? Is that why they adopted the "Z"? "No, no, no, no," Walker, laughing, said, and we might have lost count of the Nos. "That had nothing to do with it. It had nothing to do with the actual movie itself. It was more on the line of just something silly and stupid. Something that would be fun to do together, because we all got the inside joke. Which is: It's just a stupid movie and we are all sitting there watching it."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.