Connection between Pirates, fan base runs deep
Bucs excel in every aspect to turn long-awaited playoff appearance into a celebration
PITTSBURGH -- The waiting was replaced Tuesday night by celebration. And the celebration was vibrant, loud, justified and genuine.
The devoted fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates were forced to wait 21 years between postseason appearances. When the drought ended Tuesday night, Pittsburgh fans were rewarded with jubilation, a night of joyful noise and a 6-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Wild Card Game.
And so, they all lived happily ever after. Or at least until the Bucs have to start playing the Cardinals.
But a story with as much trial and tribulation as that of the Pirates over the last two decades deserves a large portion of elation. The Bucs and their loyal fans got that Tuesday night.
When the Pirates defeated the Reds, the outcome earned Pittsburgh the right to advance to an NL Division Series against St. Louis, beginning Thursday at Busch Stadium (5 p.m. ET on TBS).
PNC Park, Major League Baseball's most beautiful locale, also became the most joyful place in baseball on Tuesday night. The previously long-suffering Pirates fans were treated to a splendid pitching performance by Francisco Liriano, who must be the NL's Comeback Player of the Year.
The home team hit three home runs, two from Russell Martin, one from Marlon Byrd. It was beyond coincidence that these are two of the exceptionally astute acquisitions made by the Pirates.
PNC Park was rocking, it was rolling and there was a sense that all 40,487 fans, the largest paid attendance in the history of this ballpark, were turning a baseball game into a celebration. And that was just during the pregame introductions of the Bucs players.
When Pittsburgh started winning the Wild Card Game, the place became considerably more excited.
You have to give these citizens full credit. They had been waiting a considerable length of time for this moment and they weren't holding back with the decibel level. There aren't any outdoor ballparks that get any louder than this one was. In fact, it is likely that most indoor stadiums don't get any louder than this.
"If our city ever thinks they don't make a difference, all they have to do is watch the tape from tonight's game," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said.
There was a moment of quiet in the fourth inning when, with the Pirates up, 3-1, the Reds had two on with Todd Frazier at the plate. Frazier hit a long drive down the left-field line, and PNC Park went silent. The ball would be far enough, but would it be foul enough? The ball finally hooked just foul. Pittsburgh took a deep relaxing breath.
"It's a different ballgame if Frazier's ball stays fair," Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker said.
True, but the ball didn't stay fair and so the ballgame wasn't different.
What was the ballgame? The game, the time, the waiting, all seemed to demand something special from the Pirates. And they delivered. They excelled in every aspect of the game, in the biggest game this franchise had seen since 1992.
"We didn't talk about an elimination game, we talked about 'one and run,'" Hurdle said. "One and run to St. Louis. And then in the meeting we had, we talked about what we had to do to win the game. It was all about winning the game."
Pitching, defense, offense -- it was all there for these Pirates.
"We covered all the things you need to do to meet the demands of the game," Hurdle said.
You get a nice symbiotic relationship between a team and a city at a time like this. The citizens are grateful for winning, exciting baseball. The team is bolstered by the increasingly enthusiastic support of the fans.
And here, Hurdle does what he can to further the connection.
"We're a perfect snapshot of our city," the manager said. "We're resilient. We're gritty. We're not perfect. If we get knocked down, we're going to get up. If we get knocked down again, we're going to get up again. We're going to continue to fight for what we believe in."
Every Rust Belt city would warm to that description of itself. And while it is true that the current ownership, management and roster of the Pirates are not responsible for the two decades of losing seasons, it helps when the current Bucs recognize what occurred.
"The heart is the most wonderful muscle that God has put in our body, and we've twisted yours for 21 years," Hurdle told a gathering of fans at a rally. "But to show the strength of it, what are you feeling today?"
From the sound of it Tuesday night, Pittsburgh is feeling like everybody in town just won the lottery. The Pirates are once again winners, and a deserving fan base is with them every triumphant step of the way.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.