Pirates making Pittsburgh a baseball town again

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – They booed in the first inning of the last home game of the season. It wasn't clear if fans here were booing Cincinnati's Brandon Phillips, the Reds as a whole, or Pirates' starting pitcher Jeff Locke, who gave up five runs. But it was a boo-off first at PNC Park.

Ten hours later, there was mostly silence down the street at Heinz Field. The Steelers had lost their third straight game and the colossal complex was filled with yellow seats and delirious Bears fans. The visitors cheered their quarterback, Jay Cutler, as he ran off the field victorious. It was a strange moment; Pittsburgh felt pillaged.

On Sunday, for the first time since 2004, the Pirates and Steelers both played on the same day here. Both teams lost badly. Yet the sounds of displeasure were markedly different in each stadium. The hush over Heinz felt like resignation. The petulance at PNC felt like a fresh wound.

The last time baseball mattered this much in late September, Jim Leyland was 47 and Merrill Hoge was the city's beloved starting fullback. (Brett Favre was in his first year with the Packers and Derek Jeter was in rookie ball.) Since then it's been all Steelers with some Penguins on the side. Now the Pirates are headed to the playoffs and the Steelers look lost. This town is upside down.

"Everything's about the Pirates right now," said Tony Latore, standing outside the stadium early Sunday with a stuffed parrot on his head. "It's been 20 years. We've been waiting so long. The Steelers are taking a backseat. They're 0-2, gonna go 0-3."

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People born here in the last two decades, or new to the city, aren't used to the talk of magic numbers any more than they're used to the Browns having a better record than the Steelers. For the true Pirates fans, though, there's been a magic number since spring training. And that magic number is 21.

That's how many years it's been since the Pirates finished with a winning record and made the playoffs, and that's also the number of the most beloved Pirate ever to wear the uniform: Roberto Clemente. So there's been a subtle feeling all season that the Pirates would not, should not, cannot fail again in 2013.

"We're so happy the guys are doing well, and at least making sure the No. 21 is not connected to a negative record," said Roberto Clemente Jr., who was in town for the weekend to promote his family's new book and to see his father's team. Clemente Jr. who now lives in Houston, asked manager Clint Hurdle at the beginning of the year to make the 21st year different. The skipper gave him a wink.

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And, for the first time since 1992, the Pirates have broken the .500 mark this season. They are finally winners. "You've got a whole new generation of fans," Hurdle said after Sunday's loss. "And we've removed some of the angst from the old ones."

Ah, the angst. As nice as the idea of removing the angst sounds, this is Pittsburgh. So the angst is never far. The angst is a strange blessing mixed in with the euphoria. New fans can't wait for triumph. Older fans, well … Sid Bream.

For example: Wes Edmunds, 21, stood in the sunshine Sunday and proclaimed, "My favorite Pirates memory is right now. Today might be my favorite memory. Winning the World Series will be my favorite memory, next month."

Then there's the 60-year-old fan who wouldn't give his name but did predict a collapse: "They're taking something magical," he said, "and screwing it up!"

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This mix of emotions shows up in the clubhouse as well. Yeah it's great that more than 2.2 million fans showed up for 80 home dates this year – second-most in team history. No, it's not all that satisfying when a division title starts to slip away and the rival Reds come in and steal two games of three. Pitcher A.J. Burnett should want to talk about how he was ridiculed for choosing Pittsburgh over Los Angeles, only to become a stalwart on a playoff-bound team while the Angels foundered. But he declined an interview before Sunday's game, and again after.

So on the one hand, there's pitcher Jeff Kastens, here since '08, who remembers when it was so bad that "you could hear the TVs over the fans." He chose to re-sign here because he just knew this would be a special season, and even though he's been out because of shoulder surgery, he says watching the Pirates from the sidelines has been "like medicine" for his ailing arm.

"Why go anywhere else?" Kastens says. "This is the only place I want to be."

Then there's Locke, who faced those boos in the first inning and then faced reporters with a glazed look in his eye. Three years ago, he might not have had any questions at all after a late-season loss. Now he's dealing with camera lights in his face and reporters trampling around his stuff. "Maybe if you give them something to cheer about," he said wearily, "they'd cheer instead of boo." Moments later, he gave a clubhouse attendant a big hug. "Hope to see you next week," he said, no doubt realizing this could be goodbye for the winter.

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What's been lost all these years isn't just the winning; it's the fretting. It's the chilly weeks when every inning counts. It's the divide between those who believe and those who don't want to have their souls crushed. Disappointment in April and May is one thing; disappointment on Sept. 22 is quite another.

Pirates fans are getting reacquainted with the feelings of Steelers fans. Yes there were the Super Bowls, but there were also the long nights when so many wondered if Bill Cowher really knew what he was doing. Yes there was the sixth-seed upset of the Colts, but there was also a playoff loss here to the Jets.

"We've been spoiled with the Steelers," said Todd Bellinger, 36. "We already have two."

They actually have six. For this generation, the stories of the Chuck Noll years are often told second-hand. And the stories of the Pirates' dominance are told even less frequently. Clemente, tragically gone too long to be remembered by young fans, actually came relatively late in the long list of Pirates icons. This is the team of Bill Mazeroski, and Honus Wagner, and Pie Traynor. That's what's best about what's starting to happen now: It's not a new order; it's an old order being restored. The Pirates, like the Steelers, are one of the winningest franchises in America.

"This was always a baseball town," says MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen. "It was a baseball city before it was a football city. We can make it apparent this is a city of champions, if we do our part."

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After Sunday's loss, the Pirates put on football jerseys as part of a theme trip to Chicago. Later that night, the Steelers took off their football jerseys and returned to their homes to ready for a trip to London to play the Vikings. For fans of both teams, there is a sense of dread. The fear for the 0-3 Steelers is a lost year. The fear for the Pirates, however, feels more urgent. Even though there are so many more games in their season, every single first pitch this week brings the possibility of history, relief and the chance for more hope or heartbreak. Neil Walker, who grew up 15 miles north of here and now plays for the Pirates, looked ahead to the Steelers game Sunday night and the week ahead for his own team. He laughed at the realization: His team's games might just be bigger than the football team's game.

"It's pretty close," he said. "It might be up there. This might be just as impactful."

It's almost October, and the Pirates matter. They just might matter most of all.

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