2013 Pittsburghers of the Year: Pittsburgh Pirates

After decades of pent-up emotion and anticipation, the city’s baseball team wins back
 the hearts of ‘a lost generation of fans.’




Photos by Dave Arrigo, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Pirates
 

 

They came early to Federal Street on that mild autumn evening. They came wearing the retired numbers of yesterday — of the Puerto Rican hero who fell into the sea and of the Teddy-bear team captain named Willie who hit the ball so far for so long. They came wearing the numbers of today — of the dreadlocked centerfielder and the homer-happy third baseman and the compact, intrepid catcher whose name many of them didn’t know only a year earlier.

At once nostalgic and hopeful, they came to the ballfield erected alongside the ballfield it replaced, a few yards downriver from the earliest Pittsburgh ballfield of all. They came wearing black, with accents of gold, clutching outsized beers and wielding flags with grinning skulls stamped upon them. By the thousands they came, these Pittsburghers both tiny and towering, the longtime faithful and new disciples, to witness a spectacle some had nearly forgotten and some had only heard about.

They came not for the Steelers or the Penguins, those frequent victors, but for something else entirely — something older and more elemental.

Across bridges, over water, by air and on clogged highway exit ramps, they streamed in on a single-minded mission: to gaze upon a baseball game that by virtue of its very existence — never mind what the result might be — wiped away hundreds of other ballgames now best forgotten.

After 20 silent autumns that followed 20 meek, disappointing summers, on that first night of October in 2013 they came, finally, to see a winner.

We know, now, how this story ends. We know about the 40,487 people who broke the attendance record and shook PNC Park to its core, who blacked it out with their shirts, who shouted a Cincinnati Reds’ pitcher’s name until he dropped the ball, departed the mound dejectedly and later insisted it had nothing to do with his uneven performance. We know of the men and women in black who, lacking tickets, clustered on the Clemente Bridge just to be part of it. We know of the trajectory that night’s Wild Card victory created, the one that propelled the Pittsburgh Pirates into a serious run against the St. Louis Cardinals during a five-game National League Division Series. We know it went no further. And we know that Pittsburgh coasted into the cold-weather months with a warm, welcome and unfamiliar feeling — the kind that allowed the perennial baseball-fan statement of “Wait ’til next year” to become a cry of eager anticipation rather than a sullen question mark.

Looking back, we know, too, that the afternoon and evening of the Wild Card game were even more special than we realized in the moment. Fans say it. The team’s general manager, president and principal owner all say it. The field manager, a bubblegum-chomping wise man named Clint Hurdle, says it. And player after Pirates player says it. Here’s one: “That’s the game I’m going to think of for the rest of my career . . . Those fans, they took those 20 years and they put all that emotion into one game.”

That would be Andrew McCutchen. You might have heard of him. Determination, quiet elegance, million-dollar smile out in center field. His own man, with a mien that resists comparisons. In November, he became the Most Valuable Player of the National League.

 


 

The Drought: Twenty years of pent-up emotion. And, let’s be fair, 20 years of frustration. Some turned their backs. Many others complained and made targets out of Pirates executives. Ask Frank Coonelly, the team president, and Neal Huntington, the general manager. They call it passion that never went away. But it got ugly at times. Let’s just say the insults directed their way were not “ya bum,” but something decidedly more 21st-century.

Now, six years into helming a wholesale, sabermetrics-driven reboot of the Pirates and their farm system, Huntington is the runner-up for baseball’s executive of the year. Hurdle is the National League Manager of the Year. And the team that they and Coonelly have rebuilt from the ground up has become, across southwestern Pennsylvania, the stuff of expansive barstool tales and the backyard rhapsodies of 10-year-olds.

How did we get here? How did a small-market city filled with what Huntington calls “that lost generation of fans” end up bundling up for this winter with the warmth of not only a winning season but a serious playoff run tucked into our collective coat? How did the team of Clemente and Mazeroski, the one that became the team of Parker and Stargell and then the team of Bonds and Bonilla and Van Slyke, become the team of McCutchen and Alvarez and Martin and Walker and Burnett and Liriano and Grilli and Melancon and so many others, some of whom were not even a gleam in the Pirate’s lone remaining eye 500 days ago? Why did the fans engage so passionately?

What accounts for this recipe of success that, by the most conservative estimates, took a half-decade to concoct and serve up to a ravenous populace?

The first thing you should know: In Pittsburgh, the word “hurdle” has ceased to mean “an obstacle or difficulty.” Instead, it now means something that gave Pittsburgh the velocity to clear them away.

 


 

Days from being named 2013 National League Manager of the Year, Clinton Merrick Hurdle is working the room. On a crisp morning in late October, the room is a Starbucks in Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs, not far from his home.

People greet him, shake his hand. He calls the baristas by name. He lingers with an elderly gentleman about to retire to Florida who is sporting fresh Pirates headgear. “We had to get him in a Bucco hat before he left,” Hurdle says. His voice booms. He commands the room, not by intimidation but by a presence as powerful and welcoming as the aroma of coffee roasting.

After more than a decade with the Rockies in Colorado, Hurdle now is an enthusiastic Pittsburgher. From his first news conference in late 2010, he talked of “rebonding” the city and its baseball team — no small challenge given that, upon arrival, he saw no one in town wearing current players’ jerseys. Rebonding? Judging by this particular coffee shop, he is succeeding. One man in a Penguins jacket walks up and politely interrupts. “Thanks for renewing my love of baseball,” he enthuses.

Hurdle manages a balance rare among public figures and unusual in just about anyone: He is intense and utterly laid-back at the same time. You could see him governing a midwestern state or masterminding a resistance movement or commanding the USS Enterprise. In many of his statements, gravitas and easy humor duke it out. The overall effect is of a man who has learned from a sometimes-bumpy path, who knows how to mete out kinetic energy and go completely epic without losing sight of the details.

“You want a championship team,” he says. “I try to raise championship players.”

The Pittsburgh Pirates are many people, from the field to the front office, from the sales and marketing staffs to the grounds crew to the ushers to the farthest-flung scouts. But because Hurdle is the team’s center of gravity, let’s pause to examine a few things he says on this morning. They hint at how the 2013 recipe was cooked up.

He calls his players “men.” Not guys, not boys, but men. “I have a deep desire to have these men grow up and be the best ballplayers they can be. But I also remind them they’re going to be husbands and fathers and community leaders long after they’re done playing,” he says. “You can’t be a man on the field and go home and be a juvenile.”

He is cognizant of the glorious chapters of the team’s history  — not just the recent ones, but eras that featured such names as Clarke and Wagner, Carey and Waner and Cuyler, Kiner and Law — and brings them up here and there for his players. “When I came in, we were playing at a level that we didn’t think a lot about the past. It was too hard,” he says. “I’m throwing seed is all I do. And I look back to see if there’s any growth.”

He identifies with rust-belt sensibilities, having grown up attending Detroit Tigers games with his father (but admiring the powerhouse Pirates of the early 1970s, too). Instinctually, he gets this town. “They’ll tell you when they love you. They’ll tell you when they don’t love you. They know the value of a dollar. They appreciate hard work.”

He recognizes the value of self-confidence — and not just the kind needed after the umpire shouts, “Play ball!” “We’re not trying to come up with cookie-cutter ballplayers,” he says. “I love the individuality of people. I believe when people are comfortable with themselves, they play to the best of their ability.”

 


Individuality is one way of putting it. The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates were like the cast of “Ocean’s Eleven”: Each had something different to do, and each always did something different.

One day it’s Russell Martin gunning down runners and getting big hits, the next it might be Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli shutting down batters in the eighth and ninth. One day it’s Travis Snider knocking a pinch-hit grand slam or Starling Marte taunting pitchers and darting toward second, the next it might be Francisco Liriano bearing down on six innings’ worth of opponents or infielders Clint Barmes and Neil Walker making backhand stabs in the shallow outfield. And of course there are your marquee acts, McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, both of whom can change the course of mighty baseball rivers. The genius of the 2013 Pirates was not that those two did so much; it was that so many others did, too.

“I think it’s pretty simple: Genuinely, we have players who are fun to watch,” says Gerrit Cole, the 23-year-old rookie, he of the 100-mph fastballs and one of 2013’s most exciting success stories.

Says Cole: “Kids, they come to the park to see what crazy catch Andrew McCutchen will make that night. Or will he go four for four? Will Pedro hit five home runs in one night? Will Neil hit from the left side AND the right side? Will Marte steal a base every time? Will Russ throw out a lot of runners? You can go there and think, ‘This could be the night that I see something only a handful of people have experienced in this game.’”

There was the chemistry, too. You could see it in quieter moments if you watched Root Sports carefully. The way young starter Jeff Locke was always quietly conferring with veteran A.J. Burnett in the dugout. The pies that Burnett threw into teammates’ faces as they were interviewed after wins. The late-September game against the Reds when rookie Andrew Lambo hit his first big-league homer, returned to the dugout and was gleefully ignored — for about 10 seconds, until everyone swarmed him at once. “The guys blended,” Huntington says. Even agents commented that the players really seemed to care about each other.

 


 

Yes, there were losses — 68 of them. But even the ones that got in the way of the road to 82 victories, 94 victories and a robust winning season, even many of those turned out to be nail-biters. “We fixed it,” says Grilli. “We reset the clock. We showed that big things can happen.”

Maybe that was the most exciting thing, maybe even more than the winning itself: For the first time in so long, you could go to a Pirates game — any Pirates game — and never know quite how things were going to turn out.

Which could not be said during The Drought. Pirates’ fans found themselves trapped in a generation-long loop — like in the movie “Pleasantville,” where you drive around the bend and realize, impossibly, that you’re in the same place you just left behind. There was no divorce, perhaps, but it was more than a trial separation. Lanny Frattare’s “There was no doubt about it” became nothing but doubt.

“I’m not sure that they had drifted away as much as that the energy was expressed very differently,” says Bob Nutting, the Pirates chairman and principal owner.

It was said over and over again across the tri-state area during the lean years: Pittsburgh isn’t a baseball town. Truth lurks in that statement, but only partial truth. After all, this has been the same ballclub’s town since Grover Cleveland’s first administration.

“For the longest time this was a football community. Even when I was growing up, baseball was something of an afterthought,” says Neil Walker, who came to the Pirates after a storied high-school career at Pine-Richland, north of the city. “You saw people more involved with hockey and football. That’s changed. And that’s something I feel proud about. There’s a lot of good baseball in this part of the country.”

In chats with people around Pittsburgh about baseball during October and November, one common thread emerged: The Pirates’ losing streak hurt not only the team and the fans, but local attitudes toward baseball overall.

Andrea Lewis, who was born and raised in Elizabeth Township, remembers going to PNC Park when “You used to see empty seats, fans wearing their Steeler jerseys.” No more. “[2013 was] the first time I have seen on TV, in Heinz Field, people wearing their Pirate jerseys,” she says.

“The way I see it is, the 2013 Pirates not only brought a new life to the clubhouse, but they rejuvenated the entire city of Pittsburgh,” says Lewis, who now produces WTAE-TV’s 5:30 p.m. newscast. “It gave me the chance to brag to friends who had given up on the Bucs a long time ago. I could say, ‘I told you so.’”
 


Pittsburgh native and attorney Maximilian Beier left for college shortly after the Bream Incident in the 1992 playoffs and returned in 1996. The first thing he did was get together with law-school friends and buy a block of season tickets — first at Three Rivers Stadium, then at PNC Park. Each year, he says, the location of his seats kept getting better as others dropped theirs. Denied good baseball, he found other reasons to go. There were the bobblehead promotions and the off-field attractions. “We went there to have fun, and it was always beautiful,” Beier says. “I figured it was an expensive cover charge for the nicest bar in the city of Pittsburgh.”

The electricity that a winning team breathes into the game in its community was absent, or at least dormant. Then came 2013, and things began to change.

“I’d be watching a game at 10:30 at night and Pedro Alvarez would hit a home run, and my phone would start blowing up. I’d be getting all these text messages,” Beier says. “When I watched games on TV, I would start to see people I knew — politicians, other attorneys, business leaders. You’d start seeing people you recognize in the stands . . . It was a real in-thing to do for people.”

 


 

Todd Orkwis, an information security engineer in Hampton Township, sees it from a different vantage point. For the past decade, he has coached boys’ baseball in the North Hills. Over the years, he watched kids grow to adulthood with few indelible memories about the team he has loved since childhood. Sometimes he took his kids to the park just to see the other team’s stars. Baseball in Pittsburgh became “a hobby, a fallback, a gap-filler in the summer between hockey and football.”

In 2013, he says, it was obvious from the beginning of the kids’ spring season that something special was afoot. It started with the boys’ perception of which teams in their local leagues had cachet. “It was always the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Dodgers,” Orkwis says. “Now the kids want to wear the shirts, to put on the black and gold.”

As spring ambled into summer, Orkwis picked up other clues. In his backyard, he overheard his 8-year-old son and friends methodically reviewing the Pirates’ starting lineup. They astounded him by their ability to name the entire team. When he demonstrated hitting and fielding techniques to his players, he could cite something from the previous night’s game and the kids’ eyes would light up in recognition.

“It helps me as a coach,” Orkwis says. “Maybe it was just the kids I had, but I think it was that they were watching these games and learning because the games mattered. These kids will remember this team.”

That’s a cornerstone of the team’s marketing approach: delight the fans who might have strayed a bit and engage the new ones who imprinted on baseball because of these new and improved Pirates. It’s working. In 2013, attendance was 2,256,862 — higher than any year since 2001, when the curious came out to see the beautiful new ballpark by the water. And while it’s difficult to judge sales figures of Pirates gear, take this as a bellwether: During most any home stand after May, it was impossible to navigate PNC Park’s main store before a game without throwing a few well-placed elbows.

“Something happened where they bought into this thing,” says Greg Brown, the Pirates’ play-by-play announcer for two decades and the man who came up with the Jolly Roger catchphrase. “There’s an intense closeness with this team and its fan base that I don’t think has ever existed.”

They are, in a word, family.

 


 

A month after the Wild Card game, PNC Park is quiet. In the clubhouse, jerseys are hung just so. The “Shark Tank,” which actually contained two small sand sharks, among other marine life, has been relocated. Empty sparkling-wine bottles sit nearby, their contents ejected onto goggle-wearing Bucs several weeks previous. In Hurdle’s office, a box of Big League Chew and a tub of Dubble Bubble sit on the floor by the door. On and around his crowded but neat desk sits the memorabilia of a life in baseball. At one corner of the desk is a book: “The Legacy Builder.”

Out in the Pirates dugout, where postseason decorations linger, Andrew McCutchen sits atop the bench, facing the Pittsburgh skyline. Two weeks from now, he will grin and do a little hand-and-shoulder dance on live television after being named National League MVP. On this day, he seems reserved and thoughtful.

What must it be like to be this man? To sit here in the silence, to look around the empty seats and remember the night when the park shook, when your mother sang the national anthem and the people — your people — thundered all around you as you kept their baseball-fan dream going? How does a mind contain both of those scenes at once, the loud, indelible one and today’s quiet aftermath?

McCutchen pauses to consider the “blackout,” the thousands wearing black in response to his tweet to his more than 200,000 followers about an idea catcher Michael McKenry hatched. “It was an amazing feeling, being on that field and seeing that sea of black,” McCutchen says. He talks for a while about the season, the fans he encountered and the stories they told. “It’s something that will definitely last forever in my memory box.”

Pittsburgh’s memory box is full of Pirates stuff right now, too. But nowhere near full enough just yet. There is room, and there are a lot of people working hard on what you’ll put into it next. “Just being here, just existing is not enough,” Huntington says.
 


Games in other sports have built-in narratives. A baseball game does not. There is no ticking clock, no sudden-death overtime. The tiniest things at the beginning can turn out to make the difference at the end. But an entire baseball season, now that has a narrative arc. The 2013 season was thrilling, but Pittsburghers do not want it to be a stand-alone story. We want it to be a new first chapter.

Federal Street is not crowded at midafternoon when a figure in a gray hoodie crosses the road, head down, headphones on. He passes several businessman types who barely look up. The hood hides the trademark dreadlocks. One of America’s best-known baseball players disappears down a side street, unnoticed.

You’ll see him soon. Some familiar faces may be gone, replaced by new ones. But when spring training’s first pitch is thrown and the first bat is swung down in Bradenton not long from now, something will seem possible again for the first time in a long time. That parcel of possibility, not the extraordinary season past, is the most valuable gift of all.

Until then, pop open the memory box. Look inside at the souvenirs of 2013 and what they promise. Remember that October night by the river when the ground shook. Remember that we can expect other nights like it. And that they will be soon. And that they will be here. And that they will be ours.


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