PITTSBURGH — The image is seared into 12-year-old Chad Rowland’s memory forever.
The slightly up the line throw up from Barry Bonds. The dive to the plate by catcher Mike LaValliere. The textbook slide by Sid Bream. The Pittsburgh Pirates walking off the field in stunned silence after collapsing in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. The Atlanta Braves piling on top of each other in jubilation.
Even now, 21 years later, it still stings.
“You never love baseball more than when you were 12,” Rowland said. “I cried my eyes out that night.”
The tears were welling again on Monday night, this time for an entirely different reason. This time, the throw from the superstar outfielder was wisely cut off by the veteran first baseman picked up at the waiver deadline. This time, the catcher was positioned right on top of the plate. This time, the runner was out.
This time, finally, the Pittsburgh Pirates were on the right side of history.
One of the sport’s most beleaguered — to put it mildly — franchises is back in the postseason. Pittsburgh clinched a spot in the NL playoffs on Monday night when catcher Russell Martin tagged out Chicago’s Nate Schierholtz at home to end a thrilling 2-1 victory at Wrigley Field that reverberated in a bar 500 miles to the east, where Rowland let a generation of anguish and angst melt away.
“I was freaking out,” Rowland said.
He wasn’t alone.
At a time of year when the Pirates are typically playing out the string and attention in the self-dubbed “City of Champions” turns to the Steelers and the Penguins, the Pirates — yes, the Pirates — are currently the hottest thing going.
A steady stream of fans poured into the team’s store at PNC Park on Tuesday, many of them with cups of coffee in hand trying to fend off the effects of another late night in a season that has restored the faith of one of baseball’s most tormented — not to mention faithful — fan bases.
Rick Hilinski ducked in to pick up a pair of hooded sweatshirts celebrating the playoff berth. One of the sweatshirts was for him. The other was for his son, R.K., born a few months before Bream’s now iconic slide sent the club spinning into a record-setting run of futility.
Hilinski became a season-ticket holder in 2011, believing the hiring of manager Clint Hurdle and the emergence of talented center fielder Andrew McCutchen were harbingers of the clouds finally parting. Hilinski remembers the good old days, when Roberto Clemente tracked down fly balls in the outfield at Three Rivers Stadium and Willie Stargell tried to hit home runs into the Allegheny River.
The Pirates used to be postseason regulars back then. Between 1960 and 1992, the Pirates won three World Series and made the playoffs 10 times. Hilinski spent countless nights during his childhood sitting with his father and uncle hanging on every pitch. Now he does it with his son, who grew up doing karate “because nobody really wanted to play baseball.” Together they’ve watched a renaissance decades in the making.
As painful as it has been, the journey made the destination all the sweeter. For years when Hilinski would try to talk to his friends about the Pirates, the subject would quickly shift to the Steelers. Now? Not so much.
“It’s nice to finally be able to say ‘Yeah, we’re doing a little better for a change,’” Hilinski said.
And don’t think the neighbors haven’t noticed. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, clad in a Clemente jersey, took in batting practice before last Friday’s game against the Reds and live-tweeted from the Pirates’ Twitter account from the stands. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin dropped Hurdle a line on Tuesday morning reminding Hurdle there’s still more work to do.
“It’s big for them, it’s big for our community,” Tomlin said. “It’s just awesome. I look forward to watching him represent us in the playoffs and going to chase the big prize.”
While not even a world championship would unseat the Steelers’ spot atop the pyramid in one of the most sports-rabid towns in the country, the Pirates are making inroads. Local TV ratings are up and more than 2.26 million people poured through the gates of a stadium considered by many to be the best in baseball.
Hurdle isn’t joking when he says he received a standing ovation recently during his daily trip to the local coffee shop. When the unwaveringly confident manager dropped his children off at school on Friday a few hours before a pivotal three-game series with the Cincinnati Reds, one of the teachers told him it was “Pirate Day” as kids walked by in McCutchen T-shirts. Local businesses have caught pennant fever too. The Gulf Tower — easily visible from home plate at PNC Park — now flashes black and yellow when the Bucs score a run and practically hits tilt when they win.
Though there is no guarantee of a home playoff game, there’s a sense the last six months have gone a long way toward erasing 20 summers of heartache.
General manager Neal Huntington cautioned over the weekend that “the hardest part is still to come” as the club tries to prove it’s far from a one-year wonder.
At the moment, the people who hang Jolly Roger flags from their front porches don’t care. At the moment, the Pirates are in, and that’s all that matters.
“I’ve seen the Penguins win the (Stanley) Cup, I’ve seen the Steelers win the Super Bowl,” Rowland said. “This is the one thing on my list ... I’ve been holding on to it forever.”
At last, Rowland — like so many others — can finally let it go.