They are working-class heroes.
The day after the Pirates made the playoffs for the first time in 21 years, it’s business as usual for Andrew McCutchen. The National League MVP candidate ordered food from Subway and went to the ballpark to work out with his team.
Just another hungry, blue-collar worker from a blue-collar town.
The last time champagne was popped in a Pirates clubhouse, Barry Bonds was a skinny outfielder about to bolt to the San Francisco Giants. McCutchen was barely 6 years old and living in a one-traffic light town in central Florida.
McCutchen barely sipped any champagne after the Bucs clinched their wild-card berth last week at Wrigley Field. He said it had been chilled too long. Literally.
“I think next time they should just leave it hot,” he said. “You’re going to just get it poured all over you. It’s just going to get wasted anyways. What’s the point to chill it?”
The Pirates’ streak of 20 straight losing seasons was a record for any of the four major professional sports in North America.
The streaking Bucs play Cincinnati tonight at home in a one-game playoff to advance to the Division Series against St. Louis. The Pirates earned home-field advantage by sweeping the Reds over the weekend. McCutchen says the Pirates are not content after earning their homeboy Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame.
“We’re not here just to celebrate winning a wild card. We’re here to win the World Series,” says McCutchen.
There is a sweet symmetry to the Pirates making the playoffs. In 1992, Pennsylvania native and Pirates castoff Sid Bream slid home safely in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the NL Championship Series, sending the Braves to the World Series.
Clint Hurdle, the Pirates’ philosophical manager, made like David Ortiz when asked if this is what he expected coming to Pittsburgh before the 2011 season.
“Abso-buc’n-lutely,” he said.
Hurdle believes that his team matches the fabric of Pittsburgh.
“It’s a city that prides itself on hard work, resiliency, perseverance, trust, and honesty. That’s the kind of club we want to give ’em. We get knocked down, we get back up. We respect everyone, fear no one,” he says.
The Bucs bolstered their lineup for the playoff push. They obtained former American League MVP Justin Morneau from the Twins and Marlon Byrd from the Mets.
Byrd, who played briefly for the Red Sox in 2012, was suspended last July for 50 games for performance-enhancing drugs and ended up playing in Mexico. Now he is a comeback player of the year candidate, hitting .318 with Pittsburgh and driving in 88 runs overall. Last week against Cincinnati, he did push-ups at second base while umpires reviewed his near-home run that hit the top of the outfield wall.
“Pittsburgh fans love their teams,” he says. “They love their football, hockey, and baseball. They work very hard for what they get. I think this team has embraced that blue-collar mentality and fed off it.”
This is not like New York, says catcher John Buck, who was part of the Byrd trade from the Mets.
“In New York they pride themselves that if they don’t appreciate something they let you know right away as loud as they can. In Pittsburgh they’re way more polite,” Buck says.
Bucs Fever is back. Playoff T-shirts that read “Mission October” nearly sold out in one day, according to Joe Seals of the Pittsburgh Fan, a local souvenir store.
This year PNC Park drew more than 2.2 million fans, second in stadium history behind the inaugural 2001 season. The Pirates had their best TV ratings ever this year.
Neil Walker, the second baseman, was born and raised in the Pittsburgh area. In a bizarre twist of fate, he owes his very existence to the late, great Roberto Clemente.
Walker’s father, Tom, was a former major league pitcher who played winter ball with Clemente in Puerto Rico. On New Year’s Eve 1972, he helped Clemente load supplies on a DC-7 heading to Nicaragua after a devastating earthquake. Clemente knew that three previous shipments had been diverted by the military so he decided to go himself to see that it got to the people.
“I said, ‘Roberto, I want to go with you,’ ” recalled Tom Walker in a telephone interview. “He said, ‘No. It’s New Year’s Eve. Go. Party.’ ”
Clemente and four others perished when the overloaded plane crashed into the ocean.
Neil Walker was born 13 years later. He remembers watching Andy Van Slyke, Bobby Bonilla, and Bonds in the ’92 playoffs. Then came the Dark Ages. Management losing players through free agency or bad trades.
“I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly,” says Walker, who was drafted by the Pirates out of high school in 2004 and made his big league debut in ’09.
He hated losing and the incessant questions.
“I’ve lived through a 105-loss season, I’ve lived through a 99-loss season,” says Walker.
This year is different. Pedro Alvarez hit 36 homers. Francisco Liriano won 16 games. Former Red Sox pitcher Mark Melancon had 26 holds and Jason Grilli had 33 saves.
“It’s a deeper group of better players than we’ve had in the past,” says Walker. “We believe in ourselves. First and foremost it’s pitching. We’ve been as good as anybody in the league. Offensively we’ve done enough. We feel like there’s more in the tank. Russell Martin has been huge. Andrew McCutchen is an MVP guy. We’ve had five or six All-Stars, it’s just been a special year in so many respects.”
What if they won it all?
“It would certainly be epic,” Walker says with a laugh. “I probably would never have to pay for dinner in the city again.”
Grilli, who blew only two save chances all year, has had a love affair with the fans.
“Friends told me they were yelling out the window and starting chants when we clinched the wild card,” he says. “The Steelers were the toast of the town for a long time but now we are.
“It’s kind of cool to know we’ve kind of changed the culture and become the town favorite.”
In Pittsburgh, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, to quote TV icon Fred Rogers, who lived and worked here. With the Steelers off to an 0-4 start, it’s all Pirates, all the time in Pittsburgh.
Harrison Spyke says he watched them clinch in a Southside saloon called “Smokin Joe’s”.
“It’s brought a real shot to the city. It’s just alive,” says Spyke.
He says there is a real feeling of nostalgia, dating to the “We Are Family” days of Willie Stargell and the 1979 world champions.
“You can see the joy. It’s great watching the old generation mingling with the younger generation watching the Pirates,’’ says Spyke.
He loves the attention the Pirates are getting as a small-market team. “It’s a good slap in the face to the Yankees and the Red Sox,” he says.
Outside PNC Park, Diane Grguras paints a watercolor of the Bill Mazeroski statue. It features Maz with his arms raised running the bases after his Game 7 walkoff home run in 1960. Maz, 77, is putting his champagne-soaked jersey up for auction in November.
Grguras says this year is “a perfect storm” for the Pirates. “Everything is falling into place.”
At the Southside Barbershop, R.C. Cunningham wears a Pirates hat as he clips hair. The team is playing on the widescreen TV.
“The Pirates mean everything to us in this city,” says Cunningham. “They’re family. They’re not losers, bro. They’re going to make Pittsburgh proud. It just took them a little long to get the job done.”
Behind him is a shelf full of Pirates hats.
They are not for sale.
“Nah,’’ says Cunningham. “They’re just in case we mess up somebody’s hair, we have a hat for them to wear home, ” he says.
Down the street, Patrick Waters, 73, smokes Pall Malls and sips Miller High Life at Jack’s Bar. He remembers when Mazeroski beat the hated Yankees in ’60.
“You couldn’t get into town, they shut down all the bridges. Oh my God. I was 20 years old but they threw the IDs out the door that night. They kept the bars open all night and everybody got served,” he says.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.