A special night in Pittsburgh
Pirates (and their fans) overwhelm the Reds 6-2 in NL wild-card game
PITTSBURGH -- They've waited a looonnngggg time for a night like this, on the banks of the Allegheny, the Ohio and the Monongahela Rivers.
Since Wilver D. Stargell and the We Are Family Buccos danced on a dugout in Baltimore in 1979. … Since Steve Avery, Alejandro Pena and John Smoltz hung 18 zeroes on the Three Rivers Stadium scoreboard in Games 6 and 7, in 1991. … Since Sid Bream broke their hearts in 1992.
Yes, a long, long, looonnngggg time.
But the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates are proof that if you wait long enough -- and you live long enough -- dreams do come true.
Yep, if you hang in there, you might get to see your team play another postseason baseball game. You might get to see your team win an actual postseason baseball game. You might even be able to remind yourself that what you saw doesn't just happen in every other town in America. It can actually happen in Pittsburgh. What a thing.
And so, on a special Tuesday night in western Pennsylvania, two decades' worth of emotions came spilling out of the stands, erupting out of the hearts of the 40,487 people who filled those seats and leaving their mark on a memorable October baseball game.
All right, so it was "only" a wild-card game. And the "only" thing that was really at stake was a chance to advance to the "real" baseball postseason.
But that's not how it felt at PNC Park as the Pirates were whomping the thoroughly bamboozled Cincinnati Reds 6-2 Tuesday night. And that's not how it tasted. And that's definitely not how it sounded.
"That," said the home run hero of the evening, Russell Martin, "was amazing. I've never heard a crowd so loud in my life."
But that wasn't the only reason Russell Martin would remember this epic evening. He would remember it because he hit two home runs in this game -- two home runs that will forever be etched in both the storybooks and history books.
They were two home runs that would make him just the second Pirate, in the 132-year history of the franchise, to have a multihomer postseason game. (Bob Robertson, who hit three in Game 2 of the 1971 NLCS, was the other.)
They were also two home runs that would make Russell Martin only the second player ever to hit two home runs in a postseason game played in Pittsburgh. The other just happened to be a guy named Mickey Mantle (in Game 2 of the 1960 World Series).
And, finally, they were two home runs that would make Martin only the third National League catcher in history to hit two home runs in any postseason game. The other two? How about Johnny Bench (Game 4, 1976 World Series) and Gary Carter (Game 4, 1986 World Series).
So … pretty cool group this guy was hanging with Tuesday night.
But it was the first of those Russell Martin home runs that really told the story of what happened on this wild evening at PNC Park, where a ballpark shook and a pitcher came unglued and, in a related development, an October baseball game was never the same again.
As Martin stepped into the batter's box in the second inning, Marlon Byrd had just tomahawked a home run into the left-field seats in the first postseason at-bat of his 1,250-game career. So the Pirates held a 1-0 lead, the house was rock 'n' rolling and Reds starter Johnny Cueto had no idea his world was about to unravel.
But then the chants began to rumble out of the upper deck. And then the lower deck. And then every other deck.
CWAAAAAY-TOW … CWAAAAAY-TOW … CWAAAAAY-TOW.
Welcome to Pittsburgh there, Johnny.
Cueto would say later he wasn't shaken in any way by this show of mass affection. His catcher, Ryan Hanigan, would second that motion, saying: "I don't think he was rattled. That's one thing with Johnny I don't worry about." And his manager, Dusty Baker, was in full accord, saying: "I don't think that impacted him at all."
OK, sure. That's their story, and they're sticking to it.
But now let's get back to what actually happened.
There was Martin, getting ready to dig back in for a 2-and-1 pitch. And there was Cueto, trying to tune out the serenade by rubbing up the baseball, when a goofy thing happened.
One second, the baseball was in his hands. The next second, it mysteriously flew out of his hands and plopped onto the infield grass in an obvious, but unsuccessful, attempt to escape captivity.
A sheepish Cueto ambled over to pick it up. Martin stepped out, turned to his dugout and flashed a quick smile. The 40,000 hecklers around them were so pleased with their work, they then kicked the CWAAAAAY-TOW chants up to a decibel level normally reserved for space shuttle launches. And then …
Johnny Cueto made the fatal mistake … of throwing another pitch.
It came floating toward Russell Martin, belly button high, at 95 miles an hour.
Martin uncoiled his magic bat and pounded one halfway to Altoona.
And when that baseball returned to earth, fireworks filled the sky, the Pirates had a 2-0 lead they would never give back and B-E-D-L-A-M is too mild a word to describe the ambiance of a ballpark that had waited a generation for a moment like this.
"That's like something you write into a movie," said Pirates first baseman Justin Morneau. "You never see stuff like that happen in the big leagues. But it did. And that was like letting the crowd know how important they are. That was big."
Big? Heck, it was life-changing.
"I've never seen anything like that," said Byrd, a man who has played in New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. "Never. Ever. I mean, I was in the Caribbean Series. And it still wasn't like that."
"I guess," said Martin, a fellow who has now played postseason baseball games in New York, in L.A. and now in beautiful downtown Pittsburgh, Pa., "that was 20 years of waiting, just coming out."
Hey, ya think?
While these people were waiting, for 21 years, for the Pirates to play another postseason game, the Yankees played 166 of them. The Penguins played 100 of them. The Steelers played 29 of them. And the Pirates played zero.
So this was a long, long, looonnngggg wait.
It was a wait that fueled many years of anger, frustration and raw pain. Fingers were pointed. Lots of Pirates came and went. Fans checked out and moved on to other, less meaningful stuff, like reconnecting with their families and taking long walks in the park at sunset. And millions of empty seats watched the Pirates keep stumbling and bumbling down their endless road to nowhere.
Until this year arrived. And this night. And this feeling, that came pouring out of every living human in every seat, from the first pregame introduction to the final pitch. At a volume level that had to have shaken a few windows in Monroeville. And possibly Harrisburg. It ought to be an excellent week for cough-drop sales.
"That was just pure energy, from Pitch 1 to the last out," said second baseman Neil Walker, born and raised in this very town, a witness to Sid Bream's slide once upon a time when he was 7 years old.
And where, Walker was asked, did all that energy, all that emotion, come from?
"This is a sports town," he said. "You know, this used to be a baseball town. I wasn't surprised that people were this into it. They just haven't had the opportunity."
Boy, that's for sure. But on this night, Russell Martin gave them that opportunity. And Marlon Byrd gave them that opportunity. And so did Francisco Liriano, with seven spectacular, four-hit innings … and Andrew McCutchen, who reached base in the first four postseason plate opportunities of his career … and Walker, with two hits of his own, including a game-breaking, fourth-inning RBI double.
It was their night. But not just theirs. They shared it with a city that had a vision of an evening like this, somewhere over the horizon, but then enjoyed every euphoric moment when it finally arrived. And why the heck not?
"This is just really special for the city of Pittsburgh," Walker said. "And nobody knows that more than me. I'm 28 years old. I've seen a lot of stuff. I've been in this organization since 2004. So I know this is special.
"And what's really special is that we feel like this is just the beginning."
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