No one pulling harder for Bucs than '92 Pirates
Perhaps, in Pittsburgh, it will one day be referred to simply as The Call.
There will be no needed explanations, no descriptors, no additional commentary. There will be little in the way of sympathy for Jerry Meals, who is now not just from Pennsylvania but known throughout the western part of it.
Fathers will tell their sons about Daniel McCutchen and Cristhian Martinez and Michael McKenry. And they will brag about having stayed up to 1:50 a.m. ET to see a game-ending play at the plate that ranks as the most memorable in franchise history since, well, The Slide.
It was a game "dripping with drama," manager Clint Hurdle said afterward. True, indeed, but the ending was also oozing with irony.
Only a couple hundred yards away from Turner Field's home plate, visitors can find an outline of where Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium once stood. The ballpark was torn down in August 1997, nearly five years after it tore apart a franchise.
Of course, no one could have imagined that The Slide would be followed by 18 straight losing seasons in Pittsburgh, that one play -- Sid Bream scoring from second to win Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series -- would go on to define the franchise for a generation of fans. From Bream's sprint to Meals' safe call, heartache, frustration, anger and apathy have taken their turns within a fan base.
That 1992 club and this 2011 one, though, hope to be linked by more than just game-ending plays at the plate in Atlanta. This Pirates team wants to be what that club was -- winners -- and be sure that many members of that team are pulling just as hard.
"I have a loyalty to the Phillies, because the Phillies gave me a chance to play, but I am a Pirate at heart," said former catcher Mike LaValliere, whose lunge at Bream was a split second late. "It's the most fabulous thing that the people of Pittsburgh can enjoy baseball again."
Since moving to within one out of the World Series in 1992, this Pirates franchise has not posted a winning season. Before them, no team in professional sports history had ever gone this many years without playing at .500.
But sitting at 54-49 as the first week of August nears, the Pirates have a chance at snapping that skid. This marks only the second time since '92 that the club has been above .500 this late in a season.
"It's funny now with the way we're winning again, I watch home games at home if I'm not going to the ballpark, and I'm ready to throw things through the TV because I care," said John Wehner, a member of that 1992 Pirates team who now serves as a color analyst for road games.
"When I take my kids to games, I ask the other kids, 'Who is your favorite team?' and I hear the Yankees or the Cardinals. Their heroes are Albert Pujols or Derek Jeter. That, to me, is unimaginable to not have the youngsters in the Pittsburgh area rooting for your own team or not having your heroes be from Pittsburgh. That's starting to change."
|-- Former Pirate and current broadcaster John Wehner|
"Just to think growing up, I used to jump on the bus and come downtown to watch games with my friends. Every game I went to, it seemed like it meant something. To have a whole generation of kids not experience that is mind-boggling to me."
Not everyone gets a front-row seat that Wehner does, but he is not alone in his enthusiasm about a club that few expected to compete this year.
Jim Leyland never will shake the Pittsburgh from him -- he still makes the city his offseason home -- and when he's not occupied with Tigers games, he continues to check in on the Pirates. And know that he'd gladly give up the distinction of being the last Pirates manager to lead the team to a winning season.
"It's great," Leyland said. "It's a great story, great for baseball. My buddies call me, and of course, they've been on fire. They've got a lot of energy and they're for real, because they pitch good."
LaValliere is keeping his eye on the Pirates from Florida, where he helps run a baseball instructional facility. He has already traveled to Pittsburgh once to see the Pirates play and said he might make an effort to return before the end of September.
His proximity to the Pirates' Spring Training facility affords him the chance to stay well-connected to the organization, and his familiarity with Hurdle -- the two were teammates in St. Louis in 1986 -- had LaValliere convinced early on that the Pirates had the right man leading the turnaround.
"What I see is, I see a manager that has made a huge impact on a ballclub," LaValliere said. "Everybody was all rosy in Spring Training like most teams, but there was sincerity. This wasn't just a company line and we're giving it our best. They believed they had some guys to work with here and that they could be a solid team."
Doug Drabek, LaValliere's batterymate in Game 7 of that '92 NLCS, has seen the highlights and heard the chatter surrounding the Pirates' season all the way out in California, where he currently serves as the pitching coach for the D-backs' high Class A affiliate.
While he is obviously more invested in Arizona's success, as well as that of his son, Kyle, who is in the Blue Jays' organization, Drabek feels for the fans in Pittsburgh. And he was thrilled to learn that a much-improved Pirates team is drawing fans back to the ballpark.
"The thing is getting people out to the ballpark and building that atmosphere again that was there before," Drabek said. "They are good sports fans. I really enjoyed the people there."
Wehner is simply relieved just to hear people around town talking baseball. He is getting ticket requests much more regularly, and even his kids, whom Wehner said never really embraced the sport, are becoming more interested.
A Pittsburgh native, Wehner remains very much invested with the organization. His hope -- and it's one that is echoed by his '92 teammates -- is simply that this franchise can get to where it remains relevant. It's about bringing a generation back to Pirates baseball, Wehner will tell you, and then keeping them invested.
"When I take my kids to games, I ask the other kids, 'Who is your favorite team?' and I hear the Yankees or the Cardinals," Wehner said. "Their heroes are Albert Pujols or Derek Jeter. That, to me, is unimaginable to not have the youngsters in the Pittsburgh area rooting for your own team or not having your heroes be from Pittsburgh.
"That's starting to change."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.