Even Pirates marvel at PNC Park atmosphere for wild-card game

| Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, 10:45 p.m.

Even Steve Blass could not believe the intensity.

“I've never heard that much sustained noise,” the Pittsburgh Pirates announcer and former pitcher said on Wednesday, a day after the team hosted and won the first playoff game here in more than two decades.

“I was blown away. (Pirates announcer) Bob Walk and I were up in the booth, and we were nervous as cats,” he said. “I was afraid I was going to stumble over the lineup. It affected us, and we'd been in that arena. It was nervous excitement to look down and see all that black and gold.”

Pittsburgh has turned upside-down. The once mighty Steelers are 0-4, and the formerly woebegone Pirates dominate the conversation. A city starving for a winner is a baseball town. Again. Finally.

Just ask Matthew Sauter, who recently made a business decision that once seemed unthinkable: “We brought all our Pirates gear to the front and sent the Steelers gear to the back.”

Sauter, 23, sales manager at Yinzers in the Burgh, a sports memorabilia shop in the Strip District, said it seems “like everyone forgot about the Steelers. Even when the Pens win the cup, everyone's focused on the Steelers. This year, it's completely different.”

Losers no more, the Pirates beat Cincinnati, 6-2, in a one chance, do-or-die wild-card game on Tuesday night to advance to a National League Division Series showdown against the Cardinals starting Thursday in St. Louis.

Urging them on was a record raucous crowd of 40,487, including thousands with standing-room-only tickets. Fans with barely a view of the game, or none at all, lined the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

“Nothing compared to (Tuesday) night at PNC,” Sauter said. “I have tickets for every (remaining home) playoff game. You could make $1,000 selling them, but I just want to go. I want to be there. I want to experience this.”

The game captivated not only the largest crowd in PNC Park's 12-year history, but also a good portion of the metropolitan area watching on TBS. The cable network reported a robust 33.7 rating in Pittsburgh, its seventh-highest local rating for a postseason telecast since they began in 2007. The other six were for league championship series games and a Game 4 of a division series.

In the champagne-soaked Pirates clubhouse afterward, the main topic was neither Francisco Liriano's brilliant pitching nor catcher Russell Martin's two home runs. It was the noise and the atmosphere.

“I've never seen anything like it anywhere,” said Martin, an eight-year veteran who before this season played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees. “To have an opportunity to play in front of a crowd like that was amazing.”

The fans' intensity led many to believe they had a direct impact on the game — particularly in the second inning, when the crowd began loudly chanting the last name of Reds starter Johnny Cueto just after he had given up a home run to Marlon Byrd. Cueto dropped the ball and had to retrieve it when it rolled off the mound. On the next pitch he yielded a homer to Martin. He later claimed not to be rattled, but Martin was not convinced.

“I've never seen a crowd actually get to a pitcher to where he drops the ball,” Martin said. “The next pitch was — I don't know. He made a mistake with the next pitch.”

Sidney Crosby, the Penguins' star player who knows a thing or two about hostile fan environments, called the atmosphere at PNC Park “incredible.”

“That couldn't have been fun to be in a Reds uniform and to go out on that field,” he said. “That looked like a really tough environment.”

Second baseman Neil Walker, a Pittsburgh native who has spent time in PNC Park as a fan and player and in Three Rivers Stadium as a young fan, said he never experienced such a ballpark buzz.

“Absolutely not,” Walker said. “It was pure energy from pitch one to the last out. Even when they announced the teams. … This is a sports town. This used to be a baseball town. I wasn't surprised that people were as into it as they were. They, we, just haven't had the opportunity to do this in two decades.”

Fans are snapping up everything with a Pirates logo at Yinzers, Sauter said.

“We just ordered another $20,000 in hats — just hats,” he said. “Business has been wonderful.”

Cheryl Borus, 55, of Observatory Hill said co-workers at Giant Eagle are allowed to wear sports jerseys on certain days of the week. In past years, one, maybe two workers would don a Pirates jersey.

“But (Tuesday) it was like everyone went out and bought a Pirates shirt,” she said.

Blass can't wait to see what the crowd is like on Sunday, when the Division Series returns to Pittsburgh.

“My god, it just seemed to all come to a crescendo in one night, tightly packed into a game where it's win or go home,” he said. “It's like all that intensity was bottled up, and then the top popped off. I don't know if I'll ever see something like that again.”

Bob Cohn and Chris Togneri are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Cohn can be reached at 412-320-7810 or bcohn@tribweb.com. Togneri can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com. Staff writer Josh Yohe contributed to this report.

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