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Starkey: No Dempster dive for Pirates

| Thursday, July 26, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates catcher Rod Barajas laughs as sctor Hal Sparks, who portrayed Zoltan in the movie 'Dude Where's My Car?', gives the Z sign after throwing out the first pitch before the Pirates' game against the Chicago Cubs Wednesday July 25, 2012 at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Actor Hal Sparks, aka Zoltan, gives the Z sign with Pirates catcher Rod Barajas before the game against the Chicago Cubs Wednesday July 25, 2012 at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

Something felt significant going into this one.

The Pirates had dropped back-to-back games to the lowly Chicago Cubs. They hadn't hit a lick. Their clubhouse had been rocked a night earlier with news of the acquisition of Wandy Rodriguez, and they were facing one of the better pitchers in the league in Ryan Dempster.

Some feared this was the beginning of another mid-summer collapse — a Dempster dive, if you will.

So how did the Pirates respond?

With yet another magically symbolic victory, that's how.

All the elements were there. Michael McKenry, the little catcher that could, smacked a home run off the left-field foul pole. Alex Presley scored the winning run on his 27th birthday. Neil Walker made a fabulous backhanded play on Tony Campana to end the seventh, and little-used Gorkys Hernandez turned a sure double into a spectacular out in the ninth to preserve a 3-2 win.

When the Pirates awoke Thursday in Houston — on the one-year anniversary of the infamous Jerry Meals “safe” call — they were 13 games over .500, and, as Garrett Jones put it, “back on a winning track.”

Things are so different these days that Kevin Correia is a candidate to be pulled from the rotation even though he improved to 6-0 in his past seven starts.

A crowd of 33,935 — largest for a 12:35 p.m. start in PNC Park history — provided a big-game feel. It also raised total attendance for the three-game set to 94,018, unfathomable for a weekday series.

“Every day leaves me speechless,” McKenry said. “Whether they know it or not, (the fans) can change things. We feed off their energy.”

By noon, the North Shore was bustling with baseball fans both hardcore and casual. It was the kind of afternoon party PNC Park was born to host but so rarely has.

Zoltan was here, too, invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. And if you don't believe that's important, then you don't believe manager Clint Hurdle when he talks about staying “focused on the uncommon.”

Hurdle is referring to the positive energy surrounding his team and the fact that you never know where the next bit of it might come from.

“We're here to make history,” he said. “So you've got to think different. You've got to believe different.”

Who would have thought somebody named Hal Sparks would light a fire under this club? He was Zoltan in the unspeakably horrific 2000 movie “Dude, Where's My Car?” and he invented the “Z” hand gesture that has become the celebratory sign of choice among the Pirates and their followers.

Players flash it after a big hit. Fans have it emblazoned on T-shirts. Children learn about it in school.

As described on Sparks' Wikipedia page, Zoltan was “the bubble-wrapped leader of a clan of nerds obsessed with outer space.” Talk about uncommon.

How fitting that all of this came about when bored players gathered to watch “Dude” in Atlanta, of all places, site of the Meals call, and, of course, the most torturous night in Pirates history 20 years ago.

Hurdle missed his chance to meet Zoltan. I went out of my way to make sure I did — though our pregame introduction was a bit awkward.

Me: “Hi Hal, Joe Starkey.”

Sparks: “How are you, James?”

That was cool, because the dude's a Pirates fan. His girlfriend has family in Pittsburgh. He was born in Cincinnati, but he's actually from Kentucky.

“The only reason I was born in Cincinnati,” Sparks said, “was because it had the nearest hospital without chickens in it.”

Sparks explained that the movie's original call sheet stipulated that whoever came up with the best Zoltan sign would win $29.66.

“I thought, ‘I am Zoltan, I have to win,'” he said. “It wasn't even about the money.”

The same can be said of the Pirates, right? It's not about the money anymore. The last time I'd spoken to a celebrity first-pitch thrower, it was Michael Keaton at the 2006 opener, when he took the opportunity to rip ownership, saying, “At some point, you have to write the check.”

I'm guessing Keaton loved the Rodriguez deal. The club took on millions in salary and landed a reliable pitcher for the stretch run.

Somebody asked Sparks what he thought of his “Z” being reborn 12 years later. His answer could double as a description for the Pirates' zany season: “It's absurd and funny and stupid and amazing and great and silly and terrific ... in that order.”

Yes. Yes it is.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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