Kovacevic: Can Pirates truly grasp what they're doing for this city?
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Do they even get it?
I wonder sometimes.
Do these precocious Pirates even begin to grasp what's going on around them, the effect that Major League Baseball's best team — and say that like you mean it, Pittsburgh — has had on our city, on our collective psyche?
Sure, we've been spoiled by the Steelers and Penguins for the better part of a decade, as well as some of those sports' brightest stars in Ben Roethlisberger to Troy Polamalu, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
But one hole remained in the heart, the one left by 20 years of losing from the franchise that's been here twice as long as any of them.
Remember in 2009, the year the Boulevard of the Allies was jammed with a half-million fans for not one parade but two?
Remember that fake “road sign” making the rounds on social media?
“WELCOME TO PITTSBURGH: CITY OF CHAMPIONS … and the Pirates”
Yeah, that one. Hilarious and, at the same time, clearly coated with angst.
Do these Pirates, flying high at 65-43 after taking four of five from the Cardinals despite a 13-0 anomaly of a loss Thursday at PNC Park, get that?
At least one of them does.
“It's special. I know, believe me,” Neil Walker, the local boy was saying a few hours before manning second base. “When you look around the stadium, hear the way they're cheering for us — even in the early innings — and everything else that you see around town …”
“I always knew this could happen. I always believed it. But it's still special.”
And his teammates?
“Oh, they've got no idea. None. And honestly, it's probably better that way.”
Maybe it is. Ask a guy like Justin Wilson, the rookie lefty in the pen, and he'll just shrug: “It's really not something we're focused on. I mean, you notice it. The place is more full. The people are louder. But we're out there to play a game, to get the job done.”
Wilson's the norm, but there are exceptions beyond Walker.
Clint Hurdle, who set “rebonding a baseball team with its city” as a stated goal from the day of his hiring, walked into his local Starbucks to a standing ovation this week. He ran into another gentleman Thursday at the grocery store who pleaded for management to “lock up” Starling Marte to an extension.
“Amazing,” the manager called it.
Hurdle gets it. Don't doubt that for a second. He, more than anyone associated with the running the Pirates, understood that the city and team needed to be as one to succeed. He even reached out the Steelers and Penguins, befriended Mike Tomlin and Dan Bylsma, attended their games and wondered wistfully how he “could get those people to come to our games and be the same way.”
It's happened. Ask Matt Holliday how he felt being tormented by fans in left field after allowing Andrew McCutchen's home run to clank off his mitt the other night.
Might as well have been Ray Lewis or P.K. Subban hearing it.
Hurdle was asked Thursday to compare it to Colorado, where he managed previously.
“The tradition's not the same there. They don't have the history. This is, at its core, such a passionate town for baseball.”
Some of his other players are getting it, too.
When Mark Melancon's called third strike sealed the victory Wednesday, the 31,697 erupted in a collective roar unlike any I've heard at PNC Park. And I wasn't alone.
“Loudest moment for me, by far,” said Jeff Karstens, the Pirates' most tenured player. “A lot of guys were talking about it in the clubhouse right after the game. We couldn't remember anything like it.”
Melancon's assessment: “Goose bumps.”
It's a start.
But I don't know. There's part of me that, in a weird way, wishes all of these players could fully appreciate every last sliver of it all.
You know, the way Rege Gibson of Verona does. He's been watching the Pirates since a 1963 visit to Forbes Field, and Thursday marked his 43rd game this season.
“I feel like I've been on my honeymoon all week,” Gibson was saying on the main concourse. “I'm just numb.”
At least a little sour, too.
“You know, I'm not a fair-weather fan. I have one of those feelings where I love seeing this place filled, but I also hate it. We've been here.”
You go, Rege.
Dan Irvin of Wexford has been there, too, though not nearly as long. He and 80 others from a youth ministry showed up together with brooms in Section 302.
“My dad's had tickets forever. I remember crying myself to sleep as an 8-year-old when Sid Bream scored,” Irvin said, referring to, oh, you know. “To see this, though, feels like the first time in my life.”
Annie Shelton of Ross moved here from Connecticut five years ago. Call her a bandwagoner if you wish, but that offers her a powerful perspective of what makes this setting unique in sports at the moment.
“I've been to New York, to Boston … the happiness here, the thrill of what this team is doing is so much more real,” she said. “It's like everybody wants this so much, and it brings you into it.”
Annie's new, but she gets it.
The Guys Who Stand aren't new. They're a handful of beer-wielding fans — Gary Antosh, Bill Clark and Dale Raymond are the surviving originals, but they're more than a handful now — who have been standing at the back of a field-level section since Three Rivers Stadium's infancy. Still do. Every game without fail. The usher deliberately doesn't wipe their seats because he knows it's a waste of his time. (They tip him, anyway.)
David Riehl, the 25-year-old babe among them, inherited his standing place with pride: “I finally have a winning baseball team and am glad to cheer alongside guys who have been there for 40 years.”
They certainly won't be standing up the Pirates now.
Then there's my favorite: The Ultimate Fan.
I don't know the gentleman's name, and I'm not about to ask now. I'm actually kind of in awe of him. Been watching for years and years, going way back to Three Rivers, as he's shown up for every game, no matter how abominable the baseball. Same seat in the upper deck. Same arrival time safely before first pitch.
Stays through rain delays, too.
Sitting in the rain.
This summer has been incredible for so many, but imagine how cathartic it feels after 20 years of getting soaked.
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