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Kovacevic: No more Buccaneer tears

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The Braves' Sid Bream slides across the plate to win the National League Championship Series as Pirates catcher Mike LaValliere applies the late tag during the ninth inning Oct. 14, 1992, in Atlanta.

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 11:36 p.m.

Yeah, I cried back then, but so what?

You did, too. Don't act like the tough guy or gal now. And so did countless other Western Pennsylvanians, whether cursing fate or clenching a fist, whether collapsed onto the couch or frozen in a futile prayer on the living-room floor. We were one collective wreck after what we'd just watched on TV on the wretched night of Oct. 14, 1992.

The night baseball died in Pittsburgh.

The night so many of us conceded we'd never see the Pirates compete again, sorrowfully aware that the team's stars soon would leave for ever-richer competitors ... only to see that fatalism become the cruelest reality.

They were done. For 20 interminable, abominable seasons, they were losers of the lowest order with no end in sight. Done as done gets.

Until now.

Until 82 became … well, it isn't reality yet, given that messy 9-3 setback Wednesday night in Milwaukee. But it's at least an imminent event, possibly Friday in St. Louis.

And yes, it will be an event. I could type nothing more than those two numbers — 8 and 2 — and you'd get it. But forgive those actually immersed in the process, because they don't. Other than native son Neil Walker and maybe Andrew McCutchen out of longevity and maybe Clint Hurdle because he's become a full-fledged, FuelPerks-collecting yinzer in his brief time among us, they really can't. They didn't grow up in the region. They aren't old enough to have even heard of He Whose Name Shall Not Be Spoken and whose basehit sent the Braves rather than the Pirates to the 1992 World Series.

They didn't suffer.

They weren't sitting alone in an entire section of Three Rivers' yellow seats on a rainy Monday night against Montreal.

They weren't mocked in school for daring to wear Pirates apparel while their peers were rooting for the Steelers and Penguins.

They weren't along to see the name of a once-proud franchise, the franchise of Roberto Clemente and Honus Wagner and Willie Stargell, have its name dragged through two decades of mud.

On the occasion of 82 last year, I met up with Roberto Clemente Jr. — exactly the chip off the block you'd expect — at PNC Park. This is what he told me about why the Streak could never get past 20: “Because it can't get to 21. Not that number.”

He and the Clemente family relayed that same message to Hurdle this past spring.

“I told Clint, ‘You can't let this happen,' ” Roberto Jr. was saying by phone Wednesday from Houston. “We can't have 21 ever being associated with anything negative in Pittsburgh. That wouldn't be right.”

And now that Clemente's image has become so visible again in the various news reports on this topic?

“We're very happy for the city, first and foremost, but we're also happy that Dad is being recognized by everyone – even in some small way – for what he meant to the Pirates.”

The current Pirates wouldn't understand what this means to the old-timers, the ones who think of 34 years as the Streak, not 20. Meaning the span since the 1979 World Series title and now.

Kent Tekulve was the last man to throw a championship-clinching pitch for the franchise, and today, in addition to his Root Sports work, he's president of the Pirates' alumni association. No one knows those men better.

“Those of us who played, even a long time ago, we heard about the Streak and had to talk about it,” Tekulve said. “We'd hear, ‘Oh, my God, it's 19 or 20 seasons,' and we'd have to try to explain whatever was going on. For us, it'll be a relief to have it gone.”

He used the future tense advisedly.

“I'm not one who celebrates 81. That's not me. Any winning athlete will tell you, you don't eliminate negatives. You focus on positives. This team is now ready to build off a winning season. Anything can happen.”

The current Pirates also wouldn't understand what this means to those who were a part of the Streak, many of whom lost relentlessly despite being recognized as outstanding individual talents.

Jack Wilson manned shortstop magnificently for 1,159 games with the Pirates. His tenure as part of the Streak ranks second only to Jason Kendall's 1,252, and yet Wilson's years were so much uglier.

Think he wouldn't have loved to grab his glove, come out of his soccer-coaching retirement in California and start one last game-ending double play?

“Every morning, the first thing I do is to check what the Pirates did the night before,” Wilson said. “I did stop to watch their batting practice at Dodger Stadium in April, and I'll text Cutch and Walker, but … you know, it's exciting. Seeing the Streak end after being there for nine years … it's very personal for me. It's really exciting. I'm really happy for everyone.”

His prediction now?

“Central title, no question.”

There will be time enough for that, of course. For now, it's about closing a chapter. All 20 volumes, actually.

It's about never seeing Al Martin failing to score the winning run from third base on a single to left. Or Operation Shutdown. Or Ryan Doumit's attempted throw to second hitting John Grabow on the mound. Or 20-0. Or littering Three Rivers with giveaway flags. Or being no-hit by a pitcher named Homer. Or giving away Jose Bautista not once but twice. Or Jacob Brumfield and Dave Clark nearly killing each other in an outfield collision. Or “We Will.” Or “Welcome to Hell.” Or Randall Simon making “Good Morning America” for clubbing a girl dressed as a sausage. Or the Rule 5 debacle. Or John Russell mumbling the word “passion.” Or Kip Wells until recently holding the record for longest home run at PNC Park by the home team. Or Brant Brown in center. Or Raul Mondesi's quitting, Aki Iwamura's smoking, Kris Benson's nibbling, Andy LaRoche sharing third base with friends, and Jeromy Burnitz's openly thanking Dave Littlefield for being paid exactly $6 million more than he deserved.

Or the king of them all, the reprehensible selloff of Aramis Ramirez that all but killed hope around here.

Or even what started it all.

In fact, go ahead and say it. Say his name out loud, that name you've been unable to utter all this time. And do it slowly to savor it all the more.

Francisco. Cabrera.

Cathartic stuff, huh?

And here's why: Because he'll mean nothing now. All the symbolism of his throat-slitting single and Stan Belinda's angst and Skinny Barry's lame throw and Spanky's late tag and Sid Bream's slide and, ultimately, Andy Van Slyke's seated stare out in center... they'll all mean nothing after this.

The only finish that matters now comes this fall.

Maybe even in Atlanta.

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