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Kovacevic: A 'special' way for Pirates to start

| Monday, March 31, 2014, 10:02 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle hugs Neil Walker after Walker hit a walk-off home run to beat the Cubs in the bottom of the 10th inning Monday, March 31, 2014 at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Home plate umpire John Hirschbeck signals the out next to first base umpire Bob Davidson after reviewing a pickoff of the Cubs' Emilio Bonafacio by Pirates reliever Bryan Morris on Monday, March 31, 2014, at PNC Park.

“It's one game. It's just one. With 161 to go,” Neil Walker was saying late Monday afternoon, and it was almost as if he believed it.

He couldn't have, of course.

It was, after all, his Rawlings Big Stick that minutes earlier had clobbered that flat, full-count changeup over the Clemente Wall in the 10th inning to cap the Pirates' 1-0 cutdown of the Cubs on an Opening Day unlike any of the 127 priors in these parts.

Those were his arms raised before the ball reached peak arc.

Those were his teammates waiting at the plate, Russell Martin at the bottom of the pack frantically waving both hands like a college kid.

And yeah, those were very much Walker's people — family, friends, fellow Pittsburghers — dancing in delirium inside a PNC Park bursting at its blue seams with a regular-season record 39,833 on hand, Jolly Rogers flapping, Mama Cutch crooning, Greg Brown clearing the deck for the lone cannonball, ESPN's cameras sending it all out to a still-curious country and, playing the role of cherry on top, some straight-from-Bradenton sunshine overhead.

No way was this just one, and he eventually relented without prodding.

“With everything that went on before the game, with the crowd being the way they were … this one feels pretty special,” Walker said. “It's a special day for this organization.”

Special sounds about right, huh?

Walker described the broader feeling as “in some ways, a continuation of last season,” and that's easy to see. Flip the switch to nighttime and replace the Cubs with the Reds, and at times the Blackout wild-card game was reborn.

And yet, if you ask me, it felt more like an affirmation.

Rewind to the pregame festivities and, as I'd expected all along, it wasn't about Barry Bonds. None of this was, no matter how much he might have hoped for that as part of this sudden push to get back in baseball's good graces. (Getting only 36.2 percent of the needed 75 percent for Hall of Fame induction will do that.) Some booed him. Others cheered. No big deal either way.

In the end, he bolted the ballpark — after a couple of innings at most, per people accompanying him — for a flight out of town a few hours after landing.

“I love the city,” came the explanation from Bonds' visibly smaller head when asked why he returned. “It's a great place, and it's an honor to be back.”

Hey, thanks for stoppin.'

Want to know what mattered?

Dick Groat, 83 years young and one of our city's truly underappreciated athletes, stood by Bonds' side to salvage the MVP presentation to Andrew McCutchen and, in the earlier news conference shared by all four presenters, said, “I'm just happy to be a Pittsburgher.”

Jim Leyland showed that trademark softy side when he spoke of his old franchise: “It makes me happy to see that the Pirates are secure here.”

Jack Wilson, the unfortunate Face of the Streak who always deserved better, offered this: “That scene from the wild-card game … it's what a lot of us always knew it could be like here.”

And how about Neal Huntington and top lieutenant Kyle Stark standing unassumingly at the back of the room to take in this extraordinary session?

Imagine, after all their ups and downs, how that must have felt.

Groat, Leyland and Wilson were cheered during the on-field ceremony and, more important, those being honored — McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Francisco Liriano, Clint Hurdle — heard it even louder.

That's what it's about.

Well, that and all the affirmation that would result from continuing to play good baseball: The bats were stone silent before Walker's blast, but that always happens when Chicago's Jeff Samardzija comes to town. Didn't matter, as it turned out, since Liriano came hard — soft, actually, with all that offspeed material — for six scoreless innings, a couple of terrific double plays were turned, the bullpen put up four more eggs, and Walker wrapped it up with the right hit at the right time.

Stop me if all that sounds familiar.

Maybe it does for those involved, too.

McCutchen glanced around the Pirates' clubhouse not long after the fuss and noticed something strikingly different: There was no music; few players left. As he put it, “Everybody just pretty much showered and went home.”

That prompted Cutch to seek affirmation of his own from Martin.

“It's like we've done this before,” Cutch said to the catcher.

The catcher threw it right back: “We have done it.”

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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