In the closing seasons of the losing streak, it became true for people to say “the Pirates have not won in a generation.” Years became decades, and soon young people who never knew anything but losing baseball in Pittsburgh were going off to college or starting families.
Born in 1992, I am that generation. Tuesday night’s Wild Card victory was important for all Pirates fans, but it had a little more significance for us young folks. We have never seen baseball in Pittsburgh look like that — a black-washed mass of 40,487 people waving flags and penetrating the psyches of the opposing pitchers.
“I have never seen anything like the scene at PNC Park last night,” wrote John Perrotto, who has seen more baseball games in Pittsburgh than we could probably count. “It was a rare case where the fans truly did influence the outcome of a ballgame.”
But let’s backtrack. By my junior year of high school, every student was born in 1990 or after. To us, the Steelers came first. Then the Penguins. Then the Pirates. Or maybe college teams like Pitt and Penn State before the Pirates.
Point is, many of us were Pirates fans. We weren’t a lost generation, just a generation that knew winning baseball was a fantasy that happened in other cities.
Slowly, it became fantasy no longer — just fantastic. In 2011 and 2012, we started to do things we had never done before. We looked at standings with legitimate interest. Our team was a deadline buyer instead of selling off our favorite players. We watched the games as more than just background noise. We went to PNC Park not just as a lark on a summer’s night, but instead with the idea that maybe the Pirates could actually be a winner.
This year has been so much more. The Pirates knocked down our never-before milestones: most All-Stars, first September pennant race, first winning season, first postseason berth.
Beyond the benchmarks, though, it is the fan support from the 2013 season that has been etched into my memory forever. The 2011 and 2012 crowds were fun and excited, but the term “playoff atmosphere” only became truly appropriate this year.
Two days in particular stick out:
Gerrit Cole’s Major League Debut
I can only recall twice in my life that fans came to PNC Park solely to watch one player. In 2009, we showed up for Andrew McCutchen’s debut (and I use “we” because I skipped school as well to be there in center field). Then this past June, Pirates fans gave Gerrit Cole a standing ovation when he stepped out of the dugout and another when he left the game.
In between, Cole struck out the first batter he faced, delivered a quality start and almost made PNC Park explode. When Cole stepped in against Tim Lincecum in the 2nd inning and smacked a go-ahead tw0-run single, it was the “holy crap” moment that makes fans go nuts. It was surprising, it was loud and it was PNC Park having a laser focus on the baseball game being played. It was also new.
There would be more days like that.
Before Game 1 of the Pirates-Cardinals doubleheader July 30, crowds spilled out from the sidewalk onto the street waiting to enter the Home Plate Rotunda. Right away, it became clear the day would be unique in Pittsburgh baseball.
PNC Park was alive with sound throughout Game 1, and the end of A.J. Burnett’s emotional quality start and Alex Presley’s walkoff single generated an unmatched level of noise. The ballpark party kept going through the intermission.
Then the chants began. “Hoooooll-i-day… Hoooooll-i-day…” The Left Field Loonies taunted St. Louis left fielder Matt Holliday all evening long, part of what Jason Grilli described as “a rowdy soccer crowd.” The doubleheader sweep went better than any Pirates fan could have hoped.
As it turned out, there would be more chanting to come.
Unlike the Cole debut and the doubleheader, I could not be at the ballpark for the Wild Card. Still, the electricity and the visuals of the flag-waving masses shot through the television, as did the audible and unmistakable taunting of Johnny Cueto.
By now, you know what happened. Cueto gives up a homer. The Pittsburgh crowd starts chanting his name like they did for Ron Hextall. Cueto drops the baseball, then immediately gives up another homer to Pirates catcher Russell Martin.
“I don’t know what was going on in his mind, in his head at that point,” Martin said. “Definitely felt like the crowd had an impact on his psyche a little bit. Kind of lost rhythm for a little bit.”
There was no looking back. Every two-syllable Reds pitcher heard the same jeers on the road to their elimination.
“The fans were huge tonight, the blackout, everybody wearing black,” Pirates outfielder Marlon Byrd said. “From the first pitch to the last pitch they were in it.”
From all accounts, Tuesday night was unmatched in the realm of fan noise for a Pirates game. However, the Wild Card crowd should not be thought of as an outlier or as simply the culmination of decades of frustration.
Instead, the PNC Blackout represents another moment in the season of fantasy made reality. More Pittsburghers watched Tuesday night’s game on television than any Pirates game before. It’s more proof that 2013 will be the year we remember as baseball fever returning to the City of Pittsburgh.
It’s the first year my generation has experienced such a fever. Young Pittsburgh has woken up after sleepwalking through a lifetime of losing. For the first time ever, we are living in a baseball town.