Pittsburgh as Baseball Town: How the 2013 Pirates Brought Back the Fever

Marlon Byrd home run

Fireworks explode over the Allegheny River after Marlon Byrd’s 2nd-inning home run. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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

Gerrit Cole ovation

Gerrit Cole exited to an ovation in his Major League debut. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

The Doubleheader

Fans outside PNC Park fill up to the streets trying to enter.

Fans outside PNC Park filled up to the streets trying to enter for the St. Louis series in July.

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.

Cueeeee-to, Cueeeee-to

Pirates fans blackout

Pirates fans blacked out PNC Park for the Wild Card. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

James Santelli

Author: James Santelli

James covers the Pirates beat for Pirates Prospects. He is a Broadcast Journalism student at USC and has written for such outlets as NBCOlympics.com, Pittsburgh Magazine and the official websites of the Los Angeles Clippers and Pittsburgh Penguins. James previously covered the Pirates for Pittsburgh Sports Report. He also broadcasts play-by-play for the USC Trojans baseball team and was awarded the 2013 Chick Hearn Memorial Scholarship and Allan Malamud Scholarship. James dispenses puns at his Twitter account (@JamesSantelli) where he promises to write in first-person. Google

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  • smurph

    Kind of shows you how things have changed over the years. Back in the day the Pirates were able to “steal” a talented Puerto Rican minor league kid from the Dodgers organization. He came up with no hype whatsoever. In fact, I remember listening to Bob Prince call Pirate games and rave about the right fielder named Roberto Clemente. I had a 1958 baseball card of Bob Clemente (which I thought was pronounced Klee-ment’). It was a year or so later that I realized it was a Clemente baseball card. And it was a few years after that before people outside of Pittsburgh were aware of this great baseball player.
    I am so old that I can remember when the Pirates were one of the best run, always contending baseball organizations, and the Steelers were the laughing stock of the NFL. It has taken about 45 years for that situation to finally reappear.

  • CalipariFan506

    Just curious if anybody has an answer. What was the TV rating compared to a Penguins playoff game?

  • TonyV

    James, I hope you are correct but I have my doubts. For whatever reason the area has never supported this team with consistent attendance. You can easily see the data during seasons and decades (think the 70s and again the early 90s) when attendance was weak and even disgraceful in 1992. I hope that has changed, but, have concerns that attendance will falter once the novelty wears off in a year or two.

  • http://www.facebook.com/faye.zbuksukcz Faye Zbuksukcz

    The point at which I knew there was a change was at this year’s Regatta. Pirates jerseys outnumbered Steelers jerseys by about 100:1 or more.
    Wasn’t long ago you’d see as many Steelers or Pens jerseys in PNC as you would Pirates gear. Today that’s rare. And if you do see one, it’s the certain telltale sign of a bandwagoner!

  • rburgh

    I lived through THE RISE OF THE PIRATES PART I, which began in 1958 and produced 35 seasons of mostly good teams and mostly relevant September baseball. I, and everyone I grew up with, idolized Mazeroski and Clemente. They paid us back with a couple of improbable World Championships, and the NEXT GENERATION, populated by Stargell, Hebner, Oliver, Robertson, and Parker, continued the good work.

    Then it all fell apart, and the Bucs have been mostly terrible for 21 seasons. (The first RISE was after a 9-year period where the Bucs averaged fewer than 59 wins per season, the equivalent of 100 loss seasons in today’s 162 game schedule.

    Because this franchise has followed a sustainable process of building from below, I think there is a good chance that THE RISE OF THE PIRATES, PART II can provide a sustained run of success. 35 seasons would be stretching it perhaps, but I have fond hopes that it will continue for the rest of my life.

  • CalipariFan506

    I found my answer.

    The game last night drew a 33 rating in Pittsburgh. That is 10 points higher than the Penguins/Bruins ECF game 3 got, which was the highest rated game this spring.

    I think this is important for the Pirates because their fan base has a lot of elderly people. I’d say if you did the over 65 viewers that would be where the difference between Pirates/Penguins ratings come from. Hopefully this run gets some younger fans.

    Also I’d suggest watching the game at home tomorrow rather than a sports bar. Hockey fans have a large faction that absolutely hate baseball and the Pirates in Pittsburgh. They’ll probably be out trolling local sports bars to watch the Penguins opener. My favorite watering hole is a place I will go 283 days a year. I refuse to when the Penguins play.

  • Cato the Elder

    “…but it had a little more significance for us young folks.”

    Eh, I wouldn’t underestimate the significance of last night to the elderly fans who grew up when Pittsburgh truly was a baseball town and had resigned themselves to the fact that they would never see a winning ball club in this town again. Even if the club had remained horribly run, by blind luck alone, there was always a good chance the 21 year old fans were going to see a winner someday. It just happened to be last night for them. If not this year, then next, or next, or next…. For the 75 year old, let’s say last night had a may have had a little more significance.

  • CalipariFan506

    Ya my grandfather is 89 and he told me more times than I can count that maybe I’d see them win again but he wouldn’t. Well right now he is and it’s given him more life than he’s had in a few years.