Tonight the Pittsburgh Pirates will take on the San Francisco Giants, hosting the NL Wild Card Game for the second straight year at PNC Park. Last year, the Wild Card Game featured one of the best baseball atmospheres I’ve ever witnessed. The players noticed this as well.
“It was unbelievably loud. I couldn’t hear myself talk,” Andrew McCutchen said. “You’ve got 40,000+ people on their feet, screaming, and doing everything they can to help us. It was awesome.”
Josh Harrison called it the loudest stadium he’s ever been in. “As loud as it was last year, I just remember getting chills at times, because I couldn’t hear the bat off the ball,” Harrison said.
John Axford watched the Wild Card Game at home as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, but got to experience what it was like as an opponent at PNC Park in the NLDS when he threw an inning in the Cardinals/Pirates matchup.
“It’s one of my favorite ballparks,” Axford said. “To see it filled, and to see how crazy and nuts the fans were here, it was fantastic to see. I’m glad to be on the other side of it this time.”
Tonight’s starter, Edinson Volquez, was watching the game at home last year. He said he didn’t see all of it, but saw the most important part.
“I saw when [Johnny Cueto] dropped the ball.”
That moment was legendary. It’s something that you can tell your kids and grandkids about, and they’ll assume the story was embellished over time. The crowd starts chanting the pitcher’s name, the pitcher immediately drops the ball off the mound, picks it up, and the first pitch he throws is a home run. It sounds made up. But it was real.
It’s that same moment that will make it impossible for Pirates fans to have a repeat of the 2013 atmosphere. Last year you didn’t know what to expect. You didn’t know how loud the fans would be, and whether they’d have any sort of impact on the game. It was all a pleasant surprise. This year we know what to expect. It will be business as usual, with another #PNCBLACKOUT and a crowd that could be deafening.
“I love the fact that our city is going to have another opportunity to show up,” Clint Hurdle said about this year’s game. “They took it to an extreme last year, at least from my perspective. They showed off.”
“This year I’m hoping they’ll get the same thing,” McCutchen said. “But I’m sure with the fans that we have, that’s what they’re going to do. It’s like being at the football field, but at a baseball stadium. It’s so loud.”
Along with the noise being expected this year, there’s no way to re-create that moment with Cueto. Last year it was just so organic. There was no planning or thinking about how to taunt the Reds’ starter. It was as if every fan in PNC Park suddenly had the idea to chant “Cue-to” all at the same time. The fact that he dropped the ball then gave up a homer was amazing, especially when you consider that the chanting of a pitcher’s name sometimes won’t even rattle him. Axford, for example, had that perfect two-syllable name, and got the chants, but pitched a scoreless inning.
“I recall a little bit of loud noise, but I tend to shut things out when I’m out there,” Axford said.
This year, Pirates fans are already thinking about ways to rattle Madison Bumgarner, who has a much more difficult name. Even if some sort of consensus can be reached, it’s not going to match the Cueto situation. This year will feel more forced, as if that’s what you have to do in Pittsburgh for every pitcher. That’s not saying Pirates fans shouldn’t take this approach. It’s just appreciating the Cueto situation even more.
While I don’t believe last year’s moment can be re-created, I do think that this year’s Wild Card Game can accomplish something else. Once again, PNC Park will be on the national stage. Once again, Pirates fans are expected to be loud. Even if this game doesn’t have a “Cueto drops the ball” moment, the atmosphere should end up very difficult for the opposing team. Any Bumgarner chants might not be original, but they can carry on a tradition that was started with Cueto, and that will probably exist for every opposing pitcher the Pirates play in the future.
Last year was the coming out party for Pirates fans and for PNC Park being an electric playoff atmosphere. Pirates fans won’t be able to re-create that magic, but a repeat of the same atmosphere might accomplish something different. It might start to establish PNC Park as one of the toughest playoff atmospheres in baseball.
“When the crowd can get together as a mass, as a group, a bit of a crazier mob mentality can happen out there in the crowd,” John Axford said. “Not saying that in a bad way. In a good fan perspective way. They can really come together and support their team. That’s what I’m expecting tomorrow.”
That “mob mentality” will almost certainly be on display tonight, in front of another national audience. Last year’s atmosphere created a great moment. This year’s atmosphere could create a great tradition that will make it very difficult for opposing playoff teams to play in PNC Park.