Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pirates fans celebrate end of 21 years of futility

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PITTSBURGH -- The image was seared into 12-year-old Chad Rowland's memory forever.

The slightly up the line throw up from Barry Bonds. The dive to the plate by catcher Mike LaValliere. The textbook slide by Sid Bream. The Pittsburgh Pirates walking off the field in stunned silence after collapsing in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. The Atlanta Braves piling on top of each other in jubilation on their way to the World Series.

Even now, 21 years later, it still stings.

"You never love baseball more than when you were 12," Rowland said. "I cried my eyes out that night."

The tears were welling again on Monday night, this time for an entirely different reason. This time, the throw from the superstar outfielder was wisely cut off by the veteran first baseman picked up at the waiver deadline. This time, the catcher was positioned right on top of the plate. This time, the runner was out.

This time, finally, the Pittsburgh Pirates were on the right side of history.

One of the sport's most beleaguered -- to put it mildly -- franchises is back in the post-season. Pittsburgh clinched a spot in the NL playoffs Monday night when catcher Russell Martin tagged out Chicago's Nate Schierholtz at home to end a thrilling 2-1 victory at Wrigley Field that reverberated in a bar 500 miles to the east, where Rowland let a generation of anguish and angst melt away.

"I was freaking out," Rowland said.

He wasn't alone. At a time of year when the Pirates are typically playing out the string and attention in the self-dubbed "City of Champions" turns to the Steelers and the Penguins, the Pirates -- yes, the Pirates -- are currently the hottest thing going.

A steady stream of fans poured into the team's store at PNC Park on Tuesday, many of them with cups of coffee in hand trying to fend off the effects of another late night in a season that has restored the faith of one of baseball's most tormented -- not to mention faithful -- fan bases.

Rick Hilinski ducked in to pick up a pair of hooded sweatshirts celebrating the playoff berth. One was for him. The other was for his son, R.K., born a few months before Bream's now iconic slide sent the club spinning into a record-setting run of futility.

Hilinski became a season-ticket holder in 2011, believing the hiring of manager Clint Hurdle and the emergence of talented centre fielder Andrew McCutchen were harbingers of the clouds finally parting. Hilinski remembers the good old days, when Roberto Clemente tracked down fly balls in the outfield at Three Rivers Stadium and Willie Stargell tried to hit home runs into the Allegheny River.

The Pirates used to be post-season regulars back then. Between 1960 and 1992, the Pirates won three World Series and made the playoffs 10 times. Hilinski spent countless nights during his childhood sitting with his father and uncle hanging on every pitch. Now he does it with his son, who grew up doing karate "because nobody really wanted to play baseball." Together they've watched a renaissance decades in the making.

As painful as it has been, the journey made the destination all the sweeter.

"It's nice to finally be able to say 'Yeah, we're doing a little better for a change,"' Hilinski said.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 25, 2013 D6

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