One hadn't been seen here in 21 years, but Pittsburghers embraced a winning playoff game Tuesday night like a long-lost brother.
Dressed mostly in black but itching to celebrate, the largest crowd ever to pack the 13-year-old ballpark that had heretofore been denied October baseball, been denied a game equal to PNC Park's beauty, saw the game some never thought they'd see.
In this all-or-nothing game, the Pirates outhit, outfielded and outpitched the Cincinnati Reds to win 6-2, setting them up for the next playoff round against the Cardinals in St. Louis on Thursday.
It's little wonder the game induced more rhythmic clapping than a hootenanny, or that the Reds batter going down on strikes to lead off the game brought the kind of thunderous cheer generally not heard until the ninth inning. For two decades, Pirates fans had endured has-beens, never-wuzzes, sore-armed pitchers, bumbling shortstops, a skinny-dipping mascot, a closet bigamist, a fat first baseman who couldn't hit anything but a running sausage, three Browns, three Smiths, three Wilsons, two LaRoches and two Redmans, but no winning teams.
Then came this wondrous season. The Pirates never lost more than a four in a row, never were further than four games out of first place, never had a losing month and spent every day of the past three months in either first or second place. But 20 consecutive losing seasons -- the longest futility streak in the history of North American professional sports -- can do funny things to long-suffering Pirates fans. (Pardon the redundancy.)
There were many times this season when support for the Pirates seemed thousands of miles wide but just an inch deep. Any tough loss, or any loss at all, had countless members of the Pirates faithless declaring online, on talk shows, in saloons and in workplaces that these were the same old Pirates. Epic collapses by Pirates teams late in the summers of 2011 and 2012, extending the streak, could not be forgotten.
When the final out came at 11:21 p.m. Tuesday, the sense of release, of redemption, was palpable in the smiles and in raucous screams in the stands that remained packed throughout.
The mileposts have been coming about every two weeks now, getting bigger each time. First there was the 82nd victory, guaranteeing a winning season. Scratching that off the to-do list was important because the losing streak couldn't be allowed to reach 21 years. Those digits are sacred hereabouts because Roberto Clemente wore "21" on his magnificent back. The reason the right field fence in PNC Park is 21 feet high is to honor The Great One. This past spring, the Clemente family expressed their concerns to Pirates manager Clint Hurdle,
And the 82nd victory on Sept. 9 forever banished that concern.
But that was small beer. The Pirates and their fans needed to get to the playoffs because there is no dignified way to celebrate just not stinking anymore. The players uncorked champagne in Chicago on Sept. 23 when they clinched their right to play in this playoff game, and now the victory means Hurdle looks like very smart man indeed because that was the 95th victory in a game that counts in 2013.
Yeah. Back in February, before the spring exhibition games even began, Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said he was looking for 95 wins this season. That was arguably a more audacious claim than the one made by the quarterback from Beaver Falls, Joe Namath, when he guaranteed three days before the 1969 Super Bowl that his New York Jets would beat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. (They did.)
Well, the Pirates won 94 in the regular season and this was the 95th, and if that isn't exactly what he meant, nobody really cares. Hurdle, after three seasons, is the first Pirates manager since Chuck Tanner left after the 1985 season to have a career winning percentage over .500
In those past 20 years of losing, 28 other teams -- every team in baseball but the Pirates and Kansas City Royals -- had made the playoffs. Nineteen different teams made the World Series. Four of those teams didn't even exist the last the time the Pirates had a winning season, in 1992.
But here it is a beautiful October morning and Pittsburgh not only has a shot at the Series, it finally had the game that was worthy of the most beautiful ballpark on the continent.
Brian O'Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947. First Published October 2, 2013 4:30 AM