Finally, the Pirates chalk up win No. 82


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Nothing was funny about the Texas Rangers getting a baserunner in the bottom of the ninth inning Monday night, but, still, Craig Codeluppi laughed maniacally.

"You've got to be kidding me," he said.

His Pirates were leading, 1-0, and one out away from clinching their first winning season in 21 years, and they were now one swing of the bat from having to wait at least one more day.

Mr. Codeluppi, 40, leaned forward on the sofa in his Monroeville basement, surrounded by his parents, his wife and two young sons. When Pirates closer Mark Melancon forced a groundout to second for the final out, Mr. Codeluppi and his 11-year-old son, Nathan, jumped out of their seats and exclaimed, simply, "Yes!"

Then, two decades of pent-up angst poured out of Mr. Codeluppi. An accountant by day, he immediately posted "0" on Facebook, finishing the countdown to this moment he started more than a month ago. He then rushed up the stairs, his boys rumbling behind, and took three bottle rockets out to the backyard. Nathan and Danny were asleep just minutes ago, but their mother, Stephanie, woke them up to see history.

"Raise it!" Mr. Codeluppi said before each rocket whizzed and soared into the night sky.

The fun wasn't over. Now it was on to the front walkway, where Mr. Codeluppi carried with him a bobblehead-doll rendering of Sid Bream's slide in Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series, the play that won the series for the Atlanta Braves and begot a region's suffering. Last summer, Mr. Codeluppi purchased the item on Ebay, and it wasn't long before he decided how it would be used.

Monday night, he picked up a sledgehammer. Stephanie filmed him with her phone.

"Dad, what's the trophy of?" Danny asked.

"The last time we had a winning season, that's what ended it, that slide," Mr. Codeluppi said.

He stepped toward the statue.

"Let's go Bucs!" he yelled. "Twenty long years!"

He swung the hammer and dismembered it in one swing. Nathan picked up a piece of Mr. Bream's midsection.

Mr. Codeluppi was satisfied.

"That broke a lot quicker than I thought it would," he said.

A long wait gets longer

Ben Jacox turned 20 Wednesday. He felt it was meant to be. The Pirates were playing for a winning season for the first time in his life, and ace Francisco Liriano was on the mound, facing a Brewers team that the Pirates had handled all season long. This would be the day Western Pennsylvania would cheer a winning baseball team.

Mr. Jacox wanted his story to be heard, how he'd stuck with them despite no evidence it would ever bring him happiness. He picked up the phone in his Butler home and called the Pirates main office at PNC Park. He spoke with a woman and asked her to pass along the message that they had better win their 82nd game later that night in Milwaukee because it was his birthday. She said she'd let the Pirates know.

Mr. Jacox is too young to have seen Sid Bream play baseball, but every Pirates fan has heard the name and seen the lowlight.

Mr. Bream watched Wednesday night, too, from his home in Zelienople. He has seen a bunch of Pirates games this year, four or five from the stands at PNC Park, where he'll inevitably be recognized by fans who harass him about his leaving the Pirates for the Braves and breaking their hearts two seasons later with his remarkable Game 7 slide.

Mr. Bream is highly engaged in what's happening, but not because a Pirates winning season will lead to his absolution.

"I'm not that hard up," Mr. Bream said. "The whole aspect of the Bream Curse and the 20 years and so on and so forth, that is not why I'm wanting them to win. I'm just excited for the team. I'm not worried about the past."

If only it were so easy for Pirates fans.

Mr. Bream was a part of the 1990 Pirates who lost to the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Championship Series. He loved Pittsburgh and wanted to remain a Pirate, but he left for the Braves.

In 1991, Atlanta beat the Pirates in the NLCS in seven games -- a big upset. In 1992, they'd meet again, and this time, the Pirates took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 in Atlanta. Mr. Bream's slide under the sweeping tag of Pirates catcher Mike LaValliere sealed the Pirates' epic collapse, and Pittsburghers, no matter how old, collectively weeped.

Over time, the Pirates became a punch line, locally and nationally. Meanwhile, the Steelers won two more Super Bowls, and the Penguins brought home another Stanley Cup. The Pirates' ineptitude, in a way, was what kept the city grounded firmly in reality.

"They had a whole generation grow up and not see Pirate baseball at least have a .500 season, which was a sad thing to watch," said Andy Van Slyke, the star center fielder from those early 1990s teams. "To lose one generation was bad enough. To lose two generations would have been criminal."

Mr. Van Slyke, who raised his family in St. Louis, knows what those children of the 2000s were missing.

"It would be tremendous to see the colors of the leaves change on the trees but also see them fall off while the Pirates are still playing," he said. "I'm hoping people are raking their leaves while they listen to the ballgame on the radio."

Pirates fans have the same vision as their former hero. But, before any of that can happen, they have to have a winning season.

Wednesday night, as Pittsburgh braced itself for a party, the Pirates would make them wait at least two days longer, losing to the Brewers, 9-3.

In Butler, Mr. Jacox had tried to keep faith until the very end. His perfect 20th birthday was not meant to be, and so he cried.

During the weekend, he'd be joined by a legion of frustrated fans who had prepared to toast a winner.

More than a year ago, Jack Craig, 24, of Verona, bought two cans of Iron City beer, one to celebrate the Pirates winning 82 and the other for making the playoffs. He consumed neither in 2012, and, when he moved from Buffalo, N.Y., to Peoria, Ill., for school, he brought them with him. He's had to stare at his favorite team's failure each time he opened the refrigerator.

Friday and Saturday nights, Mr. Craig put his can of Iron City in a Ziploc bag filled with ice and took it to the bar, where he watched the Pirates play the Cardinals while surrounded by opposing fans. The Pirates lost 12-8 and 5-0, respectively.

"When they get 82," Mr. Craig said, "at this point it will be more of a relief."

Sean Amoroso, 31, of the South Hills, had bought a champagne bottle and painted '82 on it in gold. After the Pirates lost 9-2 Sunday to extend their losing streak to four games, he began to doubt himself.

"I'm ready to chuck that bottle in the trash or something," Mr. Amoroso said. "My buddy said, 'You cursed the curse.' "

Mr. Amoroso decided to give the bottle one more chance Monday night.

Freedom at last

With Pirates fans having waited 21 years, what was six more days?

To 88-year-old Jerry Goldstein, of downtown Pittsburgh, the four losses separating 81 and 82 were just four of thousands he's seen through his life.

Mr. Goldstein grew up watching games at Forbes Field and remembers Babe Ruth hitting three home runs there in his last game, so he isn't lacking for historical perspective. These past two decades, he was going to watch every Pirates game regardless of if they won or lost.

"I was born into the thing," Mr. Goldstein said.

Mr. Goldstein's days are built around the Pirates. Six years ago, he developed Parkinson's disease, which has affected his short-term memory. In May, he suffered a stroke. But the baseball side of his brain remains untouched. His family likes to joke that he's sticking around only to see the Pirates win another World Series.

Mr. Goldstein sat down in his black leather chair once again Monday night, hoping for a win over the Rangers and an end to these two unseemly streaks -- four games, and, of course, 20 years.

He was not alone.

Sharing a searing pain that has connected the generations, Pirates fans have carried with them a belief that their patience will surely be worth it. Because why would anybody be put through all of this otherwise? That's a world that nobody wants to inhabit.

When the final out was recorded Monday night, Mr. Craig, in Illinois, went to his fridge, cracked open that Iron City and took a big gulp.

"I don't think an Iron City has ever tasted so good," he said. "It's beautiful."

And Mr. Amoroso didn't have to get rid of that champagne bottle.

"Tastes like winning!" he said.

At Mr. Codeluppi's house, where the remains of the bobble head ended up in a gardening cart, Nathan and Danny went back to bed. In the morning, they'd wake up to a new existence, one in which the Pittsburgh Pirates were no longer losers.

neigh_city - pirates

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough First Published September 10, 2013 4:45 AM


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