Ron Cook: The night joy returned

The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates' Comeback Season

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The greatest moment in Pirates history happened at 3:36 p.m. on Oct. 13, 1960. One three-letter word describes it: Maz.

The second-greatest moment is a topic for debate.

You might like the Game 7 win in the 1979 World Series. Baltimore's Pat Kelly made the final out by flying out to center fielder Omar Moreno, sending Pirates star Willie Stargell dancing across the infield, looking for someone to hug.

Or maybe you prefer Game 7 of the 1971 World Series, which ended with Baltimore's Merv Rettenmund bouncing out to shortstop Jackie Hernandez. The lasting image from that day is Pirates pitcher Steve Blass leaping into the arms of first baseman Bob Robertson.

Me?

I'm thinking it happened late at night on Sept. 23, 2013. One picture always will stick from that magical night: Champagne dripping down the face of Pirates manager Clint Hurdle in the tiny visitors clubhouse at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

"I wanted to embrace the moment," Hurdle would say later. "I wanted to be a part of all of it. I wanted to get wet. I wanted to be soaked. I wanted it dripping down my face. I wanted my eyes to sting."

That's when you knew it was true -- really true -- that the Pirates were going back to the playoffs for the first time since 1992.

A couple of things had to happen for it to become official.

Shortly before 11 p.m., the Washington Nationals were eliminated from National League wild-card contention when Adam LaRoche popped out to end a 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. There was a bit of irony there. LaRoche is a former Pirates first baseman, who, like so many others, tried and failed to bring a winning baseball team to Pittsburgh.

About 15 minutes earlier, the Pirates had done their part by beating the Chicago Cubs, 2-1, for their 90th win of the season. Charlie Morton pitched beautifully for seven innings, Neil Walker hit a home run early, Starling Marte hit one late and the team found yet another way to win by throwing out the Cubs' Nate Schierholtz at the plate to end the game.

When it was done, Pirates catcher Russell Martin stood up and tried to throw the ball into the left-field bleachers. Or out of the old ballpark. Or maybe to the moon.

That night, it was hard to put anything beyond the Pirates' reach.

"There is nothing like the taste of champagne at this time of the year," Walker said, perhaps enjoying the moment more than anyone because he is, well, the Pittsburgh Kid.

There would be many terrific days ahead. The two wins in Cincinnati on the final weekend of the regular season, which led to the National League wild-card game against the Reds at PNC Park and the absolute best environment in Pittsburgh sports history, which led to two wins -- sadly, one too few -- in the National League Division Series against the Cardinals. Even after the Pirates were eliminated in a Game 5 loss in St. Louis, there was high praise for the team all over baseball and hearty cheers in its backyard. Hurdle talked of receiving a "rousing ovation" on a flight and how his Hampton neighborhood was decorated with Jolly Rogers from one end to the other. He thought he knew his club touched a lot of hearts, but, really, he had no idea.

"It's very humbling, but it's so cool," Hurdle said. "A lot of people are happy. That's what it's all about for me. We restored the pride and the passion."

All of it was wonderful, but nothing quite matched that night in Chicago.

It had been such a long time.

So much losing, year after year, 20 years in all, an embarrassing professional sports record for futility.

So much ridicule.

"You feel like you lost those 20 years," Pirates star Andrew McCutchen said. "That's all you hear. You hear it every single day. 'When is it going to change?' You get sick and tired of hearing that. It's awesome that there won't be any questions anymore."

Fittingly, Journey's classic song "Don't Stop Believin' " blared in that soggy clubhouse as McCutchen spoke.

These Pirates never did.


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