Pirates open the season with a blast and a 1-0 victory

Neil Walker hits 10th-inning, game-winning home run in opener

Mark Melancon couldn't sleep on Sunday night, struggling to the point that he gave up his futile pursuit of rest about 40 minutes before the alarm was set to go off on Monday morning. Neil Walker picked up his teammate, drove him to PNC Park, and on the way, they talked about the day that was coming, how cool it was to simply have the chance to be here for the start of another season.

Of course, this wasn't just any opening day. You could argue there hadn't been one quite like it in the storied 128-year history of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In 2013, the boys of summer finally played well into the fall for the first time in 21 years, capturing the hearts and imagination of a new generation of admirers as the leaves covering the hills of Western Pennsylvania turned red, yellow and orange. A heartbreaking Game 5 loss in the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals gave way to a relentlessly white winter, and the idea that this city would ever see green grass again, regardless of what Punxsutawney Phil's shadow might have indicated, began to border on the absurdly hopeful.

Neil Walker discusses walk-off win

The Pirates' Neil Walker discusess his walk-off home run to defeat the Cubs in the 10th inning in his team's season opener Monday. (Video by Matt Freed; 3/31/2014)

Monday afternoon in Pittsburgh, the Pirates were welcomed with blue skies, 60-degree temperatures and a sellout crowd with suddenly realistic visions of watching a playoff-caliber team for 162 games.

The Pirates organization, from the still-maligned owner to the beloved manager to the resurgent players, paused to take it all in, marveling at what they had created in one magical season. Before the game, as a ceremony took place in front of home plate to honor last year's stars, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington snapped pictures on his cell phone from the dugout. Owner Bob Nutting and president Frank Coonelly glad-handed and shared words with Pirates legends Barry Bonds, Dick Groat and Jim Leyland, who were invited along with former shortstop Jack Wilson to hand out some hard-earned hardware.

All of the guests spent most of their time on the North Shore gushing about the city and the franchise.

"They're back for good now," said Mr. Leyland, who managed the Pirates during three consecutive trips to the playoffs from 1990-92 and presented Clint Hurdle with his 2013 NL Manager of the Year Award. "I've said this many, many times, but this is the most beautiful ballpark in America. It's nice to have the fans really be able to cheer for something."

Mr. Bonds had not taken part in being a Pittsburgh Pirate in any form since leaving after the 1992 season. He was a skinny, freakish athlete while winning two NL Most Valuable Player awards with the Pirates and would later use questionable methods to bulk up and become the greatest home run hitter of all time in San Francisco. Mr. Bonds' steroid saga tarnished his reputation and the game's, and, as he was announced at PNC Park to present Andrew McCutchen his NL MVP trophy, he was greeted with a mix of cheers and boos.

Still, he said it was great to be back in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Groat, a Pittsburgh native who won the MVP in 1960 when the Pirates took the World Series, said of his hometown, "I've always thought it was the greatest city in America." Mr. Wilson, the face of some of the worst Pirates teams in history from 2001-09, added: "With what the Pirates are doing and what the Steelers and Penguins are doing, you're probably looking at the best sports city in America. I'm pretty proud to say I've been a part of this organization."

What a difference a year can make. It was only right that Monday's Steel City lovefest ended with Mr. Walker, a Pittsburgh kid, swatting a home run into the right-field seats in the 10th inning to give the Pirates a 1-0 victory against the Cubs.

"It kind of felt like just a rollover from last year," Mr. Walker said.

The Pirates kept the same working formula for their first win of 2014: Terrific starting pitching (Francisco Liriano gave up no runs and struck out 10 batters in six innings), a dominant bullpen (four relievers gave up no runs and two hits in four innings) and a lineup that just does enough to win (see Mr. Walker's home run).

"It is a different feeling," Mr. McCutchen said. "Everybody knows what we're capable of doing. It's not, 'I wonder what we're going to do this year.' We know what we're going to do, and let's go out there and do it."

Certainly, for the fans, Opening Day 2014 couldn't feel more different.

"There's less desperation," said Lew Balla, 65, of O'Hara. "If we lose today, it's not the end. We have a good team."

Said Steve McCarthy, 25, of Fox Chapel: "Going into this season feels like a huge relief. It's incredible. Thinking back to last season, the night that they got 81 wins and the night they got 82, I remember watching each of those games so distinctly."

Mr. McCarthy, along with several others polled in the left-field rotunda, said he would consider another season above .500 a success for this year's Pirates. They're trying to remain realistic about the current state of the roster while hoping for another run to the playoffs.

In 2011, Mike and Megan Youhouse of Hampton were married in the nearby Hall of Fame Club in left field. Monday, they couldn't help but think about a bright future.

"We have two kids now," Mr. Youhouse, 32, said. "We're hoping they grow up in a world where the Pirates are always good."

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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