Where the Wild Cards Are Part II

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Tonight’s National League wild card game pits the Chicago Cubs against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. We can only hope it’s a better game than last night, where the Yankees gave an embarrassing performance in a 3-0 defeat to Houston. The last 5 Yankee playoff games-games 2, 3 and 4 in 2012 against the Tigers and last night-are carbon copies of each other. no hitting, OK pitching except for a tendency to give up home runs that cost the team the game.

So it’s onward and upward to tonight’s game. The homestanding Pirates start 19-game winner Gerrit Cole against the Cubs’ amazing star Jake Arrieta who won 22 games against just 6 defeats in the regular season. No Cub pitcher had won 20 games since 2001.  While this Texan hasn’t pitched in the playoffs before, he’s been on the big stage as an amateur. He pitched for the US team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a team that took the bronze medal. Two years before that he went to Havana, Cuba for the World University Baseball Championship, a tournament the US won.

As for the Pirates starter Cole, at 25 he’s 4 years younger than his opponent on the mound. He’s a Californian who played baseball at UCLA. He could have been a Yankee, since they drafted him in 2008 in the first round. Amazingly, he chose college over his boyhood favorite team, the Yankees. This meant he didn’t get to play with his idol Mariano Rivera.  After college  he was still a first-round pick by the Pirates in 2011, the overall first pick in the draft that year. The Pirates had baseball’s worst record in 2010, at 57-105. Anybody who said they’d be a playoff team by the time Cole got there would have been told he’d had too many bottles of Iron City. That’s Pittsburgh’s local brew and just maybe the worst beer in all creation. But after 20 losing seasons in a row they made the playoffs in 2013 and Cole was there. He won his first 4 starts, something no Pirate pitcher had done since 1907. He started games 2 and 5 of the NLDS which they lost to the Cardinals. His fiancee is Amy Crawford, sister of Giants’ shortstop Brandon Crawford. The two have been an item going back to when they were at UCLA.

While both teams have great tradition, the Cubs’ tradition is that of lovable losers. Their last World Series win was in 1908, and their last appearance in the fall classic was in 1945. Should they win tonight I’ll do a more full profile of their history in this space when possible. The Pirates played and lost in the first World Series in 1903, and won their first championship over the Tigers in 1909 when Forbes Field was brand new. They won the 1925 World Series and lost in 1927 to the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig. The next-and last-World Series played at Forbes Field was in 1960, which the Pirates won on a home run by Bill Mazeroski to start the home half of the 9th inning of game 7. No World Series game 7 has ended on a walkoff home run since. Joe Carter won the 1993 World Series that way, but it was in game 6. The fact that the 1960 Series should end on a home run is ironic considering the vast size of Forbes Field. Its outfield was nearly as deep as Yankee Stadium’s would be when it opened in 1923. The Pirates briefly shortened left field, from 1947 to 1953, but after trading Ralph Kiner they returned to the original enormous dimensions.  For all the character it had, Wayne Terwilliger who played there with the Brooklyn Dodgers told me how awful the infield at Forbes Field was. He said it was always hard as a rock, causing more bad hops than any infield he could think of. One of those bad hops nailed Yankee Tony Kubek in the throat in the final game of the 1960 World Series starting a rally for the Pirates.

The Pirates’ next two World Series wins would come at 3 Rivers Stadium which opened in 1970. Their first championship in the new stadium was in 1971, the next in 1979, both over the Orioles. They won 3 NL East championships between 1990 and 1992 but lost once to the Reds and twice to the Braves in the NLCS. The loss in 1992 was especially painful. In game 7 they were ahead 2-1 in the last of the 9th when the Braves rallied for two runs to reach the World Series on a hit by Francisco Cabrera who in that moment collected his fifteen minutes of fame. He would play only one more season in the majors.

As 2001 began the Pirates opened their present ball park, PNC Park. Some local wits said PNC stood for “People not coming,” or “Pirates not contending.” Neither has been true for the last 3 seasons.  The Pirates finally returned to the playoffs in 2013 losing the NLDS, then lost the wild card game last season.

I’ve only been to Pittsburgh twice, both when the Pirates played at 3 Rivers Stadium. The first time was in 1990, and up until then I’d never suffered from the heat at a game as much as I did that night. It was good training for my future years in the Florida State League and the South Atlantic League, both of which encompass many  hot weather cities. My second visit to the Steel City  was in 1994, where something happened that could not happen in today’s post-9/11 society. I underestimated the traffic from my hotel to the Pittsburgh airport and got into my seat on the plane home with two minutes to spare. Some of the most kind things written about me as a professional broadcaster were written in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and I was honored to be interviewed on local radio by the late and beloved Myron Cope. Tonight, if you listen on MLB.com to the Pirates broadcast, you will hear Tim Neverett and Greg Brown doing play-by-play, with former pitcher Bob Walk on color commentary.  Brown has been with the Pirates since 1994 and began saying “Raise the Jolly Roger,” for a Pirates win. Neverett joined the Buccos in 2009 after doing sports radio and TV in Denver. Pittsburgh radio station KDKA was the first to broadcast a baseball game, in 1921 from Forbes Field. Their legendary announcer Bob Prince, AKA the Gunner won the Ford C. Frick award and the  plaque in Cooperstown that goes with it.

A win tonight and the winner faces the St. Louis Cardinals, the team with baseball’s best record while the Mets face the Dodgers in the other Division series.

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