The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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December 26, 2013

Pirates' turnaround in state's top sports story of 2013

PITTSBURGH — The black flags, some of them tucked away for decades, others picked up a couple hours before the first pitch in a fit of pennant fever, waved from the top of the stands behind home plate at PNC Park to the bleachers in left field. From the concourse to the club level. From the Roberto Clemente Bridge to the Bill Mazeroski statue.

Time and again during a glorious summer and an even more thrilling fall, Pittsburgh raised the Jolly Roger in salute to its resilient baseball team, one that shed its label as a woeful loser one victory at a time behind its ever smiling centerfielder and its ever optimistic manager.

Turns out, 2013 was the year of the Pirates.

No, really.

The franchise that spent 21 seasons as a punchline punched back over the span of six months. The Pirates rolled up 94 wins and a Wild Card berth, where they drummed Cincinnati in a memorable win that stirred the echoes of past glory.

The season’s signature moment came in the bottom of the second. As the crowd – most of them clad in black – chanted Cincinnati pitcher Johnny Cueto’s last name, the Reds ace dropped the ball while getting ready to go into his windup. A moment later Pittsburgh catcher Russell Martin hit a solo homer to left that gave the Pirates a two-run lead on its way to a 6-2 romp.

“This is 20 years of waiting,” Martin said. “You’re seeing it all come out in one night. Hopefully we can keep this atmosphere till late October.”

Not quite, though the Pirates took the eventual National League champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, to the limit in the NL division series before falling in a decisive Game 5.

Andrew McCutchen won the MVP Award he narrowly missed out on in 2012, cementing his status as one of the game’s biggest talents. Clint Hurdle was named the NL’s manager of the year for succeeding where the five men who preceded him failed. Left-handed pitcher Francisco Liriano’s return to form symbolized his team’s rise out of the ashes.

Hurdle likened his mishmash of talented young players and established veterans looking for a late-career renaissance to a band of actual pirates.

“In the movies that I’ve watched and the books that I’ve read, there seems to be a spirit of, I really don’t care what anybody thinks anymore, I’m crossing the line, I’m going to become a Pirate,” Hurdle said. “It’s not about mom or dad or brother or sister, not about where I used to work. I’m going to be my own man.  I’m going to hope to latch on to a bunch of other men who feel the same way, that are like-minded, and try to get something special done.”

In the process, the Pirates managed to do something no other team in Pennsylvania did in 2013: capture the imagination of a city.

“This franchise is a great franchise, a franchise that won,” McCutchen said. “We’re going to continue to keep that sail up on that boat and keep going.”

The Jolly Roger was the closest any team in Pennsylvania came to hoisting a banner this year.

The Pittsburgh Penguins nearly did it, advancing to the Eastern Conference finals before Sidney Crosby and company were shut down the Boston Bruins. The Penguins didn’t lead for a second in a four-game sweep, yet rather than blow things up after another playoff swoon, they doubled-down by re-signing stars Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and giving coach Dan Bylsma an extension.

There was no such stability in Philadelphia, where all four professional teams underwent significant changes in the face of mediocrity.

The Eagles parted ways with Andy Reid after 14 seasons and plucked Chip Kelly from Oregon to make over the franchise on the fly. Kelly’s up-tempo offense took time to take flight before flourishing under quarterback Nick Foles, who replaced an injured Michael Vick and pushed the Eagles to the brink of a division title in the decidedly pathetic NFC East.

The Phillies ditched longtime manager Charlie Manuel in mid-August as injuries to former Cy Young winner Roy Halladay and an inept offense sent the aging World Series contenders plummeting to a fourth-place finish in the NL East. Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg went 20-22 after replacing Manuel, faring well enough to earn the full-time job heading into 2014.

Doug Collins stepped down as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers in April following a 34-48 season, citing family issues as a major concern. The Sixers waited nearly four months before hiring Brett Brown, who found himself saddled with an inexperienced roster expected to find itself near the bottom of the NBA standings yet again.

At least Reid, Collins and Manuel were able to step aside somewhat gracefully. Not so much with the Flyers. A couple of weeks after receiving a vote of confidence from ownership, coach Peter Laviolette was fired three games into the season and replaced by Craig Berube.

All of which made the football program at Penn State seem stable by comparison. Following a nightmarish 2012 that included the death of Joe Paterno and the ugly fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, 2013 proved to be drama-free.

The NCAA lessened some of the sanctions imposed after Sandusky’s misdeeds came to light. Coach Bill O’Brien made the surprising decision to start true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg in hopes of building for the future. The Nittany Lions responded with an uneven 7-5 season that included a thrilling quadruple overtime win against Michigan and an embarrassing 63-14 loss to Big Ten power Ohio State that marked the program’s worst loss in 114 years.

Still, Penn State recovered in time to knock off Wisconsin on the road in the season finale. Hackenberg passed for 339 yards and four touchdowns in the upset to set the stage for what could be an even more promising 2014 if the Nittany Lions can find a way to hold onto O’Brien, hardly a given considering what he’s been able to do after inheriting one of the bigger messes in recent memory.

While O’Brien continued to build momentum in Happy Valley, Paul Chryst spun his wheels at Pitt in the school’s first year in the ACC. The Panthers put together a third straight 6-6 season, coupling rousing wins over Duke and Notre Dame with dismal losses to Florida State and Miami. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd’s dynamic play provided a glimpse of what could be while defensive tackle Aaron Donald had perhaps the finest season of any player in the school’s long history.

Donald won every major award given to a player at his position, including the Outland Trophy and the Bednarik Award, and was named a first-team All-American, the byproduct of a year in which he was a disruptive force on seemingly every snap.

It’s the kind of disruptive force the Steelers could have used during another enigmatic fall. Pittsburgh’s listless September sent the team reeling to an 0-4 start from which it never recovered. The nadir came in a 55-31 loss to New England in which the Steelers gave up a club record 610 yards, but the most embarrassing moment happened on Thanksgiving night when coach Mike Tomlin stepped onto the field during a long kickoff return by Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones.

A lengthy apology couldn’t save Tomlin from being hit with a $100,000 fine. The NFL hasn’t ruled out stripping the Steelers of a draft pick next spring, either. It’s the kind of misdeed more closely associated with the Pirates than one of the NFL’s most respected franchises.

Perhaps it’s a sign of just who quickly times have changed in Pittsburgh, where the Jolly Roger has replaced the Terrible Towel as the fan accessory of choice, at least for now.

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