By STEPHEN HAWKINS
The Associated Press
ARLINGTON, Texas —
Barry Bonds was the slugger in the middle of their lineup, and Doug Drabek was the ace of a rotation that included a rookie knuckleballer named Tim Wakefield.
That was the Pittsburgh Pirates, circa 1992, when the average cost of a gallon of gas was $1.13 and they had their last winning season – until now.
“It’s a sports town, a blue-collar town. They love guys that work hard, but they also want their winners,” said outfielder Marlon Byrd, one of the newest Pirates. “They’ve been waiting a long time for this. We’re giving this city something to cheer about, and it’s big.”
The Pirates earned their 82nd victory, ensuring their first winning record in 21 seasons, with a 1-0 victory Monday night at Texas against Yu Darvish. That came after a four-game losing streak, including a three-game sweep at NL Central-leading St. Louis.
For long-suffering baseball fans in Pittsburgh, where the NFL’s Steelers and NHL’s Penguins won championships and had only a combined seven losing seasons in that span of more than two decades, the Pirates’ winning season was front-page news Tuesday in both of the city’s major newspapers.
It was the lead story on newscasts and the hot topic on sports radio, even more than the Steelers, who lost their season-opener on Sunday.
Still, these Pirates want much more. They want to get to their first World Series since the “We Are Family” team managed by Chuck Tanner won the title in 1979.
“That’s where every team should be. That’s why we play this game,” All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen said Tuesday. “It’s definitely something we believe in now as a team. First you believe in what you can do personally, then you believe in each other. ... I’ve always been sure.”
Pittsburgh went into the second game of its series Tuesday night at Texas a game behind the Cardinals. With 19 games remaining, the Pirates want to win a division title and not settle for a wild card.
“We set the bar very high in spring training. We weren’t talking about competing, we weren’t going to talk about being better than last year,” said Clint Hurdle, their third-year manager. “ I love the way (the players) are going about it. It’s consistent first and foremost. They’re still having fun. ... The preparation, the focus has been there since opening day, and all the way through spring training. The club you’re seeing right now is pretty much the club I saw in April, May, June and July.”
The 1992 Pirates managed by Jim Leyland went to the NL championship series for the third consecutive season. His final year in Pittsburgh was 1996 and a year later, Leyland won a World Series title with the Florida Marlins. He has since won two AL pennants with Detroit, the AL Central leader already assured of another winning season.
Leyland still has some sentiment for the Pirates, though he hasn’t watched them too much this season.
“Sure, it was my first major league job and I managed there for 11 years and it was my home,” Leyland said. “I watched them pretty closely for four games and I didn’t like what I saw.”
That’s because the Pirates took three of four games against Detroit in May, winning two of those 1-0 in 11 innings.
When asked about the dry spell by the Pirates, Leyland responded, “I would say that’s an understatement” and said that the fans have shown good patience.
“It’s a great story for the city and it’s a great story for the franchise, which is a very historic and great franchise,” Leyland said. “I couldn’t be happier for them and I’ll call Clint at some point. ‘’
Rookie right-hander Gerrit Cole threw seven scoreless innings, with a career-high nine strikeouts, and allowed only three hits, to get the significant Monday night victory.
“I don’t think I have to fully understand it,” Cole said. “We don’t really understand what the fans have been through. ... We’re extremely happy to be able to make them feel like we’ve got a winning team out there. But we’ve got a few weeks ahead, and those are going to be some real big games.”
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh, and freelance writers Lary Bump in Arlington, Texas, and Matt Carlson in Chicago contributed to this report.