Twenty Years Ago…

…was a hell of a lot more painful than fifty-two years ago, plus one day.

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On an October afternoon in 1960, the 13th to be precise, Bill Mazeroski took Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry deep to Right Field in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series. A home run at 3:13 PM ended a most improbable World Championship for the Pirates over the heavily-favored Yankees, who had heavily outs ores the Buccos in three games, but lost four nail-biters as the Pirates won it all for the first time in 35 years.

Forbes Field has been gone since the early 70s, but fans still gather on the thirteenth of October by the remnants of the outfield wall on the University of Pittsburgh campus, with a radio broadcast of the game, to recollect a great moment over once again.

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The spot the ball cleared.

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Remains of the wall

For a Pittsburgh sports fan, the thirteenth of October is a glorious day.

The fourteenth of October is a different story.

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Twenty years ago, the Pirates were again something. They had built a great pitching staff (Drabek, Smiley), a great set of clutch bats (Bonds, Bonilla, Van Slyke), and had a manager in Jim Leyland who made it all work together, if not perfectly, then with enough harmony to win.

And win they did. Three straight division titles, starting in 1990.

And then came the postseason.

In 1990, the Pirates ran into a Reds buzz saw that put just enough runs on the board before turning things over to a dominant bullpen of Rob Dibble and Randy Myers. The Reds won in six games, then demolished the Oakland A’s to win the World Championship of Professional Baseball.

In 1991, the team was different – the Atlanta Braves won the NL East – and the pitching dominance was in a now well-known set of starters. The result was the same: Braves in seven, the Pirates shut out in the last two at home.

In 1992, it was the Braves once again. Atlanta took a 3-1 series lead, then the Pirates found their bats, winning games five and six. Game seven was tight, but the Buccos squeaked across a pair of runs; the Braves, meanwhile, seemed snakebitten. With the bases loaded, a line-drive was caught by Pirates third-baseman Jeff King, who doubled up the runner on third. A pop-out later, the Pirates were clear of a jam. The seventh and eighth were uneventful.

Then came the ninth.

I won’t say anything to the play that inning, just to my experiencing of that moment.

My dorm room was positioned such that I could pull in KDKA-AM’s call of the game. Long-time play-by-play man Lanny Frattare was nervously confident. I was at the same time on the phone with my brother. Nerves were frayed all around.

The inning degraded. We felt worse. The Braves scored a run on a Sac Fly. Then filled the bases again. A pop-out, and one out to go.

One out to go.

And no closer.

I don’t remember hanging up the phone. Or turning off the TV. I was just…numb. I still am, through twenty consecutive years of losing. Accustomed to it, I suppose.

The Braves would lose to the Blue Jays in six. I was convinced things would’ve been different, if only for a game – that team would be no more because of free agency, win or lose.

A few years later, Jim Leyland would take the Florida Marlins to the World Series, and win. I was happy for him. He lost in ’92, in part due to a ridiculously tight strike zone; he won with Livan Hernandez due to a similarly large one.

Side note: My neighbor four years later was a die-hard Yankees fan. That year, I did the impossible.

I rooted for the Yankees.

I cheered when they beat the Braves.

God forgive me, I loved it so.

Update: As I wrote these words, the Yankees, who had another improbable comeback in Game One of the ALCS (against Jim Leyland’s Tigers) not only lost in extras, but lost Derek Jeter for the season with a broken ankle.

My penance is done.

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