By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The line at the PNC Bank in the Suncrest Town Center here wound out the door and down around a part of the building and no, they weren’t giving away money.
Banks don’t do that.
It was the next best thing, though, April in December.
The Pittsburgh Pirates caravan had come to town, and the throng that was there gave evidence that times were getting better for the Pirates, once baseball’s most feared team that has morphed into its biggest losers, 20 consecutive seasons without a .500 record.
Among the group that was on this leg of the journey were two people perhaps best to express the feelings about what the Pirates once were and what they were hoping to become again.
Steve Blass is a longtime Pirates broadcaster, but before that he was one of baseball’s best pitchers with them, winner of the seventh game of the 1971 World Series as team lead by Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell beat a Baltimore Orioles team that included such Hall of Famers as Frank and Brooks Robinson along with Jim Palmer.
Neil Walker is the Pittsburgh Kid, born and raised in the city, now the second baseman and among the most popular of the current players, a kid who would want nothing more than return the glory days to Pittsburgh.
But this week it became obvious why it is so difficult by two events in Major League Baseball, the suddenly money-rich Los Angeles Dodgers tossing $142 million to pitcher Zach Grienke for seven years and the Yankees tossing $12 million to used-up third baseman Kevin Youkilis for this year to fill in as long as it takes for Alex Rodriguez to recover from surgery.
The timing of seeing these things is difficult, for you had the Pirates roaring through the first half of last year, only to fall off in the second half and not be able — or willing — to make moves like that.
“The times have really changed in baseball. We’re trying to build a championship organization the way you should do it,” Walker said. “You piece it together. You get free agents like Russ Martin, who we got to catch this winter. It’s flattering being a full-time resident like I am and seeing where people are in terms of their support.”
He saw it at the lowest points, when there were 100-loss seasons and not pennant races into August.
“I grew up being a fan of the Pirates and seeing Three Rivers Stadium and PNC Park, but going there was just something to do,” Walker admitted. “It was fun to go to the ball park but you kind of knew what it was.”
And what it was was a day’s entertainment, not a battle for first place. And if you saw a superstar, he was wearing the other jersey.
Walker says that’s changing.
“We know we’re going to have to do things the right way. We know we’re going to have to play small ball. We know we have to play good defense. We know we’re not going to go get the superstar, but we have guys such as Andrew McCutchen, who can really play baseball,” he said.
“Look at the San Francisco Giants. They didn’t have a lot of superstars, but they had guys who knew how to play baseball, and they played together. That’s where we’re trying to go.”
It wasn’t how Blass’ Pirates did it, because the eras are different. He played on great teams with great players.
“The Pirates of the early ’70s were fabulous. It was a great coming together of the veterans like Willie Stargell and Clemente and the young guys. We had a stocked farm system them, the Hebners, the Ellises, the Sanguillens,” he said.
The question is can the attitude of those days ever come back? At that time the Pirates were upstaging the Steelers, who were just beginning to get it going again under Chuck Noll.
“I would argue that it can happen,” Blass said. “It was great being part of that, but the first half of last year we were reminded of how good a baseball city Pittsburgh really is. Everyone was behind us. When the Steelers opened up camp they were on the third page of the sports section rather than the first page like they always had been because we were smoking.”
A winning team will change a lot.
“We were losing so many years in a row that you had people backing off. But this last year it caught on again. I was driving to work seeing kids playing catch in the front yard and wearing McCutchen, Walker and Alvarez shirts. It can be that way,” Blass said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.