The Times West Virginian


April 1, 2014

Pirates reflect on their past on Opening Day

PITTSBURGH — OK, it wasn’t the national holiday Ozzie Smith and the Budweiser people wanted to make Opening Day, but at PNC Park they were celebrating as if it was the Fourth of July, complete with an American flag being parachuted into the park, Christmas and, of course, St. Patrick’s Day.

It was a time for Barry Bonds to come home, a time for Clint Hurdle and his dad, Clinton, and a time for Neil Walker, the Pittsburgh Kid, who sent the biggest crowd ever to see a regular season game in PNC Park history — 39,822 — home happy with a walkoff, 10th inning homer to give the Pirates a 1-0 victory.

It all started a few weeks back when the Pirates approached Hurdle and asked him if he thought it would be wise to bring Bonds back to help present Andrew McCutchen with his MVP award.

Bonds is not the most popular character in Pittsburgh, having first walked out on the team via free agency after helping them to three playoff spots in which he bombed in each, the last one failing to throw out Sid Bream at home plate.

Then the steroid scandal deepened the feelings, even as he rewrote the record book, the marks forever tainted by the suspicion he used steroids.

But Hurdle did not have to think long about asking Bonds back.

“I’m a big believer in honoring tradition,” Hurdle said, “and honoring the present in the best fashion we can. I believe we should acknowledge who we are and what we are and what we used to be and where we’re going.”

They approached McCutchen, too, for it was really to be his day, and while he said he didn’t know Bonds well, he thought it appropriate.

And so it was that Bonds came back to where he began his career, the best part of it being, he said, driving through Coraopolis and going by the LeGrand Apartments, where he lived when he came up.

“It almost brought tears to my eyes,” he admitted.

These were the last wonderful baseball days in Pittsburgh until Hurdle and Co. resurrected the Pirates. The Bonds’ Pirates had Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke and Jay Bell and Mike LaValliere and Doug Drabek and John Smiley and Chico Lind.

What they didn’t have was the formula to beat the Atlanta Braves.

“We had good teams. We tried to win a championship for this city but unfortunately we came up short,” Bonds said.

Just as the Pirates did a year ago when they broke their streak of two decades of losing baseball since Bonds exited and for leading them out of the darkness, Hurdle was presented with his Manager of the Year award by no less a man that Jim Leyland, who had managed the Bonds’ Pirates.

“It’s an individual honor and I don’t have very many of them,” Hurdle said. “But this one is special because my Dad will be here today. I will ship it to him eventually.”

This one, Hurdle said, was for his father.

“Fifty-one years ago my Dad grabbed my hand and said, ‘Let’s go play catch.’ He’s been through the good, the bad and the ugly. He’s always been there for me,” Hurdle said, adding an afterthought.

“He ought to get the award. He’s had to manage me … and that’s quite a task,” Hurdle said.

But make no doubt, Clinton Hurdle enjoyed this one.

“He might still be laying out there,” Hurdle said, pointing toward the stands. “He’s normally one of the last to leave. He’ll probably help sweep the stadium out. Him and Mr. Walker both had a pretty good time today.”

By “Mr. Walker” he could have been referring to Neil, but instead he was referring to his dad, Tom, a former major league player from 1972 to 1977.

However, no one could know the feeling Neil Walker had, putting an end to this opener.

“This is a special day,” he said. “The team and this organization have come a long way. The last 20 years have been tough, so to get where we are now ...”

He didn’t finish. He didn’t have to.

“It’s just very, very special. Growing up here, I have a little better understanding of it and the tradition of this organization,” he said. “This kind of felt like a rollover from last year.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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