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Bucs' 1971 champions cherish bond with city

Bucs' 1971 champions cherish bond with city

Bucs' 1971 champions cherish bond with city
PITTSBURGH -- Over the weekend and into Monday, members of the 1971 World Series-champion Pirates team returned to Pittsburgh. Al Oliver drove in from central Ohio. Jackie Hernandez flew in from Miami. Each arrived in different places, from different cities.

These former players enter Pittsburgh with the memory of when they were all together on Oct. 17, 1971. That fall, the "Baby Bucs," many just three years into their careers, along with legends Bill Mazeroski and Willie "Pops" Stargell and the great Roberto Clemente, returned to the Greater Pittsburgh Airport from Baltimore and found the city waiting for them.

"When we came through the Fort Pitt tunnel, all we could see was people," Oliver said. "It was a big sea of people who welcomed us back."

A near-full-page Joseph Horne ad in the next day's Post-Gazette declared, "How tweet it is," complete with pictures of drifting feathers that suggested a bird's recent demise.

It's almost 40 years later, but first-year manager Clint Hurdle will tell fans, media or anyone else who might listen that he wants that relationship back. He often talks to his team about reforming a bond between the Pirates and the city.

"They've embraced that," Hurdle said. "They're all about that."

The 1971 team will be honored in an on-field ceremony Tuesday before the Pirates face the Orioles in the second game of an Interleague series. It will stand as an example of a team that had to work hard and built a bond with Pittsburgh.

The Bucs had won a World Series in 1960, but in 1971 the only familiar faces left from that team were Mazeroski, the 1960 Series hero, Clemente and manager Danny Murtaugh. Most of the players on the '71 squad had only been in the Major Leagues for a few years. It was also perhaps the most diverse team. In early September, Murtaugh fielded the Majors' first all-non-white starting lineup.

But despite their inexperience, the Pirates continued to win, and they finished the season with a 97-65 record. On Sept. 19, when the team's magic number was down to one, 40,337 fans crowded into Three Rivers Stadium to see the Pirates clinch the National League East title. They didn't that day, but did three days later in St. Louis.

"Any time you have a team and it wins," Hernandez said, "it's good for the city."

The Pirates' bond with the city was an important part of the outcome of the '71 playoffs. Against the Giants in the NL Championship Series, the Bucs won one of two in San Francisco before returning home. They then won both games at Three Rivers to take the pennant.

They went on to face the Orioles, the 1970 World Series champions, who finished the season with 101 wins. The Orioles took the first two games in Baltimore, 5-3 and 11-3. The Pirates returned to Pittsburgh seemingly finished. There, in front of sold-out crowds and thanks to heroics from various players, the Bucs won three straight games, 5-1, 4-3 and 4-0. The third win was a complete-game two-hitter by Nelson Briles.

"We were the underdogs," Hernandez said. "So when we came back to Pittsburgh and won, it was a boost for the team and the city."

After losing Game 6 by a 3-2 score in 10 innings, Steve Blass pitched a complete game in Game 7 that ended when Hernandez fielded a grounder at shortstop and threw to first baseman Bob Robertson. The Pirates won, 2-1.

Back in Pittsburgh, the city went crazy. Oliver recalled Pittsburghers lining the streets from the airport all the way downtown -- then a distance of about 15 miles -- celebrating and ready to greet their team.

The Pirates returned together to the city that embraced them.

"Every age, color and stratum of society was there reveling in a mass glow of community pride," wrote Pittsburgh resident Maxine Bruhns in a Post-Gazette letter to the editor on Oct. 21.

Now when they get together, which they did a few weeks ago in Pittsburgh to sign autographs, and did 10 years ago for the 30th anniversary of their championship, the former players reminisce. Hernandez looks back on making that final out, his favorite memory from the Series. Oliver muses over how special those weeks, and the night of Oct. 17, really were. Despite a long, successful career, it was the only World Series he would ever play in.

They also talk about the Pirates' new young talent: Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and others. They've been there; they know what it might take for the Pirates to win and get the city back. Oliver suggested the addition of a power hitter who can hit with consistency. But he said that the current Pirates already have what the underdogs of 1971 had.

"All they need to do is to go on the field with confidence and believe that they can play with anyone," Oliver said. "Who knows? I would like to see them embraced again with the same acceptance. The people deserve that."

Laura Myers is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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