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Longtime Pirates relishing club's turnaround

Longtime Pirates relishing club's turnaround

Longtime Pirates relishing club's turnaround

PITTSBURGH -- Manny Sanguillen can be found at PNC Park before games, greeting fans at the barbecue stand that bears his name on the center-field concourse. Steve Blass and Bob Walk are in the broadcast booth. Kent Tekulve does a pregame and postgame show from Section 103. Jeff Banister is the Pirates' bench coach, while Jay Bell is the team's hitting coach.

Traveling secretary Greg Johnson has been with the club for 30 years. Baseball communications director Jim Trdinich has been a full-time employee for 25 seasons.

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Here's one more thing they all have in common. They are among a select group of people in the organization who were around when the Pirates were really, really good. And they can share an appreciation, on a daily basis, for the fact that after 20 years in the baseball wilderness, the Bucs are back.

Sanguillen was the catcher and Blass won 15 games (with a 2.85 ERA) for the 1971 team that won the World Series. Tekulve was the closer for the 1979 team that won it all. Johnson and Trdinich were on the job when the Pirates, with Walk in the rotation and Bell at shortstop, won three straight division titles from 1990-92. Banister has been with the Bucs since being drafted in 1986, and he had his only Major League at-bat for them in '91. He's coached and managed in the Minors, and he's also been a field coordinator.

These guys have a reference point for what winning Pirates baseball can be like. And now that two full decades worth of losing seasons ended with Monday night's 1-0 victory over the Rangers, they can offer a personal perspective.

"I feel like Rip Van Winkle," Blass joked. "I was asleep for 20 years, and I woke up to good baseball."

Then he turned serious.

"It feels great," Blass said. "Because I've seen everything here. I've seen good baseball fans disappointed. I've seen people who didn't realize for 20 years how good a baseball town Pittsburgh is. We always said it would be a carnival if we had a team to match [PNC Park]. And we do now. It's fun. It's so much fun. I've seen so much baseball, you get numbed sometimes. But not this year. I can't wait to get to the ballpark."

Sanguillen walked by.

"My buddy," Blass said, wrapping him in an embrace. "I never shook off. Because he put down the signs in Spanish."

Both men laughed as if it was the first time they'd heard the line.

Roberto Clemente's No. 21 is prominently displayed at PNC Park, and Sanguillen believes that's a good omen in this, the 21st season since the Bucs last appeared in the postseason.

"So everything reminds me of our day," Sanguillen said. "Roberto and Willie [Stargell] and I pray to God that we win because of that number. That's the new chapter of the Pittsburgh Pirates this year. We're going to go. We never quit. We fight every day. It's wonderful to see.


"I feel like Rip Van Winkle. I was asleep for 20 years, and I woke up to good baseball. ... We always said it would be a carnival if we had a team to match [PNC Park]. And we do now. It's fun. It's so much fun."
-- Pirates broadcaster and former player Steve Blass

"I'm so proud you can't believe. The winning attitude has come back to life. Everybody is so happy. It's unbelievable. You see people coming out of the woodwork. And everybody is excited. The people are going crazy. We're going to surprise everybody."

Tekulve noted that the Pirates' World Series championship in October 1979 was bracketed by Super Bowl victories by the Steelers in January 1979 and January 1980.

"It was great, especially at that time, because of the fact that we were [winning] during the time period when the steel industry was collapsing in Pittsburgh," Tekulve said. "[The championships] really gave this city something to be proud of and something to feel good about."

The current players, Tekulve added, are only now beginning to get a sense of what it all means.

"They're starting to get an idea of how big it is to be a good team," he said. "They won't get it all completely until they've gone all the way through it. But when you come in here and the place is full every night, you start to get the idea that what you're doing is interesting and people care."

Trdinich is a Pittsburgh native who grew up a Pirates fan. He attended some 30 games a year while in high school in the late '70s. Trdinich admits to running onto the field at Three Rivers Stadium after Bert Blyleven struck out Cincinnati's Cesar Geronimo -- "He got him with that big Uncle Charlie!" -- to win the 1979 National League Championship Series, as well as to cutting off a piece of the artificial turf as a souvenir.

"This is very gratifying," Trdinich said. "And hopefully, it will be even more gratifying in the next month or so. There were some trying times. But the thing that always wins out is I love the game. I love the organization. I knew the team was going to get better. Every season is different. There were some good, some bad and some ugly [years]. There were a lot more ugly times. But there were also some good times mixed in. So it's always been fun."

Banister became emotional talking about what this turnaround means to him after his organization spent so many years in a seemingly perpetual search for tomorrow.

"I don't know that I can come up with words that do it justice," Banister said. "You can take all the superlatives you want to put in front of it. The Pittsburgh Pirates were gracious enough to give me an opportunity to play this game that I love so much. And [they] thought I was good enough to keep me around to coach and manage.

"To be here at this moment in time, it's completely embedded in me and my family. Everything that I have to this point, I owe to this organization and these people. I can't see myself anywhere else but here."

Added Bell: "It's a huge deal for a lot of us who have been around -- the Jeff Banisters and myself, and the guys up in the booth that have been through the really good times and the bad. It's fun to see a group of our fan base come out and be excited about baseball late in the season.

"I know early in the season, they talked about, 'It's been so long since they've been over .500.' And I said, 'This is not our goal, just to end up with 82 wins. Our goal is to go on and win the World Series, if at all possible. Get to the playoffs.' And it looks like we're on the doorstep of doing that."

This is shaping up as a special season for the entire Pirates organization. And maybe just a little more special for those who experienced winning here and then had to wait so long for it to come around again.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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