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Van Slyke proud of Pirates' postseason push

Five-time Gold Glove Award winner throws out first pitch before Game 4

PITTSBURGH -- One of the enduring images from the 1992 National League Championship Series is Andy Van Slyke sitting in the center-field grass at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and watching in disbelief as the Braves wildly celebrated their ninth-inning, come-from-behind victory in Game 7.

With Pittsburgh back in the playoffs for the first time since then, the team invited the five-time Gold Glove Award winner to throw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to Game 4 of the NL Division Series between the Pirates and Cardinals at PNC Park on Monday afternoon.

"It's been over 20 years since the Pirates uniform has been in the postseason, so just to be associated with this in any way makes me feel proud," Van Slyke said. "Hopefully, these guys can get it done where we didn't. We just couldn't get it done and win a World Series, and we had good teams to do it."

Pittsburgh won the NL East title in 1990, '91 and '92, but lost in the NLCS all three years -- to the Reds once and Braves twice. However, the loud ovation Van Slyke received when he took the mound indicated that fans here still have an appreciation for what those teams did accomplish.

"I think they appreciated the effort we put forth," Van Slyke said. "If there was anything they had to hold onto over the last 20 years, it was those winning teams we put together in the early '90s. I just hope these guys can get it done so they can move on and let those '90s pass."

Van Slyke began his big league career with the Cards, and shortly after he came off the field on Monday, he started getting text messages from his St. Louis friends calling him a "traitor." The three-time All-Star admitted to having a "divided heart" in this series, but pointed out that he also has a rooting interest in a third NL team involved in the postseason. That's because his son, Scott, is an outfielder for the Dodgers.

"My emotional ties are much greater with the Cardinals and the Pirates than they are the Dodgers," he said. "But I'd love to see the Dodgers win and have a Van Slyke on a World Series-winning team."

Van Slyke marveled at the packed house at PNC Park on Monday and the beauty of the ballpark that has the skyline of downtown Pittsburgh as its backdrop.

"I probably would have been a bad center fielder here," he said. "I probably would have been turned around looking at the buildings all the time. These guys walk out onto an absolutely beautiful theater."

The first two home postseason games the Bucs have played this month drew the two largest crowds in the 13-year history of the ballpark -- 40,487 fans for the Wild Card Game against the Reds last Tuesday and 40,489 fans for Game 3 of the NLDS on Sunday.

"I had high expectations for our crowds, because I know they're great baseball fans and great sports fans, but I was blown away on Tuesday night and again yesterday afternoon," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said on the team's flagship station, 93.7 The Fan.

Monday's game was a weekday afternoon contest as opposed to a night game or a weekend affair, but for the third straight postseason game, the stands were jammed with Bucs fans dressed in black. The team's top players -- including Andrew McCutchen and A.J. Burnett -- called for the "Blackout" via social media, and the fans obliged.

"Those are the best types of promotions, the ones that are organic and come from within the clubhouse," Coonelly said. "Whether it's 'We Are Fam-A-Lee' [the battle cry of the 1979 World Series champion Pirates] or a 'Blackout,' things that come from the players are always embraced by the fans."

The Pirates pursuing a playoff spot in September and entering the postseason in October has also been a wonderful development for the bars and restaurants near PNC Park. There's been a carnival-like atmosphere in the neighborhood for more than a month now, and it continued on Monday.

"Business has been incredible. I feel like going over there and hugging every one of the Pirates," said Jack Hunt, the proprietor for Atria's restaurant at PNC Park. "The pride is so high right now. You can feel the energy. It starts early in the day and goes until late at night. Pittsburgh is in a frenzy because of the Pirates."

Jim Lachimia is a contributor to
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