PITTSBURGH -- One day this spring, a group of former Pirates gathered around home plate at McKechnie Field, the team's Grapefruit League stadium, for a semi-solemn private ceremony. Memories were shared. A poem was read. Meaningful glances were exchanged. Then catcher Mike LaValliere stepped up to the plate.
And he smashed the bobblehead that was sitting on top of it with a sledgehammer.
Not just any bobblehead. A figurine that the Braves gave away last season depicting Sid Bream sliding under LaValliere's tag to score the winning run in the bottom of the ninth on Oct. 14, 1992, in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. To the former Bucs, it represented much more than that. It was a harsh reminder that since that heartbreaking sudden-death elimination, the Pirates hadn't had a winning season, much less made it back to the postseason.
It was a gesture that was at once lighthearted and grimly earnest. It was not meant to offend. One message came through loud and clear: The 20 straight losing seasons the franchise had endured were just as frustrating to those who had proudly worn the Pirates uniform when the team was a perennial contender as they were to the fans.
"I don't believe in witchcraft or any craziness like that," LaValliere said. "But you know what? We decided, 'Let's have a little fun with this.' To break the curse. It was kind of like our own little thing -- all of us who went through that. It was kind of like, 'Let's put this behind us.' I know I had a hard time, because obviously we're reminded about that play a lot. It's hard to put behind you. You remember the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. And that was the lowest of lows."
"The camaraderie of being a Pirate is special. You don't get that with every other team."
-- Former Pirates catcher Mike LaValliere
Great pitching and a talented lineup led by NL MVP Award candidate Andrew McCutchen probably have more to do with the Pirates nailing down their first winning season by beating the Rangers, 1-0, on Mondaythan what happened under the palm trees one spring day in Florida. But there's no sense in taking any chances, right?
Gary Varsho was an outfielder for the Pirates under manager Jim Leyland on that fateful night at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He played for the Reds in 1993 but came back to Pittsburgh the following year. Varsho also was a coach in 2008-10.
"I never thought -- I don't think anybody ever thought -- that '92 would be the last winning season," he said.
Now a Major League scout for the Angels, Varsho has vivid and lasting memories about what being a Pirate means. He remembers seeing a simple, hand-lettered cardboard sign when he was traded from the Cubs. It read: "Leyland's Bucs Play Hardball."
"And I thought to myself, 'This is what this town demands,'" Varsho said. "You have to play hardball. You have to play hard. If you give the fans everything you have every day, you're going to be accepted in the City of Champions. And as simple a statement as it was, I always kind of took it took heart. When I came back as a staff member, [1960 World Series hero] Bill Mazeroski was with them in Spring Training. And spending time with Maz, which I was very lucky and very fortunate to do, you could see how much Pittsburgh meant to him.
"And when you run into LaValliere, you run into Andy [Van Slyke], you run into guys like that. We talk about it. 'When are the Pirates going to do it?' It's like, 'When is it going to come back?' So I think it's more than the '92 team that feels really good about this. Being around Maz the three years I was there, you can feel it. And he wanted it as bad as anybody. So I think there are a whole lot of generations of Pirates who feel really good about this."
Said hitting coach Jay Bell, the Bucs' shortstop from 1989-96: "There's always been, no matter how far you get away from Pittsburgh, that sensation that that is part of who you are. I know the last couple years, whenever they've gotten so close and it kind of fell apart there late in the season, there were certainly ex-Pittsburgh Pirates who felt the pain of those losses."
Kent Tekulve pitched in 94 games and earned 31 saves for the 1979 World Series championship team.
"All of us who wore that uniform are tied to life to this ballclub," he said. "We may have played for a lot of different teams. We may live somewhere else. But the Pittsburgh Pirates are part of who you are and who you were as a player. The old saying is, 'Once a Bucco, always a Bucco.' And that pretty much stands true. You may go elsewhere to ply your trade, but you're always going to come back to your roots.
"For 20 years, the fans are not the only ones who suffered. We [former players] had to listen to all this stuff about, 'The Pirates this and the Pirates that.' You know from having put that uniform on and going out on the field and having days where it just wasn't working very well, you know what these players have felt for an awfully long time."
Leyland won a World Series with the Marlins. He's won two pennants with the Tigers and also managed the Rockies for a year. But the Pirates are the team that gave him his start. Leyland won three straight division titles at Three Rivers Stadium. And even though he managed his last game for Pittsburgh in 1996, he's a big fan of what they've accomplished.
"I think it's a wonderful thing," Leyland said. "They're drawing a lot of people. They got a lot of excitement back. I couldn't be happier for them, they're doing great. All my friends, when they call me, they're talking about it. A lot of people are pumped up. I give them a lot of credit. I think it's great. It's been a long time coming. They've got something to be excited about. They're young and good. It's exciting. Clint [Hurdle] has done a terrific job, as has their management team."
And now, the rest of the story. Until recently, LaValliere was an unlikely candidate to take part in a Bucs baseball exorcism.
"To be brutally honest, after the Pirates let me go in 1993 at the beginning of the season, let's just say I wasn't rooting for them," he said. "Let's just say that I didn't wish any ill will to the city of Pittsburgh, but I wasn't necessarily rooting for the Pirates as an organization. Yeah, I was bitter. I wanted to spend the rest of my career there, and they released me."
The hard feelings persisted, even though LaValliere quickly signed with the White Sox and played three more years in the big leagues. It didn't begin to change until about a year ago, when Hurdle reached out, asking LaValliere to come to Spring Training to work with the catchers.
"And right there, it was like, 'We're turning the page here,'" said LaValliere, who lives in Bradenton, Fla., where the Pirates train. "And that was kind of the impetus for the ceremony. 'OK, let's put it all behind us. Let's all work in the same direction. Let's get this ship turned around, and let's start winning again.'"
Now, for the first time, LaValliere subscribes to the MLB package so he can watch every game. He and Hurdle are in almost daily contact. LaValliere is back in the fold.
"The camaraderie of being a Pirate is special. You don't get that with every other team," LaValliere said. "I think a majority of us Pirates took it personally, too, when they were losing. Initially, I didn't take it personally at all. I didn't relish the fact that they were losing. But after awhile, whenever you're tied to an organization, and especially the city that gave so much to us, nobody deserves to go through what they've gone through."