McGregor: From sadness to success
The last time the Pittsburgh Pirates were in the playoffs, I was four years old.
Over the span of the next 21 years, I have finished high school, college, lived in three different cities, two states, worked at two newspapers and held countless jobs. In the same span, the Pirates had 20 straight losing seasons.
However, this story isn't just about me, but a man who I have watched over the years have all the hope in the world for his beloved Pirates at the start the season just to be cellar dweller by July. The man is my father, Wallace Russell McGregor. Everyone calls him Russ.
"I know a lot of people who say that they are so-called fans, but they really aren't," Russ said. "It is easy to get down on your team and say what if. Let's face it they've had some bad management. They made some terrible decisions. When it came to June and July and you knew there was no hope, you always think they are betting the club for next year. Then they never did or it never worked out.
"I remember when (Clint) Hurdle came in and they were making some different decisions," he said. "I knew it was going take a few years. Last year was tough. To be 16 games over .500 in August and not have a winning season."
The biggest worry my dad had was the Pirates' streak of losing seasons would reach 21. A number, which has been cemented in stone by Roberto Clemente, who wore No. 21 with the Pirates during his 18-year tenure.
"He was one the greats, if not, the greatest Pittsburgh player," Russ said.
My dad grew up in a small town of Kimball, S.D., listening to Willie Stargell, Dave Parker and the "We Are Family" Pirates on the radio. He would read the game stories and box scores in the newspaper the next day.
"Baseball back then, we just had regular channels and it was the game of the week," Russ said. "It was just Saturday afternoon baseball and every once in a while there used to be Monday night baseball, but that was it. I listened to them on KDKA Pittsburgh 1020 AM."
For this man, the last 20 years has been filled with many changes. He's changed jobs, lived in two cities, became the father to two more children -- my younger sisters, Hailey and Grace, -- and became a grandpa when my oldest sister, Alex, gave birth to Khira.
Though his life has changed drastically in the last 20 years, one thing has always remained the same -- his love for the Pirates. However, for a many of those years, the love was only a one-way street.
That was until Tuesday when the Pirates ripped the Cincinnati Reds 6-2 to advance to the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates finished the season with their first winning record (94-68) since 1992.
"Going into last night, I knew they were going to win. I just had that feeling, but you just never know," Russ said. "I just knew they were going to win and with the Steelers playing so bad this year, you think if the Bucs would have lost that game last night that would have really let a city down. It was big for the city of Pittsburgh."
It was a sigh of relief, an overwhelming joy, which Pirate fans have had over the last 20 years. The Pirate fans at PNC Park on Tuesday night didn't let the opportunity go to waste either. The bellowing chants of "Cueto" rattled through the TV at The Press office. The chants worked wonders as Cincinnati starting pitcher Johnny Cueto lasted 3-1/3 innings, allowed four runs and gave up a pair of second-inning home runs to Marlon Byrd and Russell Martin.
"PNC is one of the most beautiful parks, to see it after all these years with only 10,000 people in the stands and then to see it last night with 40,500 people -- full to capacity -- with the fans doing what they did, they really got on Cueto," Russ said. "Just to see that place full was great, it was absolutely fantastic."
I was chatting with my father during commercial breaks and a quick trip to Burger King. He was watching the game in my hometown of Watertown, S.D. Nearly every time I talked with my father during the regular season, he always had something good to say about Francisco Liriano. My dad would compare his "stuff" -- the quality of his pitches -- to that of Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.
On Tuesday, he said Liriano is locked in and he wasn't kidding. Liriano went seven innings, allowed one run and struck out five. Liriano, who was picked up during this past offseason for $1 million, has lived up to every penny of his contract. He has a record of 16-8 with a 3.02 earned run average and 163 strikeouts.
"I never saw (Sandy) Koufax or (Don) Drysdale play," Russ said. "I saw Nolan Ryan play. (Justin) Verlander is a guy, Liriano is a guy and Ryan is a guy that if they are on you could see a no-hitter. I think the next guy is going to be Clayton Kershaw. When Liriano is on, he is tough to beat. When they signed him this last season, I was really happy. I knew if he could just get back and pitch the way he used to when he started out with the (Minnesota) Twins. I thought Pittsburgh's got a chance."
Though everyone's lives in the McGregor's house have changed in the last 20 years, the Pirates have gone through many changes as well.
Pittsburgh has had 20 losing seasons, finished last in the National League Central nine times, had a pair of 100-loss seasons, six different managers and a handful of potential prospects.
However, for many of the seasons between 1992 and 2013, my father has watched his Pirates turned into every other major league team's professional farm system. There was a point in time where my dad didn't wear his tattered Pirates hat in public.
Once a player neared the height of his career or a young all-star's first contract is over, the player left the Pirates in hopes of catching on a playoff team. The biggest prospect which left the Pirates was Barry Bonds.
The team Bonds left the Pirates for was the San Francisco Giants. Though Bonds' career has been tainted by steroids, he was one of the most electrifying players in Major League Baseball. He won two MVP awards with the Pirates and five with the Giants, was named an all-star 14 times, a Silver Slugger 12 times and nabbed eight Golden Gloves.
Not only did Bonds have the power to hit more than 25 home runs per season, but the quickness to swipe more than 30 stolen bases. He finished his career with 762 home runs, 2,558 RBIs, 514 stolen bases and 688 intentional walks.
Once Bonds was gone, the Pirates took a turn for the worse. Was it a coincidence or was it something more?
"I think they not only invested so much in Barry Bonds, but Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, Doug Drabek and all those guys," Russ said. "Their payroll was up and those were their years to win it. I think more than ever when Jim Leyland left -- I always thought he was a great manager and I still think he's a great manager -- but when he left, I thought it was going to be rough couple of years here. I thought it was going be five or six years, never I thought it was going to be 20 years. I think Jim leaving was just as big as Barry leaving."
Not only does my father love the Pirates, he's an avid Pittsburgh fan from the Penguins to the Steelers to Panthers college basketball.
Every Christmas or winter holiday, my father and I will watch the VHS tape of the Penguins' 1991-92 season. Though we already know the final outcome, it has become a tradition.
Will we be watching the Pirates' 2013 season on DVD this upcoming Christmas? I don't know, but with the Pirates in the NLDS anything can happen.