Latino players leading Pirates to postseason


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Pittsburgh Pirates Francisco Liriano throws a pitch.
The addition of Francisco Liriano may be just what Pittsburgh needed to return to the playoffs. (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Football preseason is already here and so is the usual frenzy. But for folks who think Pittsburgh is strictly a pigskin town, I beg to differ. From Honus Wagner to Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run and the great Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates have treated the Steel City to a wonderful ride. And as I am about to predict, it’s going to get fun again for long-suffering Bucs fans.

I’ve been a “closet” Pittsburgh Pirates aficionado since I met friends Rennie Stennett and Mario Mendoza at a press luncheon in 1974. Yes, I’m talking about the same guy associated with the infamous “Mendoza Line.” Mario was a bespectacled, backup shortstop for Frank Taveras in those days, but whenever the Dominican would get in a defensive funk, Mendoza would come to the rescue. He couldn’t hit or run and had very little range, but the Chihuahua native had those soft Mexican hands and solid instincts.

After the “We Are Family” championship team in 1979 led by Willie Stargell, it took the Pirates over a decade to become competitive again. That’s when my then-eight-year-old son, Josh, started following the Pittsburgh Pirates, before later switching to the Yankees. My kid was a huge Barry Bonds fan, which was when the thin, fleet Pittsburgh outfielder could do a lot more than hit home runs. So, one morning in 1992, we went over to the Sheraton Mission Valley Hotel in San Diego where the Pirates were staying. Bonds wasn’t around, but my son spotted Doug Drabek eating breakfast alone in the coffee shop. The prior evening, the former Pittsburgh right-hander had been sent to an early shower by the lowly Padres.

“Mr. Drabek, could you please sign this ball for me?” asked Josh, standing at the table. “You’re my favorite Pirate pitcher.”

Drabek took a sip of fresh brew and smiled.

“Even after I looked last night,” he quipped.

That group was at the tail end of the Jim Leyland era when the Pittsburgh Pirates had Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, the Bucs’ version of the “Bash Brothers.” But Pittsburgh would then suffer a 20-year postseason drought going into the current 2013 campaign. After teasing loyal supporters only to tank the last two summers, could this year finally bring joy to PNC Park? The answer is yes. Why? Because just like the mid-’70s, when Stennett, Mendoza, Taveras, Omar Moreno, Manny Sanguillen and John Candelaria performed at Three Rivers Stadium, the Pittsburgh Pirates have their Latino swagger back.

Besides Andrew McCutchen, still the obvious face of the franchise, third baseman Pedro Alvarez is the heart and soul of the new generation Pirates. The 6′-3″, 240-pound, New York-raised Dominican is nicknamed “El Toro”, and he displays bull-like strength with each at-bat. Alvarez is the National League co-leader in home runs with 31, which surpasses his career high with over a month left to play.

At the hot corner, Pedro Alvarez, 26, attacks the ball with reckless abandon, and will boot the ball as frequently as he makes web gem-like plays. What you see is what you get with Pedro, and that includes durability, leadership skills and clubhouse presence. A product of Manhattan’s “Hells Kitchen,” Alvarez credits his parents for keeping him off the streets and focusing on education and sports.

“My family was always there for me growing up,” says the soft-spoken giant, who was a second-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt. “They have always been a great support system for me.”

Another player who has matured, perhaps beyond his years, is Pirates left fielder Starling Marte. After playing only 47 games as a rookie last season, Marte has tackled the lead-off role in the Pittsburgh Pirates lineup with poise and confidence. The Santo Domingo native, 24, is hitting a respectable .282, leads the league with 10 triples, and has pilfered 35 bases along the way. And while Marte is currently banged up, Venezuela’s Jose Tabata has picked up the slack. The former Yankees farm hand had an excellent rookie year in 2010, but a laundry list of injuries has hurt his development. Now finally healthy, Tabata has heated up, especially since the All-Star break.

When the Bucs ship began taking on water last season, it was a lack of starting pitching that did them in. That situation was resolved last winter, however, when Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington stepped up to the plate just before Christmas and signed free-agent southpaw Francisco Liriano. It took a month to iron out all the kinks, including a mysterious broken arm and visa difficulties, but there’s no doubt that the Pirates newest Dominican connection has provided the missing piece to the puzzle. In 19 starts this season, Liriano has allowed two earned runs or less on 13 occasions. The eight-year “Junior Circuit” veteran is now top dog in National League wins with a 14-5 record. And there’s a lot of buzz going around that the 29-year-old Liriano could be a dark horse Cy Young Award candidate.

“He certainly deserves to be in the conversation,” notes Pittsburgh Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle. “I know I like to pencil in his name every fifth day.”

Now in his third year at the helm, Hurdle must like a lot of what he sees in his team. There’s a deep Hispanic nucleus camped around established stars like Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin and A.J. Burnett. The club is close-knit, and they can hit, run and catch the ball. And now, there’s finally enough arms in the rotation and the pen.

Simply put, the Pittsburgh Pirates are ready for some October baseball. Buckle up your seat belts and get ready for a wild ride, because this Bucs fan says so. The Steelers will have to share Pittsburgh with the Pirates a bit longer than usual.

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