Last season, long-suffering Pittsburgh Pirates fans were optimistic that a streak of 19 consecutive losing years, finally, was coming to an end.
Instead, an August swoon would produce another sub.-500 finish and chants of “Let's Go Steelers!” echoing throughout PNC Park.
“That's what has made this season so great,” said Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer, who grew up in Taloga and played at Oklahoma State. “That's beyond us now. Fans in Pittsburgh just wanted a winner. They've waited 20 years for this.”
How things have changed in the Steel City. The Steelers are 0-4, their worst start since 1968. The Pirates are in the National League playoffs for the first time in two decades.
A caller to Dan Patrick's national radio show claimed he was given free tickets to a Steelers game while seats for Pirates playoff games are going double and triple face value.
“Everyone in Pittsburgh is so pumped. Fans are on the edge of their seats,” Mercer said. “One fan told me, ‘I can now tell my grandkids I've seen a Pirates team in the playoffs.' It's pretty cool to see all that passion.”
The Pirates host Cincinnati in a one-game, wild-card showdown Tuesday night at PNC Park. The winner advances to the division round and will host Games 1 and 2 of a best-of-5 series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“It's crazy. Three of the best records in all of baseball have been in the same division,” Mercer said. “The three of us battled all year. But the key is to get in. Win that wild-card game, and you can go all the way. Look at the Cardinals last year. They won that game and were one win from the World Series.
“We've proven all year this is a team capable of going a long way in the playoffs. You have to win that first game. But you win that one and who knows how far you can go?”
Regardless how the Pirates fare it's been a historic season.
This is the 21st anniversary of the last time the Pirates made the playoffs.
To get to PNC Park one must cross the Roberto Clemente bridge.
“They retired Roberto Clemente's No. 21,” Mercer said. “We knew we couldn't let the streak get to 21. The day we clinched a playoff berth it meant so much for everyone in the organization, the entire city.”
The Pirates called up Mercer from Triple-A twice in May. When he returned the second time it wasn't a certainty that he would stick once utility man John McDonald returned from the disabled list.
McDonald, though, never got healthy. Over the next two months, Mercer earned a platoon with Clint Barmes. Occasionally, Mercer spells Neil Walker at second base.
But Mercer has played a key role in the Pirates' memorable season. Hitting .307 since the All-Star break, Mercer hit .285 for the season with eight homers, 27 RBIs and 33 runs scored. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle explained in early August why Mercer would start getting more playing time.
“It's because of the quality of Jordy's (defensive) play and the way he's swinging the bat,” Hurdle told Pittsburgh Sporting News. “It's playing the guy that's obviously taking care of both sides of the ball very professionally.”
Pittsburgh's front office hinted early this season if Mercer had a productive year, whether it was in Triple-A Indianapolis or Pittsburgh, the kid from Taloga could be handed the starting job in 2014. Barmes is a free agent at the end of the season.
Now that Mercer has established himself, is he confident he'll be the Pirates opening day shortstop next spring?
“I feel I've had a really good season and have proved myself to a number of people, including myself,” said Mercer, who lives in Edmond during the offseason. “You never know. Once you get to the big leagues it's a totally different game. You don't know for certain how you'll fit in. I've shown I at least deserve a chance.”
For now, Mercer's focus is the playoffs.
“If we win that first one we could have a lot of fun,” Mercer said. “To be on the team that got over the hump, the team that turned the tables and got into the playoffs, it's been incredible baseball eruption in this city. There's a buzz everywhere you go. This season is something I'll never forget.”