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The Globe and Mail

Blair: Pirates emerging from the shadows in Pittsburgh

They didn't dislike Neil Walker. After all, he was a local kid who used to sit in "Peanut Heaven" at old Three Rivers Stadium, a first-round draft pick from a good Roman Catholic family who was an all-state wide receiver at Pine-Richland High School and a two-time Pittsburgh Post-Gazette male athlete of the year.

The Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman is Pittsburgh, through and through: unpretentious, hard-working. Like his city, he is a well-kept secret who shares a profound personal bond with the patron saint of the Pirates, Roberto Clemente.

Born and raised a 25-minute drive north of PNC Park in Gibsonia, Pa., Walker lived at home for his first full major-league season. His parents are there most every night – in section 222, wearing their Pirates swag. They were there during the 105-loss season (2010, Walker's first full year, when he tied a club rookie record with an 18-game hitting streak) and for two late-season collapses in 2011 and 2012.

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This year, the Pirates have guaranteed their first winning season since 1992. And Neil Walker?

"Truth is, everybody has always been very nice and polite to me in this town – I probably get more leeway than anybody else in here," he said. "But people weren't shy telling me what they thought about the Pirates organization and ownership. A lot of people can jump off a bandwagon in 10 years. But I don't worry about that any more."

Tom and Carolyn Walker are hardly bandwagon types. Pittsburgh is her hometown. They've been married for 39 years and still live in the house in which Neil was raised along with his three siblings (one of whom is married to Detroit Tigers infielder Don Kelly). Carolyn's brother, Chip Lang, pitched for the Montreal Expos and introduced her to Tom during spring training.

Tom, born in Tampa, pitched a 15-inning no-hitter in 1971 for the Baltimore Orioles' Double-A Dallas-Fort Worth Dukes, and that winter was selected by the Expos in the Rule 5 draft. He appeared in 144 games for the Expos over four seasons, was one of Mike Marshall's set-up men for manager Gene Mauch – Tom was known for keeping meticulous notes on each hitter he faced long before it became de rigueur; Neil jokingly tells his dad he played in the "dead-ball era" – and proposed to Carolyn in a Montreal restaurant.

"It was called Paesano's," Tom said last Sunday, vacating his seat in section 222 to greet a visitor in one of the club lounges at PNC Park – as luck would have it, missing his son hit his 13th home run. "It was near one of the universities – McGill, I think."

Those Expos teams were just a few years removed from joining the majors as an expansion team, and Tom remembers them as being "extremely close-knit." There was, he added, "no development program. Most of us just kind of came together from elsewhere."

The 2013 Pirates are a close-knit group, too.

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Because while there is little doubt free-agent additions Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano have made a difference – the Canadian-born Martin is, in the words of long-time baseball man and current Pirates coach Dave Jauss "the most important signing this team has made, other than [manager] Clint Hurdle," and has thrown out a major-league-leading 29 base runners, while Liriano's one-year, $1-million (U.S.) contract has yielded a 16-7 record, 2.88 earned-run average and 155 strikeouts – the story of the Pirates is that three of the team's top five players in fWAR, which measures value added above league average, are first-round picks in the last 10 years.

That includes Walker, along with National League most valuable player candidate Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez. Toss in 2011's first-round choice, pitcher Gerrit Cole, and the foundation is homegrown.

High draft picks are about the only upside of losing seasons, but in some ways these Pirates harken back to their last period of significance: 1990-1992, when the team lost three consecutive NL Championship Series before Barry Bonds's free-agent departure heralded a two-decade-long stroll in the postseason wilderness.

It was against this backdrop that the Walker brood matured.

Neil Walker, whose favourite player on those teams was Andy Van Slyke, remembers how the Pirates gradually slipped in the city's consciousness behind the NHL's Penguins (Stanley Cup winners in 1991 and 1992) and fell even further back when the NFL's Steelers started to win again in the century's first decade.

"I just think it took a while to put the core together," said Walker, who is the first Pirates second baseman with four consecutive 10-home-run seasons and who hasn't been charged with an error since June 25. "It seemed like, in the past, we always had one or the other: pitching or hitting. And we didn't have the depth to pick up the pieces when it started to fall apart. This year, we've been able to do it almost seamlessly. We added guys like Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd … guys who are in the middle of our lineup. I mean, how often do you add middle-of-the-order hitters at the trade deadline?"

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Heading into Monday's game against the Chicago Cubs, the Pirates' magic number to clinch a playoff berth at the expense of the Washington Nationals was two.

They have been in first or second place in the tight NL Central since June 21; local television ratings have increased 22 per cent, and PNC Park was sold out 23 times this season. TV announcer Greg Brown's post-victory rallying cry of "Raise the Jolly Roger" has emptied store shelves of the commodity; sightings of the flag are commonplace at Penguins and Steelers games.

This will be an uneasy week in Pittsburgh: The Pirates are on the road, and the chance remains they could lose home-field advantage to the Cincinnati Reds, meaning the one-game wild-card playoff – the first playoff game since 1992 – might not be played at PNC Park. "That would crush this city," Tom Walker said, quietly.

But this is what September is supposed to sound and smell like. This is what it used to mean to be a Pirate – a history that is never far from Neil Walker's heart. Because if there is a playoff game at PNC Park, one of the first things Walker will see when he jogs out to second base is Clemente Wall: 21-feet high in right field (matching the Hall of Famer's number) and a reminder of the tie he has with Clemente.

Talk about the shadow of history: In December of 1972, Tom Walker was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, earning an extra $3,000 per month in addition to his major-league salary.

Life was good as a single guy in San Juan; it was there to be lived on the night of Dec. 31, when Walker and some of Clemente's other winter ball teammates helped him load a plane with relief supplies for earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua. There was a move afoot to jump on the plane and go to Nicaragua with Clemente, but Clemente's suggestion was the rest of them enjoy New Year's Eve.

Clemente's word was final, even when they were his final words.

Clemente perished when the plane crashed, and Tom's admonition to his kids after a less-than-satisfactory high-school game – "the sun will always come up" – has a meaning beyond those that might normally be imparted to children.

"Daunting" is the word Tom uses to describe the legacy of Neil Walker. Hometown hero and Pirate, at a time when the two aren't mutually exclusive any more.


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