Pittsburgh kid truly fits everything about his city
PITTSBURGH – Boom! Game over. Memory of a lifetime that couldn’t have been scripted better for the guy who hit it.
“This one feels pretty special,” Neil Walker said after his walk-off homer in the 10th inning Monday gave the Pirates a 1-0 win over the Cubs on opening day at PNC Park.
“This was a really special day for this team,” Walker added. “This organization has come a long way. The last 20 years have been a tough thing, and to get to where we are now over the last couple years is pretty amazing.”
Walker, as everyone knows, is the hometown kid, a Pittsburgh native. For those who haven’t met him, he’s a really good guy, personable and as down to earth as a major leaguer can get.
He’s also Pittsburgh to the core, a grinder who works hard and deserves everything he gets.
“He embodies everything there is about this city and the people in the city,” Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister so eloquently said. “I hope everybody understands how much he carries that inside his heart with him. He loves this city and the people in it.”
There’s no doubt the city loves its Buccos, especially now that they’re good again. That love was on display Monday as a regular-season record crowd of 39,833 showed up to PNC Park for the opener. (How they all got off work is an interesting question.)
Even Barry Bonds showed up – to present Andrew McCutchen with his 2013 NL MVP award – and the former Pirate was roundly booed at first before the crowd shifted and cheered him.
The pregame ceremony, which also featured former Pirates manager Jim Leyland, was the highlight of the early afternoon. Francisco Liriano then struck out 10 batters over six shutout innings, matching a Bucco record for an opener, and his performance was certainly memorable.
But the day belonged to Walker, thanks to his thrilling blast that was, surprisingly, the first walk-off hit of his big league career.
“I’ve hit enough first-row homers over the Clemente wall to know that ball was going to be gone,” Walker said.
Many people know Walker’s story, that he wouldn’t even be here if not for Roberto Clemente.
Walker’s father, Tom, also played in the major leagues and was supposed to be on board that fateful plane in 1972 that crashed and killed Clemente. Tom was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico and helped load supplies onto the plane for a missionary trip to Nicaragua.
Since the plane was full and it was New Year’s Eve, Clemente talked Tom Walker out of going on the trip.
Neil was born 13 years later.
He grew up in Pittsburgh as a Pirates fan and, just like everyone else, hated seeing the Buccos lose every year from 1992 until last season.
“I certainly have a little bit better understanding of the tradition of this organization than most guys,” Walker said.
Now, the second baseman is busy helping write new chapters to that tradition, ones that current and future fans can relish rather than be ashamed of.
That process began last season, and as Walker said, Monday’s exciting win “kind of felt like just a rollover from last year.”
In many ways.
First, Liriano was exceptional. Then the bullpen was, too. And the offense struggled.
Same story, different year.
But most importantly, just as they did last season, the Bucs found a way to come through in the clutch and win a tight game.
“What a tremendous opening-day ballgame for everybody,” Banister said. “It had a little bit of everything for the fans, it had great pitching, it had some defense, a couple replays and a walk-off home run.”
It’s just the first game of 162, but because of that home run and everything that ties him to the city and franchise, it’s much more meaningful to Walker.
“This one will burn in his memory for a long time,” Banister said.
“It’s amazing,” McCutchen said, “for him to do what he did. For him to be able to have that moment, I’m definitely happy to be a part of that.”
So was the “Pittsburgh Kid.”
“It was just an amazing day,” Walker said.
Cory Giger is a sportswriter for the Altoona (Pa.) Mirror.