PITTSBURGH – Two decades of pent-up frustration releasing itself made a unique sound Tuesday. It was not a little wheeze, like a pinprick deflating a raft, nor a primal roar, as if one giant wail could pump all of the Pittsburgh Pirates' historic bilge straight into the Allegheny. No, it was a drumbeat, a rhythmic rat-a-tat, time-honored and tailored perfectly for the man on the mound, who just so happened to have the misfortune of being born with a two-syllable last name.
Johnny Cueto – pronounced KWAY-toe, as 40,487, give or take a few Cincinnati Reds fans,chanted mercilessly at PNC Park – heard it. Of course he heard it. He had to hear it. Anyone with functioning ears would hear it. People across the river joined in, and those watching at home played sing-along, and around the world, displaced Pirates fans who had waited for this moment – a playoff game, actual October baseball – dreamed of what it sounded like.
And then he dropped the ball.
Please understand: It is 99.9 percent likely these two things were a coincidence, that in the second inning of the Pittsburgh Pirates' first playoff game since Sid Bream slid them into 20 years of oblivion a chant of the pitcher's name started, then multiplied, then mushroomed exponentially into a dirge ... and the pitcher, who just so happened to be rubbing the ball with his hands at the time, fumbled it, saw it trickle away from the mound and emboldened people who needed no emboldening to chant "KWAY-toe, KWAY-toe, KWAY-toe" for the rest of his short outing. Pure fluke.
Only the very next pitch – not three pitches after, not 10, the next one – settled over the plate, andRussell Martin pummeled it into the left-field bleachers. And the place started to shake, because when you've spent as long as the people here had watching misery, things like a dropped ball begin to take on more significance than they actually hold, little amulets that say maybe, just maybe, tonight is the night.
It was. Cueto exited after 10 outs. Martin later hit another home run. Francisco Liriano threw seven brilliant innings despite a bad headache and a throat so sore he couldn't talk above a whisper. And the Pittsburgh Pirates, long the epitome of baseball ineptitude, vanquished the Reds 6-2 in the one-game National League wild card game and moved on to the NL Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
"I think as the legend grows," Martin said, "it'll be like the sound waves of the people making all that noise grabbed the baseball out of his hand and made it drop and messed with his rhythm."
Whether it was magical sonic phalanges or simple butterfingers, this was the best drop Pittsburgh has seen since Jackie Smith. The 27-year-old Cueto, Cincinnati's ace who had missed 2½ months with a lat strain, wasn't supposed to make the start. A bone chip in scheduled starter Mat Latos' elbow sidelined him, leaving Cueto to bear the brunt of a crowd that arrived hours early and milled outside of the stadium, drinking, talking and dressed in black. The effect was noticeable: the beautiful stadium turned into a vortex of darkness from which the chant emanated.
"I don't care about those things," Cueto said. "I don't listen to them. It's like opening day. It's like any other game. That doesn't scare me. Nothing happened with the crowd."
Doesn't care? Cool. Doesn't listen? All right. Like opening day or any other game? Uh. Reds might want to get Cueto's cochleae tested.
"You may think I was scared when that ball dropped," Cueto said. "The ball dropped. You maybe can think that's what happened, but the ball dropped."
That's fair and reasonable and just some rotten luck for Cueto. Because it was pretty hilarious. Martin actually glanced at the dugout and flashed his teammates a smile. They grinned back.
"We were laughing," said John Buck, Martin's backup. "We knew it would be fuel on the fire for all those fans. It doesn't affect a guy to that degree, but once he dropped the ball, the fans bought into it."
Like, fully. Every batter thereafter, they bellowed: "KWAY-toe, KWAY-toe, KWAY-toe." They would take a break to say "ooooh" on a foul ball or "ohhhhh" for an out. And then it would restart, because a true Yinzer will not let somebody make a fool of himself without reminding him.
"You never see stuff like that happen in the big leagues," Pirates first baseman Justin Morneau said. "And it did."
[Related: Hear what the Cueto chant sounded like from inside the stadium here]
What made it so exquisite was the timing. The chants had just started when Cueto dropped the ball. Two batters earlier, Marlon Byrd tattooed a home run into the left-field bleachers. And out there, everyone swore someone had the idea to remind Cueto by turning his name into a rallying cry.
Nobody could identify patient zero, which means maybe it started somewhere else, or maybe they'd had one too many Yuenglings, or perhaps both. Either way, they felt it was theirs to claim because this particular area – the Left Field Loonies – sat through so much bad baseball, so many depressing Pirates seasons, they deserved to co-opt what will become the defining memory of their first postseason win since 1992.
When PNC opened in 2001, Ross Morgan, a local food broker, wanted to create a special atmosphere for a fan base that had lost its verve. He called his friend, Kurt Weitzel, at 1:50 a.m. and came up with the idea of Pittsburgh's bleacher bums. They would be the Right Field River Rats. Except the bleachers ended up in left. So began the Loonies, at first 320 people strong, now more than 3,000 and perhaps even the creators of the Cueto chant.
"We're taking complete credit for it," Morgan said. "Right?"
"At least 98 percent," Weitzel said.
At one point or another, a thousand different people will say they're the ones who started it, and that's OK. After two decades that have been more black and blue than black and yellow, anybody who stuck with this team deserves to own a piece of its legend. It was a perfect night, 73 degrees, the skyline lit to maximum splendor, and they wore jerseys new and old, from McCutchen to Clemente to Varsho. Here, they even love the utilityman.
Which is why when they howled at the montage that kept repeating "WE BELIEVE," it wasn't kitsch. They do. They held their phones in the air to record the final out, hugged the person next to them and in front of them and behind them and waved their flags along with the Pirate Parrot doing the same to the Jolly Roger on top of the mound. They tooted horns and toasted the night and screamed until they could scream no more, cacophony that anywhere else might've been excessive.
Here, it was different. This was two decades of pent-up frustration. And it sounded beautiful.