By John Perrotto

PITTSBURGH -- He had soldiered on through 12 major-league seasons, 1,250 games and a 50-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug, a ban that appeared like it might spell the end of his career, to get to this moment.

So when Marlon Byrd stepped into the batter's box in a postseason game for the first time Tuesday night, the Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder was ready.

"It was a long time coming," Byrd said with a smile. "A long time. I wanted to do something good."

The 36-year-old made the most of his moment, leading off the second inning by driving a 2-1 changeup from Johnny Cueto deep into PNC Park's left-field bleachers for the game's first run. The Pirates never looked back as they went on to beat the Cincinnati Reds 6-2 in the National League wild-card game, marking a successful return to October baseball for a franchise that hadn't been to the postseason since 1992 and snapped a major North American professional team sports record of 20 consecutive losing seasons this year.

Byrd has played for the Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals, Texas Rangers, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and New York Mets in his itinerant career. Yet it took a move to Pittsburgh, the place where so many players have come to watch their careers die over the past two decades, for Byrd to see his dream come true.

The Pirates acquired Byrd and catcher John Buck in the most animal-themed trade of their 125-year history on Aug. 27 from the New York Mets for a pair of decent prospects in right-handed reliever Vic Black and second baseman Dilson Herrera. Byrd made a big contribution down the stretch in helping the Pirates earn the first NL wild card as he hit .318/.357/.486 with three home runs in 30 games and 115 plate appearances.

"When I came over here, I wanted to be a piece of the puzzle," Byrd said. "I wanted to fit in. These guys let me in, welcomed me with open arms. It was so easy to fit in, so easy to slide in the lineup, hitting fifth against righties, fourth against lefties."

It did not take Byrd long to become a clubhouse favorite with his ebullient personality. He has put a smile on the face of the long-suffering Pirates' fans with his performance, including driving in a combined four runs in two games last weekend when Pittsburgh swept the Reds in a three-game series at Cincinnati to end the regular season and gain home-field advantage for the wild-card game. However, nothing revved up the Pirates' faithful quite like Byrd's home run Tuesday night.

"It was enough to get them on the board, give them the momentum and get the fans in it," Reds manager Dusty Baker said.

The stadium-record crowd of 40,487 was already supercharged from the beginning of the player introductions -- but Byrd's home run sent PNC Park into pandemonium. It also set the wheels in motion for an early exit for Cueto. Russell Martin took Cueto deep two batters after Byrd to increase the lead to 2-0 and the right-hander made it only through 3 1/3 innings, allowing four runs -- three earned -- and seven hits.

Byrd may have even had a hand in Martin's success as well.

"I like to see how pitchers throw to Marlon," Martin said. "Sometimes I'll decide what I'm going to try and do depending on how they pitch to Marlon. A lot of guys do homework. They watch video before games. I like to make in-game adjustments, see what they're doing to the hitters in front of me."

Byrd has certainly come a long way from this time a year ago when his future in baseball was very much in doubt. The Red Sox released him on June 12, 2012 after he hit a combined .210/.243/.245 with one home run in 47 games and 153 plate appearances with them and the Cubs. Two weeks later, he was suspended 50 games for testing positive for Tamoxifen, a medicine that blocks the effects of the estrogen hormone in the body. It is used to treat breast cancer and is used by steroid users to prevent the growth of breast tissues in men and to stop post-cycle crashes.

Knowing he had to rebuild his market value following that disastrous year, Byrd played winter ball in the Mexican Pacific League. He received only one contract offer as the Mets signed him to a minor-league deal with an invitation to major-league spring training. Byrd not only made the team but had one of his best years, hitting .285/.330/.518 with 21 home runs in 117 games and 464 plate appearances.

"I'll always appreciate what the Mets did for me," Byrd said. "They were the one club willing to give me an opportunity after everything that happened last season. They were also good enough to put me in a position with the Pirates where I have a chance to win a World Series ring, which is really the last thing I'm looking to accomplish at this stage of my career."

The Pirates had made progress in the previous seasons before their breakthrough 2013, going from 57 wins in 2010 to 72 wins in 2011 then improving to 79 victories last year. This year, they jumped all the way to 94 wins and a berth in one of the two National League Division Series. The Pirates will open against the Cardinals on Thursday at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

"Over a three-year period things fell into place," Byrd said. "This team believed. When we came in here with the Mets just before the All-Star break, you could see it. They could pitch. The bullpen was amazing. {Even if you) were winning or you were ahead, you felt like they were never out of it.

"Right now, the way that this team's playing, all of us, have come together as a family. It's really showing."

The 1979 Pirates were famously known as "The Family." That was also the last Pirates team to win a World Series or play in the Fall Classic.

Could this be "The Family, Part II?"

"Why not?" Byrd said with a smile late Tuesday night. "I think we're as good as anybody playing, I really do."

***

John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.