In just under a month, I will celebrate my 26th birthday. I am not exactly sure when my baseball fandom began, but I am going to make the executive decision to identify today as the 25th anniversary of my introduction to the sport.
My first vivid memory of watching a baseball game came at four years old. It was Richard Caliguiri Day, as the Pirates honored the late mayor with a pregame ceremony. At my age, I had little awareness of the significance of that moment for the city. For me, it was simply a chance to go to the ballpark with my dad. We arrived late to Three Rivers Stadium, missing the entire observance. We settled into our seats in the upper deck, a bit down the first base line. The game is a blur in my memory until Sid Bream came to bat with a tied game in the 12th inning. Bream drove a pitch to right-center and the crowd erupted as the ball landed on the warning track to give the Pirates the win. I would learn later that the ball had actually cleared the fence, and the object I had seen was a pizza box or something that had fallen on to the field from the first row of seats. Yes, pizza boxes are generally much larger than baseballs, but I was a small child and could not see very well among the exuberant adults. It is funny what details stick with you for 20+ years.
Before that 1988 season, I know that Rafael Belliard was my favorite player. I think I just liked saying the name Raffy, or maybe I knew that my personal baseball future would be that of a scrappy glove-first infielder with non-existent offensive pop. Before that, I recall that my favorite player was Dale Murphy. No idea why, other than the fact that he was a star at the time. That takes us back to when I was about two or three years old, and I remember nothing before that. Some of my relatives still talk about how I sat and attentively watched a World Series game, vocally rooting for the Royals for some reason. That would have been the 1985 series, when I was about one and a half.
I woke up with an upset stomach one morning in October 1990. On a typical day, I would have tried to stay home from school. But we had tickets to the Pirates playoff matchup against the Reds that night. So I downplayed the dilemma and soldiered on to school. I did not make it to lunch, vomiting in the school library. Feeling better, I easily made it through the remainder of the day and expected to make the game. But the car ride home did not mesh well with my ailment, and my father’s cassette tape collection fell victim to the aftershock. I spent the rest of the evening on the couch, as my dad went to the game alone.
The next year, with another year of experience under my belt, I managed to stay healthy enough to attend a playoff game against the Braves. We had the good fortunate to see a thriller. I think it was the sixth game of the series, in which Doug Drabek and Steve Avery locked horns in a scoreless duel through eight innings. The Pirates were a run away from the World Series, but Atlanta scraped across a run in the ninth and prevailed 1-0. I barely remember being at this game, but apparently I complained the entire night about being cold and bored. I guess I just did not properly appreciate a pitcher’s duel at eight years old. My dad still ribs me about it. (As an aside, I am not sure that I have ever realized how awesome that NLCS must have been. Three 1-0 games.)
1992. An excellent year for the Pirates evaporated into a single moment that would torment every fan for decades. I was in our game room with my dad and uncle when Francisco Cabrera crushed Pittsburgh’s soul. Watching Bream’s foot touch home plate was about as surreal of a moment that I have ever experienced. For a split-second, I wanted to scream that he was out. A shout may have actually slipped from my mouth during that brief instance. The older men in the room were deathly silent, and I quickly realized that he had beaten the tag. The most extreme feeling of helplessness immediately struck me, as we watched the city of Atlanta’s euphoric celebration. Nobody spoke for several minutes. Nobody moved. Nobody looked away from the television screen.
Moving on. The next few years are somewhat fuzzy in my mind. I can remember a Lonnie Smith/Al Martin platoon. Kirk Gibson played for the Pirates, and was involved in a fluky play that saw the ball strike the helmet that had fallen from his head. Orlando Merced hit a grand slam on the 4th of July. Despite my protests, we left a game early in which the Pirates were trailing 19-2. The All-Star Game came to Pittsburgh. Baseball went on strike. I was in attendance for the first game back, when the fans littered the field with souvenir flags after the Pirates turned a simple bunt into a two-error, everyone scores debacle. I still have my flag (we were sitting too far from the field to throw it). For a couple years in a row, I attended the season-ending home game, thinking it could be the final game in Pittsburgh. At one of those games (I’m guessing it was 1995), the crowd broke into a ninth inning “Save Our Bucs!” chant. Kevin McClatchy arrived to solidify the ownership group. The major league roster was stripped of most of my favorite players.
After four years of mostly miserable baseball, the storybook 1997 season arrived. It is difficult to remember all of the fantastic moments from that season, but I will try. Obviously, there was the no-hitter with a bonus walk-off home run. Mark Smith had another walk-off bomb against the Dodgers, seconds after Joe Randa had tied the game with a home run of his own. Al Martin hit a grand slam in a wild victory against the Rockies. Mark Johnson failed miserably in what was supposed to be a breakout season, but he did manage a pinch-hit walkoff single after losing his starting job. Kevin Polcovich missed a sign on a squeeze attempt, but recovered by hitting a key home run off of Curt Schilling. The Bucs were moments away from losing on July 4th in St. Louis, but managed to win in extra innings on another Smith home run. Kevin Young returned from Kansas City to become the team’s leader. Shawon Dunston arrived in Pittsburgh with a bang. Etc. The Astros came to Pittsburgh for a two-game series in early September, just 3.5 games ahead of the Bucs. I went to the first game and was awed by the electricity in the stadium. Obviously, a meaningful September baseball game in Pittsburgh is a rarity. It has not occurred since that night.
The most significant event of 1997 for me was the realization that I was old enough to go to a ball game by myself. On three consecutive August nights, a friend and I purchased $1 general admission tickets and snuck into more expensive seats by the bullpen. We spent way too much time trying to interact with relief pitchers, flicking pumpkin seeds back and forth and exchanging friendly banter. During one inning break, I was leaning over the railing, pestering someone for a ball. Suddenly, a baseball rang off the railing inches above my head. I abruptly turned toward the field, and spotted Mark Smith wearing a terrified look on his face. He had overthrown the bullpen catcher standing a few feet from the bullpen gate, and nearly killed me in the process. Yes, I was nearly ended by an errant Mark Smith throw. I was visibly shaking for the next half inning. Anyway, I went to about 20 games the following season, and maxed out at 40 games in 1999.
I kind of drifted away from the Pirates in my late teenage years, focusing more on my social life than baseball. During that time, PNC Park opened and we experienced the Aramis Ramirez trade debacle. In 2004, the baseball fan in me was rejuvenated by a four-day trip with nine of my closest friends. We departed Pittsburgh early on a Thursday night and attended a Tigers-Royals game in Detroit that afternoon. After spending the night in Toledo, we were off to Cincinnati for a Reds-Expos game on Friday night. We relaxed at a Michigan cabin for two nights before driving to Chicago to see the Pirates play at Wrigley Field. Finally, it was back to Pittsburgh. Since that trip, I have seen the Pirates play at Great American Ballpark, Jacobs Field, Yankee Stadium, Nationals Park, U.S. Cellular Field and again at Wrigley.
In February 2006, hours before the Steelers brought home a Super Bowl victory, I was discussing the upcoming Pirates season with a friend. The specific topic was the acquisition of veterans Jeromy Burnitz, Sean Casey, etc. He did not like the moves, preferring to see youngsters Jose Bautista and Brad Eldred receive playing time. I disagreed, saying that they needed additional minor league seasoning. I pointed to Jose Guillen and Aramis Ramirez as prospects that had been rushed to Pittburgh. Looking back, we were both wrong, as Craig Wilson and Freddy Sanchez were the guys who should have been starting. That was a turning point in my life, as I suddenly realized that I knew virtually nothing about baseball. In September, I was fiddling around on the internet when I stumbled upon WHYGAVS. Just like that, I had discovered the baseball internet world. Over the next few days, I think I read every post in the site’s archive. Then I moved on to Bucs Dugout. By the end of the week, I had started my own blog, and the rest is history. In the past few years, my baseball knowledge has grown by leaps and bounds compared to the previous 20 or so.
It has been 25 years of mostly heartbreak, but I would not trade it for the world. Memories of Rob Mackowiak dominating a doubleheader, Brian Giles robbing a home run and Jack Wilson turning two make it all worthwhile.