July 28, 2011
Tonight they are coming for baseball. It's been a long time since this happened in Pittsburgh. But tonight they will get into cars in places like Ross Township and Penn Hills and Morgantown and Donegal and Oak Hills and Beaver Falls and they will drive down mountain passes, through tunnels and along winding highways, converging upon downtown parking garages. There, they will join the seemingly endless crowd walking across the golden bridge named for Roberto Clemente and toward the most beautiful little ballpark so many here have never seen from the inside.
The Pirates are winning for the first time in 18 seasons. For two decades, Pittsburgh's baseball team has been a punchline, everybody else's easy victory on the way to something big. For nearly two decades there has been nothing but losing, a line of last place and next-to-last place finishes. And the fans have mostly stayed away, finding little worth in a team that would never win. Yet, it's July, more than 100 games into the season, and the team that was always long gone from the pennant race is in a nightly dance with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers for first place in the National League's Central Division. Suddenly baseball matters here.
Maybe in a way it always did. Long before the Pittsburgh Steelers made this a football town, there was baseball. There was Honus Wagner and Ralph Kiner. There was the great Clemente and Bill Mazeroski's game-winning home run in the 1960 World Series. Then, sometime after Wilie Stargell and "We are Family," once Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla departed, baseball disappeared too. It was here but it might as well have been gone. For even when the Pirates moved from the dismal concrete circle of Three Rivers Stadium to this park with its stunning views of downtown buildings, the Pirates had long ceased to matter. The money got too big, players were too expensive and the Pirates never had enough fans to generate the cash to spend on players. In time, the franchise existed largely to harvest talent to trade away in the middle of another long and dreary year.
Still, there were pockets of hope. Steve Blass, once a star pitcher who helped the Pirates win the 1971 World Series, and for the last 27 years one of the team's radio and television announcers, could never get through the grocery store without someone cornering him with a list of what they thought was wrong with the Pirates. Vinnie Richichi, a radio show host newly-arrived from Seattle last year, was stunned by the rage some fans still had after all the years of losing. The air crackled with shouts of disgust.
"They knew the 25 guys on the team," Richichi says. "They knew who sucks.
"They CARED that they were bad."
So tonight, this weekend game with the Cardinals will be a sellout just as the night before was a sellout and the next afternoon will be a sellout too. The Pirates have sold out 13 times already this year. The only other time they had as many sellouts was in 2001, the year the park opened. Mostly, the team has played to vast sections of empty blue seats. Any hint of joy went away with the trade of Jason Bay or Nate McLouth or Jack Wilson, and all that was left was a hot summer of games the Pirates were sure to lose.
Tonight though, the streets are filled outside the park. Blass gazes out the back window of the press box, looking down at the throng heading for the entrance and he smiles, perhaps a little in disbelief.
"To see the people streaming across the bridge, that's a tremendous story," he says.
Then he chuckles.
"Before, there was no streaming," he continues. "It was more of a trickling ...
"Maybe an oozing."
But they're coming now, coming like few ever thought they would. Baseball has struggled with attendance this year, but here in the worst place of all, the one that hasn't seen two million fans in a season for 10 years, there are lines at the turnstiles. Winning -- even a little bit of winning -- has changed everything.
Nothing about the way this season began gave promise that something like these last two months would emerge. Then suddenly the lineup of young, mostly anonymous and homegrown players started hitting. The bullpen strengthened and the starting rotation grew into one of the stronger starting fives in the National League.
But it was June 8 when Pittsburgh really came to life. That was the night outfielder Andrew McCutcheon curled a 12th-inning home run around the left field foul pole to give the Pirates a 30-30 record, a mark of mediocrity in Boston or the Bronx, but unique enough here that it set off great rejoicing. Juanita Clark, selling T-shirts at the foot of the Clemente Bridge, was so moved she wrote ".500" and the date "06-08-11" on the bill of her white Pirates cap.
"You have to understand, playing .500 ball for us is like playing in the World Series," says Bernie Rozic, a car salesman from Evans City.
PITTSBURGH - JUNE 08: Andrew McCutchen(notes) #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a walk off solo home run in the 12th inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the game on June 8, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
A .500 record and first place have changed a culture here. Suddenly Rozic's friend, Dean Zinkhann, is no longer getting dirty looks and shouts of complaint when he turns on the Pirates games at his local VFW Hall.
Out of nowhere, crowds of people who have never been in the Pirates ballpark before are forming. Elevator operators grumble at the unfamiliarity, the questions of what floor the upper level is when the button on the wall clearly is marked "U."
Fans on the streets stare at tickets as if the section numbers will give them guidance as to which door to enter. Some pull the cardboard out of brand new Pirates hats. Others tug old caps and show off gray replica Clemente jerseys.
And on the sidewalk, a young man and woman argue over whether he can slip the glass pipe in his pocket past security. "I've taken knives through metal detectors before," he says with a hiss.
On yet another night when first place has become a very real and wonderful surprise, three of the lost children of the Pittsburgh Pirates lean against a railing at PNC Park, unsure whether to believe this summer is a dream come true. They hold a sign they hope to get on television and they peer at the huge replay board in left field, watching each pitch in the first pennant race they've known.
"I was born after 1992," says the most outspoken of them, a 17-year-old named Ryan Bertonaschi. "So we haven't seen anything yet."
He has never known a winner. In all his time on earth, which apparently includes many innings of many forgotten baseball games, Bertonaschi from Penn Township, Penn., has watched the local baseball team finish with a losing record every season. Like other kids, he could have abandoned the Pirates for a different team like the Phillies across the state or forgotten baseball altogether -- as most do around Pittsburgh -- to devote his sports energy to the Steelers.
But there was always something that drew him to the Pirates.
"They are more the underdogs," he says.
Imagine never knowing a winning season for two decades. Even Los Angeles Clippers fans haven't suffered that. So as the Pirates have settled precariously into this fight for first place and Ryan's friend Joe Raco starts to say how he thinks this whole baseball renaissance "is great," Ryan cuts him off.
"Enjoy it while it’s here," he says.
They all nod knowingly.
If there is anything they have come to know, it's that any glimpse of hope with the Pirates has always been doused by disappointment.
Inside a second level suite at PNC Park, the man most responsible for the most recent despair sits at a table. Down on the field, Robert Nutting's Pirates are rallying against the Cardinals and every few moments the principal owner cranes his neck to look out the window or watch a replay on the television. He is a friendly man with an easy nature and giant glasses who has been the target of many fans' ire since he took over from Kevin McClatchy in 2007. It is Nutting, many feel, who upheld the Pirates' longtime policy of harvesting stars for other teams' benefit, selling them off for prospects. It is Nutting, they charge, who kept stripping the team of salary and pocketing the rest.
Still, as they shredded him in internet chat rooms and on talk shows, some screaming with rage when he reportedly deflected a potential bid from former Penguins superstar Mario Lemieux to buy the team last year, he had a plan. He devised this plan not long after taking over the team, spending four months to study what he considered to be successful franchises around baseball. The formula, he decided, was to build from the bottom.
So he built a new facility in the Dominican Republic to match the one in Bradenton, Fla., where the Pirates hold spring training and often do extra work with top prospects. He asked for an elite scouting staff and instructed his people to look hard for talent. Revenues will never be large enough in Pittsburgh to rely much on free agents, he says. The Pirates are "always going to be in a position where we take a stretch in the draft," taking gifted players others ignore because signing them would be considered too difficult.
"We need a great first round pick, we need a great second round pick and we need a great eighth round pick," Nutting says.
It seems to be paying off, and with McCutcheon and Neil Walker and a roster of pickups from other organizations, the Pirates are winning. At last, the plan is starting to work.
Nutting will say nothing about those who howled after Bay and McLouth and Wilson disappeared. His vindication has arrived, yet he chooses not to discuss it.
"Let's focus on the positive,” he says. Then he smiles at the thought of something his manager, Clint Hurdle, said about baseball people.
"There are two kinds of people," Hurdle told him, "those who are humble and those who are about to be humble."
He laughs. At this instant, with his team in first place, it seemed an appropriate thought. No celebrating in July.
"You have to have faith that you are doing the right thing," he says. "You decide that we are moving the franchise in the right direction. There is no room to be in sports if you aren't going to be competitive on the field."
Outside, the crowd roars. He peeks through the window, a run scores and people are looking inside the suite, staring at the owner of the team, the man they have scored for years. They wave. He waves back.
"There is a responsibility here," he says. "I have assumed stewardship of a team people care deeply about. I am accountable to every grandfather and granddaughter out there who are going to their first game together. I can't lose sight of that."
As wonderful a story as this is, it's hard to imagine the Pirates will keep winning. They can't hit. And even as folks clamor for a trade, begging for Hunter Pence or even Josh Willingham as a sign that management is committed to winning, there is also a sense that dealing some of the team's better prospects for a few extra home runs isn't the answer. They might call this the "dream season" on the radio but it isn't THE season. That is still somewhere in the future.
The thought around the league is that the Pirates are playing better than they really are, and they can't afford to lose too many games like the one Tuesday in Atlanta when plate umpire Jerry Meals appeared to blow a call in the bottom of the 19th to let the Braves win the game. August is coming, and there is no certainty that the Pirates pitchers can keep pulling out victories. The NFL lockout is over; the Steelers are opening training camp. Soon there will be games again in the great stadium a few blocks away.
With no Steelers, it was easy for people to find baseball. But one little losing streak and the crowds might well stop surging over the Clemente Bridge, the empty blue seats will reappear and this place will be silent again, just as it has been for the last decade.
That's for another night.
Tonight is different, just like this summer has been different. And long after the players have left the field and the sellout crowd has sifted down the ramps and into the streets, the lights remain on at PNC Park. The team has invited a group of fans to come onto the grass to play catch. And under the blazing glare, with a dark sky above them, fathers throw to their sons as grown men take turns catching high fly balls while crashing into the outfield fence. They are old and they are young. And there are even the grandfathers Bob Nutting spoke of, throwing to their granddaughters.
Strangely, there is little talking -- a moment held still by the steady smacking of balls into mitts. From here the downtown buildings across the Alleghany River look giant, their lights twinkling through a fine late night mist. A few of the fans have brought cameras and the flashbulbs pop.
Finally a team employee in charge looks at his watch. It is time for the big lights to dim and the people to go home.
"This is always the hardest part," he says as he walks into the crowd of flying baseballs to tell everyone they must leave. Slowly they inch toward the gate, not wanting to let go of this night.
A little boy shakes his head and clutches his glove. He gazes at his father and says: "Why are we going?"
"Hey," the father replies, "we can't stay all night."
In the summer when baseball came back to Pittsburgh, it's as if they all could.