Monday, September 23, 2013

It All Began With Dennis Ribant

After 20 years of futility, the Pirates have finally broken through, and they will finally have a winning season. Seriously, think about that for a moment. No professional team has had this amount of futility, and really shouldn’t considering that with any amount of luck, you should have a winning season at least once a decade. For most people, when you bring up the Pittsburgh Pirates the immediate thought is 20 years of losing. Incompetent ownership for many years. Small market, low budget. Sid Bream sliding across home plate beginning that 20 years of losing. Many, many unbelievably bad teams, really bad players, stupid trades, awful baseball. My daughter Kelly blames her brothers, Patrick and Sean, who were born about a month after the Sid Bream slide. She says that the Pirates haven’t won since they were born, so it must be their fault. I guess we really can’t blame them. No, we can’t blame them.


Through it all, I still can’t figure out why, I follow them religiously, watch every night on my computer to see, are they winning? Even those years of 90+ and 100 losses, I was watching, would they win? Could they get it done tonight? My family laughed at me, for good reason I guess, but I still religiously followed them. But why ….

I remember my first baseball game, it was in 1967, and it was one of those give-away days, I got a baseball. Now, back in 1967, a baseball was a big deal. I remember I never took it out of the house for weeks because it was so special, but eventually, I did succumb, and played with it, ruined it, and I’m sure, eventually lost it. But, give me a break, I was seven years old. But of course, as usual, I digress.

My first game was at Forbes Field, my mother and our neighbor Sandy Smith took me, we had seats somewhere behind home plate, not right behind, but about the second level, I think back then they were called loge boxes. Dennis Ribant started for the Pirates against the Cincinnati Reds, and he took a 1-0 lead into late in the game. In the 7th or 8th, can’t remember exactly, Vada Pinson hit a triple and Tony Perez singled him home to tie the game.

Then, in the bottom of the ninth, Willie Stargell hit a home run on the roof of Forbes Field, one of only a handful of times that has happened, most of which were by Willie Stargell. He had incredible power, he used to swing sledge hammers in the on deck circle. I wish I could say that I saw the home run clear the roof, but being seven, as everyone stood to cheer the home run leaving the park, all I saw was a bunch of people in front of me cheering and yelling. But, I was sold, I was a Pirate fan for life.

You’re probably thinking to yourself at the moment, how in the world does anyone remember this stuff, and I’m sure my wife would be thinking, how can he not remember our anniversary, but he can remember Dennis Ribant, Vada Pinson and Tony Perez, but yes, again, I digress.

To be honest, my baseball watching really started much earlier. I was born in August 1960, and the Pirates were in the World Series that year with the New York Yankees. That was one of, if not the most, lopsided World Series in the history of baseball. The Yankees killed the Pirates in three of the games, the Pirates squeaked by in three of the games, and in the seventh game, it was a seesaw battle, eventually won by the Pirates in the bottom of the ninth on a home run by Bill Mazeroski. Rumor has it, I was sitting on my mother’s lap watching that game, but somehow, I just don’t remember it.

In any event, the Pirates have been central to my life for well, my entire life. I of course remember and relished the World Series wins in 1971 and 1979, when the Pirates battled back in both cases to beat the Baltimore Orioles. In each case, it really didn’t look like they would win, but in each case, they overcame the odds and won. There were so many heroes, Roberto Clemente, Nelson Briles, Steve Blass in 1971 and Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Jim Rooker, John Candelaria in 1979. I was at the fourth game at Three Rivers Stadium in 1979 in the bitter cold when the Pirates blew a 6-3 lead and eventually lost the game 9-6, going down in the series 3-1. But, as noted, they overcame the odds, came back and won that series.

While the highs were high, the lows were so low. The glory of the 1971 series win led to the unbelievable devastation of the 1972 playoff failure. The Pirates led the Reds 2-1 in the 9th inning, getting ready to win the series and go to the World Series again. Their closer, Dave Guisti, was ready to bring home the victory. Amazingly, Johnny Bench led off the 9th with a home run to tie the score. OK, we can go to extra innings and still win this. Shortly thereafter, the bases were loaded, Bob Moose was brought in, and a wild pitch later, and the game, and season was over. I remember sitting there in front of the TV, crying my eyes out (I was 12 OK!). I was heartbroken. A few months later, Roberto Clemente died in a tragic plane crash doing a relief mission, and the Pirates’ hopes died with it for a few years. By the way, I cried when Roberto Clemente died too, and again, I was still 12.

I worked for the Pirates in the fall of 1980 as an intern in the public relations department. While the job was basically that of a gopher, it was so exciting to be around a baseball team in the midst of a pennant race. I’d sit in the press box watching games, sitting with some of the greatest sports writers in Pittsburgh, and in many cases, some great writers of national recognition. I even got to work the TV booth for a nationally televised game with Howard Cosell. Sadly that year, the Pirates faded, they didn’t win the division, and my chance to feel the excitement of the playoffs and World Series faded just like the Pirates.

You know everyone talks about Sid Bream and the 1992 failure, but I still can’t figure out why no one talks about the failures in 1990 and 1991. I remember in 1990, the Pirates were playing those hated Reds again. I was living in Dayton at the time, and leading up to that series, WLW in Cincinnati was playing highlights from previous years’ radio broadcasts of Pirates-Reds series. I remember driving down the road, and the tape of Al Michaels calling the Johnny Bench home run in 1972 came on the radio, and I remember driving down the road screaming at my radio, “F you, Al, F you!” The pain became fresh again. I hope my mother doesn’t read this.

OK, still, why do I love the Pirates so much? Most people from Western Pennsylvania love the Steelers more than life, and while I like the Steelers, it’s not my passion. I love hockey, love the Penguins, and they are a close second, but still second. It’s the Pirates, no doubt. Maybe it has to do with those days going to games as a kid. In Pittsburgh, it’s virtually impossible to go to Steelers’ games, they have been sold out forever. I went to various Penguins games, but hockey is expensive, so we’d go to maybe one or two games a year. Baseball was different.

I remember the early 70’s, my brother was late in high school, early in college. I was 11 or 12. I would give anything to spend time with my older brother. We lived maybe 20-30 minutes from the stadium in North Hills. We’d drive down to Three Rivers, we’d park on the North Side on the street for free, we’d get $1 general admission tickets in the outfield, buy a Coke maybe, and get out of there for less than a couple of dollars. We went to so many games those few summers, driving down on those hot summer nights, listening to KQV or 13Q, I can’t remember how many times we heard BTO singing “Takin’ Care of Business”, and I’m sure so many other songs played multiple times, but I remember those nights, hanging out with my older brother and watching the Pirates. We were there in late September in 1972, freezing our butts off in the outfield, drinking hot chocolate and crouched up against the wall of the stands, trying to stay warm, waiting for Roberto Clemente to get his 3,000th hit. He finally got that hit off of Jon Matlack, and we stayed around until I think the 5th inning because Dock Ellis had a no hitter going. Once Dock gave up his first hit, we got out of there as quickly as possible to warm up.

Yes, the Pirates are first in my hearts. I am the butt of many jokes at work, I live in Braves country now, used to live in Reds country, and I’m an easy mark. Doesn’t matter to me, I wear my Pirates heart on my sleeve, and I wear my Pirates hat or shirt, win or lose, and yes, mostly lose. I ponder and wonder many times, why the Pirates? Why not the Steelers, why not the Penguins, why not gravitate to another team like the Braves? I guess so much of it goes back to how I grew up. It’s more than a sport, more than baseball, it’s a memory, it’s some of my best memories. Maybe that’s why the Pirates are so special to me, they bring me back to so many memories, to a simpler time, when $1 baseball games, driving into the city, hanging out with your big brother and keeping score in your program was something special.

I know I'm not alone.  From reading the game stories every morning in the Pittsburgh papers online, I know there are more of us out there.  The few, the proud, OK, the few, the resilient, the desperate, we have been waiting, and finally our wait is over.  This season may not be perfect, it may end very soon, but I'm not quite sure many out there can understand what it has meant to us.  While some may derisively talk about Operation Shutdown, Joggin' George Hendrick, Josh Fogg or Pat Meares, we have memories of glory days, of the Great One, Chicken on the Hill, Scoop and the Cobra.  While I know my kids will never know what it is to drive to the city and spend a couple bucks and have a night at the ballpark, I hope that I can somehow impart to them what those nights have meant to me.  Go Bucs.

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