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Opening Day matters on my block

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No matter how bad the Pirates play, I don’t have to go far to find Pirates fans who treat Opening Day as something more than a drinking holiday between St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo.
In my old neighborhood, I was surrounded by lifelong baseball purists like next-door neighbors Tom Dougherty and Paul Kuchta.
Mr. Dougherty (I’ve never called him anything else) was an usher for 65 years – a span that saw the Pirates play at Forbes Field, Three Rivers Stadium and PNC Park – before retiring last July. Today was the first time he missed a home opener since he was at least 14 years old.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Mr. Dougherty, 79, said. “I felt it was the right time to leave. It’ll be a little bit different, watching the game on TV.”
Kuchta, 47, went to his first Pirates opener as a 7-year-old at Forbes Field in 1969 and has been to every home opener since 1974. After watching Hall of Fame players like Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski, he was hooked for life.
“I’ve seen some good teams, some dog teams – mostly dog teams of late,” Kuchta said. “I’m a pure baseball fan. Nothing beats Opening Day, it really doesn’t. I’m hoping the team does good. I’m supporting Major League Baseball, glad to have Major League Baseball in the city.”
Or, at least, what passes for it.
As I get ready to leave PNC Park after the Pirates’ 11-5 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, I’m thinking about loyal baseball fans like Mr. Dougherty and Kuchta who live for Opening Day and give faces to the phrase “hope springs eternal.”
I’m hoping for their sake as fans, as much as mine for having to write about it, that after 17 consecutive the Pirates eventually field a winning team. What I envy is their optimism, their joy for a game and their inability to get jaded by the long years of losing.
“It’s the start of a new season,” Mr. Dougherty said. “It’s the old story: hope springs eternal. Like any big game, there’s excitement. Everybody is all charged up to see a new season begin. For hometown pride, you have to see the team do well. But based on where they are now, I can’t see anything happening in the foreseeable future.”
Yet Mr. Dougherty doesn’t dwell on the negative. As one of the ushers who served 50 or more years, he was honored by the Pirates by being introduced along the baseline line, just like they do on Opening Day. He got to meet one of his favorite players when Bill Mazeroski, hero of the 1960 World Series champions, came over and shook his hand.
“They had some bad teams at Forbes Field,” Mr. Dougherty said. “The 1960 team that won the World Series, a lot of guys had the best year of their life. They all came together and had years. That was my favorite team, of course, with Maz hitting the home run.”
Mr. Dougherty grew up on Semple Street in Oakland, only five or six blocks away from Forbes Field. It was almost a rite of passage for boys in the neighborhood to work at the ballpark, and it was not unusual to see the players walking up and down Forbes Avenue, considering many of them lived in boarding houses for the hot-plate specials.
“You could tell by the way a guy was walking,” Mr. Dougherty said, loosening one shoulder so it drooped lower than the other, “that he was a left-handed pitcher.”
As I was walking to Mr. Dougherty’s house, which borders my backyard, I spotted Kuchta pulling up in his car to visit. He was wearing a black satin Pirates jacket, the type you see starting pitchers put on between innings. Not to say that he doesn’t care whether the Pirates win or lose, just that he’s going to support them regardless.
“It bothers me, but I’m so used to it,” Kuchta said. “I’m just there to enjoy the game, win or lose. It’s hard, but I’m a true Pirates fan. I’m here for the duration.”

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