We all remember the promise. The line that came across as a twisted take on “Field of Dreams”:
If the taxpayers finance it, the wins will come.
Or something like that.
Either way, in the late 1990s, one of the biggest talking points supporting the construction of PNC Park was the notion that the Pirates’ long-dormant success was tied to a brand-new stadium. So, a piece of the North Side became the North Shore, Three Rivers Stadium went kaput, and one of Major League Baseball’s finest facilities was conceived.
Then came 2001 and 100 losses. Then came 11 more losing seasons.
Then came 2013.
The jewel of the Allegheny River finally hosted a team that matched its builders’ and fans’ hopes. And as the city witnessed the Pirates’ long-awaited return to the postseason in 2013, that beautiful ballpark became the beating heart of Pittsburgh for a summer (OK, maybe the giant rubber duck across the river had an argument, too.)
It feels as if a new era is starting in PNC Park’s history, and with a new season beginning today, it’s time to take a look back at a handful of the most memorable games and moments to take place on that grass — warning: not all are pretty.
THE OPENING OPENER
(Photo: Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
While fans first filled the seats at PNC Park for a pair of exhibition games, it wasn’t until April 9, 2001, that the facility hosted a game that mattered in the standings.
In the stadium’s inaugural home opener, the Reds rolled the Pirates, 8-2 in front of 36,954 fans. But at least it was a hometown boy who christened the park.
Reds first baseman Sean Casey, an Upper St. Clair native, collected the first hit in the ballpark’s history with a two-run, first-inning home run off Pirates starter Todd Ritchie.
Casey — so well-liked by the Cincinnati fan base he was nicknamed “The Mayor” — made plenty of return trips to Pittsburgh with the division rival, but he also played 59 games in a Pirates uniform in 2006.
McCLENDON STEALS FIRST
(Photo: Associated Press)
Say this for Lloyd McClendon: The guy cared.
Manager of the Pirates from 2001 to 2005 — and about to begin a new tenure in the dugout with Seattle — McClendon might have been the most entertaining part of that ugly first season at PNC Park. His meltdown on July 26 certainly got one of the biggest cheers that summer.
Arguing a close call at first base after Jason Kendall was called out, McClendon unleashed a lengthy tirade with the umpire and escalated it to an Incredible Hulk level. After chucking his hat halfway to second base, he was thrown from the game — but he took a parting gift.
Ripping the base out of the ground and hugging it under his arm, McClendon stomped with purpose back to the dugout, where he chucked the base to the ground before leaving. The incident had some life to it, too, even making it to No. 6 on a “SportsCenter” list of top meltdowns.
But as an eyewitness to the scene, I always felt there was a sad end to this tale. When the bat boy sprinted onto the field with a new base, the crowd booed the poor kid.
WHAT A CATCH
(Photo: Getty Images)
These days, an Andrew McCutchen highlight-reel catch in the outfield is almost as much of a nighlty ritual as pierogie races. We could build quite a list trying to document them all.
But the celebrated center fielder may not have the best catch in PNC Park history.
Brian Giles, who roamed the outfield for the Pirates from 1999 to 2003, was known primarily for his big bat — he hit at least 35 homers four times while in Pittsburgh. And though his split from the Pirates and revelations of his clubhouse behavior irked fans, for a time, the two-time All-Star was the best of the Bucs.
His finest moment in black and gold might have been June 21, 2003, against Cleveland.
The game itself was one of the longest ever at PNC Park, with the Pirates winning, 7-6, in 15 innings. The extra innings, however, may not have been needed had Giles not made a game-saving play in the eighth.
With a man on, one out and the Pirates trailing by a run, the Indians’ Brandon Phillips drove a pitch deep down the left-field line. Giles sprinted to the wall near the foul pole, leapt, planted his left foot into the wall’s padding and stretched into the stands for the ball.
He robbed Phillips and the Indians of a three-run lead, the look on his face barely concealing his own amazement with the play. Seven innings later, the play still stood out in a night full of wild moments.
And there was a nice gash in the left-field wall in case anyone forgot.
THE STARS COME OUT
(Photo: JC Schisler | Tribune-Review)
From the start, PNC Park, with its traditional feel and striking backdrop, was regarded as one of America’s best sporting venues. Yet, with the Pirates then hardly a draw for big networks, the field didn’t make a true debut to a national audience until the 2006 All-Star Game.
Pittsburgh shined up well for the event, with plenty of highlights outside of the game, including a parade of players across the Roberto Clemente Bridge and an entertaining Home Run Derby — be careful, some of the balls David Ortiz launched into orbit finally may be on a return trajectory.
And though it was low-scoring, the game itself provided some late dramatics.
The National League was looking to break a nine-game losing streak in the series — not to mention clinch home field advantage in the World Series. Those goals were in grasp, with the NL holding a one-run lead for most of the game, but the AL scored twice in the top of the ninth to grab a 3-2 victory.
As for the Pirates presence at the game, outfield starter Jason Bay went 1 for 3 at the plate, while Freddy Sanchez was hitless in a pair of at-bats yet made an outstanding leaping catch at shortstop.
(Photo: Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Sitting in my closet is a green Pirates cap. Never have been much of a hat wearer, but this one I keep as a special memento. This giveaway item on April 22, 2010 — Earth Day — came along with history.
Brewers 20, Pirates 0.
That grey afternoon was the worst loss in the history of a franchise founded in 1882.
Against six Pirates pitchers, the Brewers collected 25 hits, with 12 going for extra bases. It was the final game of a monumentally malicious three-game series that saw the home team outscored a combined 36-1.
The capper on the day? When the Brewers scored their 20th run, a portion of what little remained of the crowd sent up a sarcastic cheer.
Given recent developments, maybe it’s time to burn that hat.
THE FORT’S BIG AT-BAT
(Photo: Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
It was in 2011 that the Pirates finally were showing signs of maybe, possibly, hopefully, perhaps turning the corner. Of course, now we know the answer was yes, they were. Sort of.
The season still ended with 90 losses, but there was a flash of excitement in July, when the Pirates mingled among the NL Central leaders for a week or so before the bottom fell out.
Still, the Pirates contending so late in the season was unheard of at PNC Park. When the Cubs visited for the opener of a weekend series July 8, the Pirates were three games above .500, and buzz around the ballpark was hopeful, if wary.
It was a tight game that saw the Pirates rally from deficits twice before Chicago took a 4-3 lead in the eighth inning. For the Pirates of the previous two decades, a comeback likely wouldn’t have been in the offing.
Enter Michael McKenry.
The stocky catcher — nicknamed “The Fort” for his defense and his name’s similarity to the national anthem’s Fort McHenry — had just eight hitless at-bats in the majors before the Pirates acquired him in June 2011. Suddenly thrust into a big role and as blue-collar as they come, he endeared himself to Pittsburghers against the Cubs.
After the Pirates knotted the game at four runs with two outs, McKenry put every member of the crowd of 37,140 at the edge of their seat with a dramatic eight-pitch at-bat that ended with him crushing a three-run homer to left field. It was the first home run of his career and even drew a curtain call.
For that night and through the end of the month, the city was reminded of just how exciting a playoff chase could be. Two seasons later, the chase was finally over.
(Photo: Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)
In a city fortunate to have a deep roster of vivd sports memories, it’s hard to tell how the Pirates’ 2013 Wild Card Game victory against the Reds will hold up over time.
This was no Immaculate Reception. It wasn’t Bill Mazeroski’s World Series-winning home run. Those moments stand among the greatest scenes in American sports.
No, the Pirates beating the Reds, 6-2, for their first postseason victory since 1992 felt more personal to Pittsburgh. It was the cathartic conclusion to a two-decade nightmare.
On a night full of priceless pictures — Andrew McCutchen’s mom singing the anthem was a brilliant idea — there’s one moment, a second-inning at-bat, that stands out more than any other.
Minutes after Marlon Byrd hit a solo home run to put the Pirates ahead, 1-0, catcher Russell Martin came to the plate. Already jazzed up by Byrd’s blast, the fans were haranguing Red pitcher Johnny Cueto with the simplest of heckles:
Shrugging off the noise, Cueto soldiered on. Sure. With a 2-1 count, he stepped on the rubber and…
… dropped the ball.
Maybe it was nerves. Maybe it just slipped. Maybe they could hear the ensuing cheers in Cincinnati.
Cueto gave an aw-shucks grin. and Martin flashed one, too. Then, he launched Cueto’s next pitch into the left-field stands. Cue the sea of waving jolly roger flags.
In that moment, it seemed as if the fans — those patient, patient fans — had actually willed the ball over the wall. Home-field advantage never felt so palpable. PNC Park never felt so alive.
It was the type of moment the place was built for.