PNC Park, Pittsburgh, PA – From the top of the Rotunda

Here’s one of my favorite not Italian spots in the world – PNC Park. It has, of course, been lauded over and over as a modern baseball marvel. One of the truly outstanding features of this stadium is the navy steel rotunda which forms a spiral walkway to the very top  of the ballpark. I’ve been meaning to post these since June, so now as the baseball season begins to wane, and I go into mourning, I thought I’d show you what Pittsburgh looks like from the top of the rotunda of the greatest baseball stadium in the world. Here goes:

 

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Legacy Square commemorating the great Negro League teams from Pittsburgh. There used to be bronze statues here. Where did they go?

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Looking straight down on the enormous statue of the great Hall of Famer Willie Stargell – one of my childhood heroes. He died the night before PNC opened its doors in 2001.

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Here’s the top of the rotunda itself. The original designs had a roof over the steel structure, but I’m so glad that didn’t happen.

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Standing at the top of the left field foul pole – fans filing in.

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Looking eastward over the Allegheny River. The tallest building in Pittsburgh – the former US Steel building takes center stage. 

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Looking Southeast over the Allegheny. PPG Paints building second from the left. In the distance Point State Park and Mount Washington.

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A beautiful view of the Roberto Clemente Bridge heading downtown.

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In my happy place.  See you next summer PNC Park.

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Visuals are Overrated

Visuals are Overrated

I grew up listening to baseball on the radio. I first discovered it as a nine year old in 1976 when I stumbled upon KDKA carrying the rhythmic, ritualistic broadcasts of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  When I started playing baseball in the spring of 1977, I became completely hooked on the calls of Milo Hamilton and the young Lanny Frattare. Radio is, admittedly, my third choice for following a baseball game. Attending the game is first, no doubt, followed by watching it on TV. Radio brings up the rear.

And yet, as I am currently sitting in the evening breeze of the western NY countryside, sitting by a mellow fire, listening the delightful verbal jaunts of Greg Brown and Bob Walk while I write this blog post, I cannot imagine that I would rather be watching it on TV or even in person.

Tonight I don’t have a choice. Radio is my only option, and boy am I glad.

The visual compels us. The imagination takes us away.

Baseball already has a slow, deliberate pace—perfect for gabbing, laughing, eating, and drinking. Baseball allows one to breathe, using boredom as an art form to build tension and unsurpassed drama when the game is on the line. Baseball eschews time, allows fate to be fulfilled no matter how preposterous.  Radio heightens all of this.

Baseball on radio allows you to paint your own picture while working on something else. Baseball on radio is a story, many stories, highlighted by announcers who can fill in the dead air with anecdotes, silliness, and in-depth analysis. It’s a series of crescendos—nine of them actually. Voices are magnified, great plays become improbable plays in your mind, homeruns are always Ruthian, and hard hit balls have a beautiful crack of the bat—a literal crack, that historically relevant sound of wound wool and leather on ash. Each pitch is measured, each move accounted for, each run emphasized by the natural excitement of the announcer.

I love baseball on the radio. I miss it.

Why don’t I always listen?

Because, when the visuals are available, I will always choose them. Always.

I just wish they weren’t available so often.

So thank you, stupid MLB blackout rules.

What Other Game? – Thoughts on Opening Day 2015

Opening day of baseball. It’s an important rite in my life and has been since I was young boy. It’s the quintessential American way to finally put winter to rest – regardless of the actual weather.

I’ve loved baseball ever since, as a nine-year-old boy, I started listening to the Pirates broadcasts of Milo Hamilton and Lanny Frattare. Hamilton didn’t last long in Pittsburgh but Frattare managed to broadcast Pirates games for thirty-three years.

There’s something uniquely American about baseball. Much of the world doesn’t understand it, and, living overseas before the Internet, I was cut off from the game for many long stretches in my life. But every chance that I had to get a hold of an American newspaper, I would check the standings and, of course, the box scores. I do love my statistics.

In this day and age, living overseas and watching Major League Baseball is not difficult task. A quick MLB subscription and I can watch every out of market game (which in Malaysia is all of them) live or on archive. It’s quite amazing.

I especially love when I have days off. The game will start at 7 AM my time. I can eat breakfast while watching and let my morning slowly take shape. By 10, the game is done and I have the entire day still ahead of me. On work days, well, at least I still have the archive feature.

Baseball is the most unique and best game ever created. It’s remarkable, actually. It’s a throwback, a lazy afternoon, a chat with neighbors, a moment of boredom leading to a minute of euphoria. It’s unlike any other game. How you ask? I’ll answer with a series of questions of my own.

What other game has such a uniquely shaped field? The perfect diamond of the infield, and the green, fanning grass of the outfield which can end at any number of distinct and creative fence outlines. No standardization here.

What other game is played when the defense has the ball?

What other game is an individual struggle in the midst of a team sport? I had a former boss who said it perfectly about baseball: it enables kids (and adults) the fertile moment in the spotlight – each better gets his individual turn to shine in success or have to deal with the outcome of defeat. Although individual success on the field is no assurance of victory because it’s a team sport. Someone has said that if baseball had been invented by the ancient Athenians, then the gods of Olympus would have settled their scores with a rousing pitcher-batter duel.

What other game allows natural breaks to ponder and discuss strategy or life?

What other game has been so uniquely intertwined in the fabric of America?

What other game can boast such a heady list of writers who have become the game’s ambassadors?

What other game can make me so excited for spring?

None.

It’s back!

Play ball!

(I’ll see you in November.)

 

Spring Training: I can now publish my bottle pictures.

As spring training starts, I realized now that it would be silly not to publish my bottle photos from last summer. After all, now it is safe. The curse has been broken.

Take a look at this:

2013-07-21 11.55.26 And this:2013-07-21 11.55.37My precious Pittsburgh Pirates water bottle. I miss it greatly.

OK, here’s the story.

There’s no sport like baseball. Nothing else can even come close. It’s perfectly elegant, cerebral, conversational, and the most superstitious of them all.

As a Pirates fan, I know a thing or two about superstition and curses. You see, they had losing records starting in 1993 right through 2012. 20 straight seasons.

The 2013 campaign was going swimmingly smooth – downright frightfully exciting, actually. And then the bottle incident occurred.

I was taking some friends on a road trip in Malaysia. We had made it a couple hours out of Penang when we stopped at a rest area. The car wouldn’t start. We called for service and after three excruciating hours waiting for the new dynamo to be replaced, we were finally ready to go. I went to grab my Pirates water bottle out of the back of the car when I remembered that I had put the bottle near the back window. It had been staring at the Malaysian sun through glass for the last three hours. It was a melted mess.

I thought of nothing else other than it must be a bad baseball omen. I was mortified that this could only mean one thing, my team was once again destined for a fall. I took a couple pictures of the bottle and said goodbye, but I knew I couldn’t jinx anything by mentioning it to anyone or by writing about it. I had to hide the sun’s evil deeds, and I hoped that the baseball gods did not have their satellite fixed on Malaysia during that hot July day.

As the team did the city proud by breaking the cursed 20-year losing streak and by making it to the playoffs, I actually had forgotten about the water bottle.

Now I realize that the bottle was not signifying an ending, but a new beginning. The bottle, mangled in the sun, sacrificed itself for the good of the fans, bringing down the 20-year jinx.

I miss my bottle, but I was happy to sacrifice it for the good of Bucco Nation.

This summer I’ll once again get a chance to travel to Pittsburgh and I intend to buy a new replacement bottle.

Finally, the long idle winter months are beginning to thaw as the 9 inch sphere is magically thrown around the diamond.

Welcome back!

 

20 Years of Losing – in Political Terms

As you may have gathered, I’m a huge Pittsburgh Pirates fan. I don’t typically write about sports on my blog, but I couldn’t let the momentous passing of the worst losing streak in the history of North American sports pass without some sort of commemoration. On Monday night, the Pirates beat the Rangers and clinched their 82 victory of the year, ensuring themselves their first winning season since 1992. So not to bore you non-baseball fans out there, I thought I’d put it in political perspective to see just how long their losing streak was. (Come to think of it, I might bore more people talking about politics. Oh, well.)

Their losing streak started in October of 1992 when they lost the National League Championship Series in a heart-breaking fashion in game seven.

At that time, billionaire Ross Perot was campaigning to be president.

A month later, Bill Clinton was elected, but Monica Lewinsky wouldn’t become a household name for another six years.

The World Trade Center in NYC would be attacked for the first time about a year later.

1994 – The Republicans took over Congress in overwhelming fashion.

1996 – Clinton was re-elected for his second term.

By the end of the 1990s, the Federal Government was running a yearly budget SURPLUS! Now doesn’t that seem like forever ago!

2000 – We all broadened our vocabulary by learning what a “hanging chad” was. Thanks Florida. And the presidency was decided by the Supreme Court. And why not? CNN couldn’t make up its mind on its own about who won.

2001 – 9/11

Then came Afghanistan, then Iraq, then Iraq some more, then Bush’s re-election in 2004. Then the surge two years later.

The bubble burst. Housing foreclosures and economic downturn. Don’t forget stimulus. I was in Malaysia and got a check from the government. ??? I thought that was bizarre.

2008 brought our first African-American president.

Record deficits. More record deficits.

Obamacare.

Iraq withdrawal. More with Afghanistan.

John Roberts ticks off conservatives.

The never-ending election of 2012.

Then 2013. The end of 20 losing seasons. Politics can once again be pushed aside, allowing American’s bloodiest sport (politics) to finally once again (for me) take second fiddle to America’s purest sport.

Their losing streak lasted 6 election cycles – 4 presidents – two censuses – the deaths of three presidents (Ford, Nixon, Reagan). (And don’t forget the Internet explosion – Thanks, Al Gore.)

Finally put to rest. 2013.

What a year!

My Grandpa, Baseball, & Democrats

My grandpa, whom I never had the privilege of knowing, was a staunch Republican. He ran a modest country store during the Great Depression and war years in Sarver, PA. All summer long he would have the radio on listening to Rowsey Rowswell call the play-by-play for his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates. (I have to lament a little here. My mother talks about all of the baseball cards that she had from the store throughout the 1940s. She admits they must have been thrown away. I shutter to think about it.)

When the country store talk eventually found itself in the political arena, my grandpa would be sure to show his displeasure for Roosevelt, and you have to admit, 12 years of FDR and the Democrats would have given the Republicans plenty to complain about.

By 1946, my grandpa would have plenty more to complain about. The Pirates went 63-91, setting off on 12 years of mostly futile play. After the 1952 season when the Pirates were an unbelievably horrible 40-112, it must have been quite the consolation for him when Ike won the presidency in November, putting the White House back in control for the first time since Hoover handed over the reins to FDR in March of 1932.

But I bet he would have traded the White House for a pennant.

The 1953 Pirates lost 104 games. The 1954 Pirates lost 101. At least he could read about Ike’s golf scores in the paper.

By the end of the 50’s, things were looking up for the Pittsburgh franchise. They had a winning season in 1958, and after stumbling back in 1959, were poised to compete for a pennant in 1960. There was another competition on the horizon, however. Nixon vs. Kennedy for the White House.

My grandfather, the WASP that he was, could not fathom a Catholic in the White House – and the prospect of a catholic Democrat made it all the more sinister.

But baseball took center stage first in the fall of 1960 – and what a fall it was! The Pittsburgh Pirates entering their first World Series in 33 years – a rematch of the 1927 series versus the dreaded New York Yankees.

That was a series for the ages, and my grandpa, who suffered through decades of bad teams, was finally rewarded when Bill Mazeroski hit a walk-off, series winning home run in the bottom of the 9th inning at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field to do the impossible – beat the Yankees and win the series.

A month later, fortunes were not as favorable for my grandfather as Kennedy squeaked by Nixon in one of the closest elections of all time.

My grandfather died of a heart attack the next day. My mother says he couldn’t have taken it – having a catholic Democrat in the White House.

But he had satisfaction before he passed on. He saw the Pirates win, and perhaps that was enough.

The Great One: #21

I am taking a one-post break from my usual ramblings about writing, drama, history, or life to write about the other passion in my life: baseball. I hope you enjoy!

The Great One: #21

I was a little over five years old when Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash. I don’t remember it. He wore #21.

The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates are a few short victories away from stopping the record for the most consecutive losing seasons by any professional sports franchise. The last time they had a winning season was in 1992 – 21 years ago.

I started listening to Pirates baseball back in 1976 and 1977. I remember sitting at the dining room table in the evening with the crackled cadences of the national past-time humming over the airwaves while I was, no doubt, doodling with numbers or statistics in a spiral-bound notebook. My childhood revolved around three things: spiral-bound notebooks, a transistor radio, and a shoebox full of baseball cards.

I don’t remember why I started listening or what it was about baseball over the radio that started my four decade love-affair with baseball, but I became hooked.

I had stacks of spiral-bound notebooks which I filled with stats of make-believe players, teams, and leagues. I created games in my head by standing out in front of our house and tossing a tennis ball into the air and whacking it with a long, hard-plastic Whiffle ball bat. In my mind, I threw myself curves, grounded into double plays, and even hit home runs when the ball flew over the driveway and landed in the garden. My third baseman was a tall, oval-shaped arborvitae shrub – who had great hands – and my second baseman and shortstop combined was a medium size pine tree about twenty five feet from the sidewalk where I stood to hit the ball. The outfield consisted of an extremely tall pine tree where home runs went to die. This was real fantasy baseball. My daily games drove me to write down notebooks full of stats, and my daytime dream-ball drove me every evening to my radio where I listened to the Lumber Company powered by Willie Stargell, Dave Parker et al.

It became obvious to me over my early years of listening to Bucco baseball that the team I had joined as a blood brother for life was still coming out of the shadows of the tragic death of The Great One – Roberto Clemente. It took a small boy like me many years to piece together just who this Clemente was, how good he played baseball, and why his death had greatly impacted so many people. By the time I reached high school, I had learned enough about the man to seek out #21 for the back of my Legion ball uniform. College the same – then post-college – then softball coaching – always #21 to honor the man.

So as the Pirates get ready to breakout of their 20 year losing streak, I thought it would be a good time to remind people just who Roberto Clemente was. (This will in no way be an authoritative rendering of his life. If you want that, I highly recommend David Maraniss’ Clemente Biography.)

Roberto Clemente was a fiercely proud Latino ballplayer from Puerto Rico. His prowess in right field is the stuff of legends. He won 12 consecutive gold gloves with a power rocket of an arm that was second to none.

He was lifted from the Dodgers organization in the Rule 5 draft – quite the coup for the Pirates organization. In the 1960 World Series against the New York Yankees, he hit safely in all seven of the games, setting the stage for him to become one of the very best players of the 1960s. He won the N.L. MVP award in 1966 and led the Pirates to three consecutive NL East titles in 1970-1972. His star shined the brightest during the 1971 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles where he, once again, hit safely in all seven of the games extending his World Series hitting streak to 14 games. He thrived in the games biggest stage.

On the last day of the season in 1972, he pounded a double into Three River’s Stadium’s left-center field gap – his career 3000 base hit, reaching the plateau of baseball giants, assuring him of induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame after his retirement of from the game. When that hit reached the outfield, his career batting average was .317. Little did everyone know that that number would be his final career average.

Clemente was often a misunderstood player. He didn’t care for the English label “Bob” which graced a few of his baseball cards. He was moody, often complaining about injuries, and fiercely proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, which was still a subject of great consternation during the turbulent civil rights era. During one of the great moments of Roberto’s career, while basking in the achievement of defeating the Orioles after the 1971 World Series, he was asked a question by legendary Pirates’ broadcaster Bob Prince, but before he answered, he turned to the national TV audience and spoke his love to his mother and beloved homeland in Spanish. It’s little wonder that boys and players all over the Caribbean grew up idolizing the man. He was the first great Latin ballplayer. The first Latin ballplayer inducted into the Hall of Fame, and the idol of every boy from the banks of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium to rugged sandlots of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

But for all his baseball pedigree, he is, perhaps, just as revered for his love and compassion for all of humanity.

On a stormy night, New Year’s Eve 1972, Clemente boarded a plane of questionable air-worthiness that he had hired himself, that he had coordinated and loaded himself, with a humanitarian load of supplies headed towards the victims of a horrific earthquake in Nicaragua which had occurred a week earlier on December 23. The plane took off and quickly crashed into the sea just off the coast of Puerto Rico. His body was never recovered. Panamanian teammate and Pirates’ catcher Manny Sanguillen scoured the beach for days looking for evidence of Roberto’s remains. None were ever found.

On March 30, 1973, the baseball writers of America conducted a special election, waiving the five year retirement requirement, and elected Roberto Clemente to the Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously.

His death signified how he lived. Graciously. He loved people, and if he could help, he would put aside his own holiday plans in order to put others first. On the field or off, Roberto Clemente stands as a symbol of greatness, and the statue of him outside of PNC Park, or the bridge renamed after him, which leads thousands of people from downtown to the ballpark on gameday, stands as a reminder of the human being he was. And of course, I have to mention the Clemente Wall, the 21-ft high wall in right field of PNC Park, which watches over his hallowed position, providing a sense of history and depth to the 126 year old franchise.

If you take a walk around PNC Park on any given day, you’re likely to see as many Clemente jerseys as McCutchen jerseys. That’s the power of the spell he has cast over the city of Pittsburgh and the baseball-loving portions of the Caribbean for the last forty years.

So it is extremely suitable for the number 21 to once again rear its head and make itself known in 2013. A twenty one year losing streak for the proud Pittsburgh franchise would just be unacceptable. The streak will end at 20, and in the highly superstitious realm of baseball, I’d like to think that Roberto somehow had a hand in it.

(Note: The Clemente family has a biography about Roberto set to release in September 2013. You can see more information about that HERE.)