The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 22, 2014

BILL EGGERT | Pirates: a rite of spring

The Tribune-Democrat

— Opening day for the Bucs is March 31. Every year, hope springs eternal for Pittsburgh Pirate fans. Especially for the past two decades, since outfielder Barry Bonds’ errant throw allowed gimpy-kneed Sid Bream to score the come-from-behind winning run for the Atlanta Braves in the 1992 National League Championship Series.

Every year for the past twenty seasons the Buccos have found a way to break the hearts of their fans, either from April on, or playing winning ball until their August swoon and collapse.  

That is, until last year. 2013 proved to be a lucky season for the Bucs, who made it to the playoffs in exciting style. Last year the patience and guidance from the past few seasons came to a successful conclusion in making the playoffs. Pirates President Frank Coonelly, General Manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle were all instrumental in developing a winning prescription for the Bucs last year.

My old friend from Sears, Bernie R, is a devoted Pirate fan. He has suffered through the bad times, but remembers the “glory days” when the Bucs fielded winning teams. Many years a season ticket holder, Bernie gets free tickets to the annual Piratefest  each winter. Bernie had an extra ticket last year, and kindly asked me if I wanted to attend with him. We headed to Pittsburgh one frigid December Sunday.

It was encouraging to see the many Pirate fans there, from small kids to middle age folks. The Pirate Parrot and “bouncy castles” were there for the kids, and current and a former Pirates were there for kids of all ages. While the new players were very nice, I had the misfortune of getting former pitcher John Candelaria’s pre-signed photo card, which he handed me with all the pleasantness of someone asking him for a skin graft. If he did not want to be there he should not have attended.

By contrast, pitcher Jeff Locke (who looked like he was still in high school) was gracious and friendly as I kidded him about his long hair.

Bernie and I also got to meet Pirate announcer Tim Neverett, who was friendly and accessible. As I spoke with him I thought back to former announcers Bob Prince (28-year career) and Lanny Frattare (33-year career) and how much broadcasting has changed since the days of the Gunner.

I also was able to speak to Coonelly after the question-and-answer session. I thanked him for bringing winning baseball back to Pittsburgh. I mentioned to him that I remembered the last three World Series the Pirates won. He complimented me on not looking old enough to remember the last three.

The most enjoyable part of the Piratefest for Bernie and myself was the question-and answer-session. A long line of Pirate fans, mostly young boys and a few 20-something guys, patiently waited in line to question the panel of Huntington, Hurdle and Coonelly. The often repeated questions (to the point of being funny) had to do with what about the “right field and first base situations.”  Patiently, one of the panel would address the same question. Other memorable questions included “What is your starting lineup for Opening Day?” (Answer: have to see how spring training plays out) and “Have you given any thought to using (pitcher) Gerrit Cole as designated hitter during interleague play?” (Answer: audience laughter). Mostly, it was fans expressing their gratitude for bringing winning baseball back to Pittsburgh. It occurred to me that those 20 and younger had never experienced a winning Pirate team.

As for Bernie and myself, it was a reality test, realizing that not only were we older than the ballplayers, but also the manager, general manager and president. Scanning through the memorabilia vendors there, Bernie and I relived memories of the Pirates of our youth: Clemente, Maz, Stargell, ElRoy Face, Moose, Lamb and Veale. Seeing a baseball card of pitcher Don Schwall, at 6-foot-6 one of the taller Pirates ever, I reminded Bernie that Schwall had a hot wife (from Family Day photos in the Pirate yearbooks) and the 30-something  woman next to me burst out laughing.

Maybe baseball fans will never grow up or grow old, always being the “Boys of Summer.” Maybe baseball will keep us forever young.