From 1994 through 2007, I attended almost every home opener in Pittsburgh at PNC Park and Three Rivers Stadium. Home openers are a weird thing when you don’t have much hope for the upcoming season; you’re excited that baseball is back, but it’s hard to be truly optimistic about what’s in front of you, as a fan. My memories of all of those home openers have very little to do with the games themselves. There was the time that my uncle and I got beer dumped on us from some mysterious patrons somewhere overhead in Three Rivers’ super-cheap seats (or maybe from a luxury box; Three Rivers had the verticality of a radio tower once you got up high enough). We got free tickets because of that incident and had Home Opener II in May, tailgate and everything.
There was the year after the strike, when the Pirates misplayed a bunt into a three-run home run and the fans littered the field with tiny little flags that had been given away as a promotion. There was the next year when the annual tradition of magnetic schedules began. It turns out the schedules are pretty flimsy and unless you’re an expert frisbee tosser, they’re not easy to get on to the field. There was the time the Pirates played the Phillies and there were almost as many Phillies’ fans as Pirate fans at PNC. Actually, there were a few of those. One time it was really, really cold (even by early April in Pittsburgh standards) and Jim Edmonds played center field in what looked like a parka under his uniform. One year, the Pirates threatened to bat Tike Redman third because a “computer program” told them to. I can’t remember if they carried through with the threat.
In 2007 I moved to North Carolina for grad school and my run of Pirate home openers ended. I decided earlier this spring that I had to start a new streak in 2014. Living out of state, I couldn’t be home for any of 2013′s dramatic playoff run. I watched the huge crowds at PNC Park lose their minds over big wins and heckle Johnny Cueto into oblivion and go crazy during NLDS games with extreme jealously last fall; I didn’t want to miss another opportunity at that.
We’re a few days past it now, so you probably already know that the game was a pretty amazing way to start the season for Pirate fans. It started with various Pirates receiving their 2013 awards from Pirates of the past, and it ended with Pittsburgh native Neil Walker hitting a walk-off home run in the bottom of the tenth. PNC Park was loud from beginning to end. Chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” and “Let’s go Pedro!” spontaneously popped up in the bleachers throughout the afternoon. When the bottom of the ninth started with the game tied at zero and McCutchen and Alvarez due up, Jolly Roger flags waved all across the ballpark. All of this happened without prompting. Nobody came to the game to see a post-game fireworks show or to get an Oliver Perez bobblehead doll. It was the sort of day that I personally had dreamed about for a while.
When you’re the fan of a bad baseball team without much hope, you mark different milestones during the season. I remember seeing Andrew McCutchen play in person for the first time in Durham in 2008. I remember the weird night later that summer when Pirate fans waited until midnight with bated breath to see if Pedro Alvarez would sign a contract after being drafted second overall by the Pirates, and I remember the late night celebration that his signing induced. I personally spent countless hours sifting through PitchFX data for pitchers like James McDonald and Charlie Morton, trying to convince myself that there was some kind of hope they would turn into solid big leaguers. The games I remember attending would be meaningless to anyone that wasn’t at the games; the double-header where Rob Mackowiak hit a walk-off home run in the first leg, then a game-tying homer in the ninth inning of the second game, all on the day his son was born. A Pedro Alvarez walk-off homer to cap a ridiculous rally before a George Thorogood concert (this is the sort of thing people would look forward to at PNC Park before Pirate games were worth it). Oliver Perez striking out 14 Braves only to lose 1-0 on a Chipper Jones solo home run because the Pirates could somehow not score off of Russ Ortiz.
The odd thing about being stuck in a rut like the one that the Pirates were in is that you, as a fan, can’t ever really know what anything means. Sometimes moments that seem to be meaningful (like James McDonald’s masterful debut after being traded to the Pirates in 2010) turn out to have no impact on the club’s ultimate destiny, and moments that seem minor (like signing Jason Grilli to a late-season deal in 2011) are huge. As the season goes on, I’d like to look at other small-market, doomed-for-the-present clubs and pull those little moments apart, but for now I’ll take one more moment to bask in the glow of a “true” Opening Day in Pittsburgh. What made Monday afternoon great was that I could sit in the ballpark, drink in the atmosphere, and just enjoy the game for itself. In the past, every Pirate game came with a lingering question: OK, that just happened, so what does that mean for the future when the Pirates are contenders? For the Pirates now, a win is just a win. That seems like a minor thing, but that itself made Monday different than any other Pirate home opener I’ve attended.