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Three Rivers Stadium: The concrete will crumble but the memories will live on

Friday, September 29, 2000

By Robert Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Boy, you barely turn 30 and your most ardent suitor is leaving for a prettier new thing up the river because things didn't work out and it's time to move on. So cheerio to the Big Bowl. Adios, arriverderci and au revoir to the Antiseptic Ashtray. Dobru noc to the Drab Doughnut. Will the last baseball fan to leave Three Rivers Stadium please turn out the lights?

Three Rivers Stadium: 1970-2000
Requiem for a ballpark

The 1970s: A crowning decade

The 1980s: Trial and error

The 1990s: Disappointment in flavors

The Pirates, the driving force behind the place being built, are bringing down the curtain on baseball for this theater in the round this weekend. Truth be told, they can't leave it fast enough because Three Rivers came to be blamed as the problem for lack of fan support. Call it irreconcilable differences.

Baseball aficionados won't let the doors hit them on the way out either. Nobody will manufacture much of a lather for the structure. Nary a concrete-hugger will be chained to the utilitarian facade on Sunday night, wailing that baseball is better on a billiard table surface.

But the memories? Now that's a different story. The Pirates have a weekend of nostalgia, sentiment, give-aways and surprises in store to recall the championships, the characters, the unforgettable games and individual plays, not to mention the bonds of family and friendship forged in what was, in essence, an open-air community center. It was either one final salute to the place or focus on the final drama: whether the Pirates or the visiting Cubs will finish in the cellar. Whoopee.

"We want to give Three Rivers its due," said Steve Greenberg. "It should be a celebration. We want to let the emotions flow."

Greenberg's emotions will be as mixed an anyone's who comes to kiss this era of Pirates baseball good-bye. A one-time vendor at old Forbes Field, Greenberg was the franchise's marketing force at Three Rivers and the team official dedicated to building PNC Park, without which the Pirates themselves would be a memory by now.

This being an event town -- the curtain call will draw more people than any series did this year -- there's plenty to soak up.

Twenty-seven former Pirates will be back: from Pops Stargell tonight and Sunday for special ceremonies, to Andy Van Slyke, Spanky LaValliere, Doug Drabek, Bruce Kison (who won the first prime-time World Series game), R.J. Reynolds, Jim Gott, Richie Hebner (still in uniform on the Pirates bench, he had the first hit and scored the first run in stadium history) and Dock Ellis. It was Ellis who christened the place with the first official pitch on July 16, 1970, and it will be Ellis -- probably minus the hair curlers, but who knows with Dock -- who will toss out the ceremonial first pitch on the last day.

  The house was full for the 1994 All-Star Game, but the work stoppage was only weeks away. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Jeanne Caliguiri, widow of the first mayor to bail out the franchise, tosses out the first ball tonight. One of the Galbreaths, recalling the era when families instead of conglomerates and consortiums owned baseball teams, does the honors tomorrow.

Following The Vogues and Donny Iris at tonight's and tomorrow's pregame microphone, Sister Sledge has the honor of signing the finalnationalanthem, family style. Trivia buffs will recall Billy Eckstine's rendition at the grand opening.

The finale's lineup card will be delivered en masse by Bill Virdon, Chuck Tanner, Jim Leyland and Gene Lamont -- ex-managers all in what will be Lamont's final game at the helm.

If the last pierogi race brings back memories of Babushka Night (July 30, 1975, the season Bob Prince was canned), so much the better.

And for those who miss the days when the Steel City's skies were filled with smoke and noise, there will be fireworks tonight.

Money matters

Even in a wired society that has a 15-second attention span and, speaking of charmless and concrete-hearted, allows Darva Conger 15 minutes of fame, landmarks and shrines normally last longer than 30.5 summers in the sun.

Three Rivers was conceived in the days of the two-fer, when utility and multi-use were accepted as compromises over intimacy and personality. It is structurally sound enough to have a lot of years left, which made the rationale behind two new stadiums such a tough sell. There's still about $23 million owed on a building priced at $36 million, although loans to the Pirates and stadium fix-ups equaling the amount of debt have been rolled into the original bonds.

Three Rivers' fatal flaw is that it's economically obsolete, lacking the luxury boxes and clubs seats that require charter seat licenses. And from a fan's point of view, Three Rivers is too much like dinner-theater -- not good dinner and not good theater.

Stop if you've heard this before, but a governor and mayor -- Davey Lawrence and Joe Barr -- figured it was a good investment of public money to keep the city's major-league status by building Three Rivers. And the corporate community, led by Richard King Mellon, supported the concept of turning 84 acres of industrial blight into a North Side destination point. It took 15 years from conception to reality.

Multi-use stadiums were all the rage at the time -- so were two-tone platform shoes, lizard green leisure suits, wobbly eight-track tape players and safe, cheap nuclear power.

Cincinnati and Philadelphia got on the cookie-cutter design bandwagon, although Kansas City resisted by putting two sports venues on the same site and was way ahead of the curve in city planning. Like Three Rivers, Cynergy Field and the Vet are destined for the wrecking ball. Only bowlish Busch Stadium in St. Louis has a future, mainly because the artificial turf was torn out when it became a baseball-only facility after the football team left town.

Despite its critics and naysayers, Three Rivers had its day.

It featured cutting-edge innovations like a $1 million scoreboard, which has since been replaced. Organist Vince Lascheid made his debut. And, correcting an astonishing oversight at Forbes Field, beer could be purchased from vendors (50 cents a cup for Iron City, a dime more for out-of-town brews like Budweiser).

Tartan Turf was the solution to playing baseball and football on the same surface. It helped to avoid rainouts too. But like a bad wig, it has since been replaced with three new rugs that never quite matched a living, growing lawn for aesthetics and feel.

And, oh, the grandiosity of the new arena, with its unobstructed views, symmetrical dimensions and brightly colored seats. Except its sheer size was a double-edged compromise too. To dispense with the girders of the old parks, the seats were built up and back from the field. You could sit in left field and not be able to see Willie Stargell, and the batter's box was just a rumor if you didn't have binoculars.

The immensity of it separated fans from the players, which posed a challenge to those miscreants who deemed it a cool thing to throw batteries at Dave Parker, the Pirate who became baseball's first million-dollar-a-year player.

Three Rivers is still what it is. It was built B.S. -- before Steinbrenner. These days, who thinks of the Pirates as the dominant sports franchise in town or baseball as the national pastime?

In the year Three Rivers opened, the National League split into two divisions, with the Reds and Pirates offering a preview of the first playoff series, and has since split again. Then came free agency, arbitration and the seven most recent lockouts, work stoppages and strikes, which begat ills like having to shell out more than $10 million a year to keep a catcher.

Is it the stadium's fault that "small market" has become part of the lexicon, or that the payrolls of World Series contenders now hover around $100 million?

Three Rivers has been called lots of things, but it somehow got by without a nickname like The Eighth Wonder of the World or The House That Ruth Built. And while it did sink into commercialism and sponsorships, it missed out on the naming rights craze.

We all got spoiled by the early success -- six of the nine division champions in the first 10 years, plus two world titles to hang on the City of Champions mantle -- and those memories will live on. The '70s were simply the best decade in the 114-year history of the franchise, and it still was overshadowed by football.

But also part of Three Rivers' past are the lowlights of the mid-'80s -- where have you gone, Joggin' George Hendrick? -- when bad baseball and a cocaine scandal put a drag on attendance. Remember Dale Berra testifying at a federal drug trial that the guy who worked as the Pirates' mascot delivered $200 worth of cocaine to him? Come to think of it, that early bird did have an oversized nose.

The attendance woes are a reminder of what Yogi Berra once said: If the fans aren't going to come, you can't stop them.

CALLER: What time does the Pirates game start tonight?

TICKET OFFICE: What time can you get here?

Bah-dah-bing, bah-dah-boom.

Still, none of the shenanigans can take the luster off of gilded moments like these:

Roberto Clemente's 3,000th hit just three months before the plane crash; two All-Star games; Luke Walker taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning of the second game of a Sunday doubleheader; Jim Bibby yielding a lead-off hit before retiring the next 27 batters in a row; Stargell, Greg Luzinski and Frank Thomas reaching the upper deck with howitzer shots; Nellie Briles pitching a two-hit, complete game World Series win under the gaze of at least one college kid who skipped school to watch it in 1971; the Pirates sweeping a doubleheader on a Friday night to chase the Phillies into the final two days of the 1978 season; Turner Ward crashing through the right field wall to catch a ball; or Bob Gibson, John Candelaria and the amigos Francisco Cordorva and Ricardo Rincon serving up no-hitters. (That last one came in the magic year of 1997 before an electrified full house against the Astros on a fireworks Saturday, with Mark Smith's 10th inning home run accounting for the only runs.)

The end is near

The formal closing ceremony centers on home plate. Home, the place of origin or a destination point, is where the heart is. The pentagon will be lifted out of its resting place and transported -- stay tuned for the rocket age details -- to its new surroundings at PNC Park.

Suggestions were proffered to leaving it behind, given that it hasn't been crossed by the right people too many times in the past eight years, but tradition will hold sway. The other bases will be changed three times during the finale.

Tradition will drip heavy in the October air. It was the Cubs who helped close old Exposition Park in 1909 (Lefty Leifield outdueled Mordecai "Three Fingers" Brown in a Pirates win), and it was the Cubs who closed Forbes Field by being swept in a doubleheader on June 28, 1970 (Dave Giusti and Jim Nelson were the winning pitchers).

Security will be in place to prevent a repeat of Forbes' ignominious last day when a planned auction was scrapped as the hordes stripped the old ballpark of seats, scoreboard items and everything else they could plunder from the carcass.

On Monday, crews begin turning Three Rivers around for the next Steelers' game. Its football life will still be pulsing even after baseball kisses it good-bye.

The last baseball players to leave will be Clemente and Honus Wagner. Their statues will be hauled off to their new homes at PNC Park in January.

Think of it as an organ donor because parts of Three Rivers will live on in other bodies after it joins the list of things that aren't there anymore.

An online auction by FreeMarkets Inc. on Nov. 10 will peddle off the Sony Jumbotron, the Daktronic Marquee, stadium lights and 2,200 reusable seats. In this business-to-business venture, the parts will be resurrected in minor league ballparks or other sports venues.

Fans who want a piece of memorabilia will have a chance to bid at a more conventional auction Jan. 6 and 8. Pieces of the turf, rows of seats, signage, banners, lockers and kitchen equipment will be available to the highest bidder, and about 5,000 to 6,000 bidders are expected to register.

Proceeds from the auctioned items will help defray the demolition costs and go into a fund for city parks and recreation. Talks also going on with the Pittsburgh Film Office to sell the film rights to the demolition.

The execution date is set for Feb. 18, a Sunday, when the North Shore can no longer be called Three Stadiums River. There's a 50/50 chance the structure will be imploded, although the final decision will be up the contractor whose bid will be accepted sometime in November. One complication for implosion is that the new Steelers Stadium is just 85 feet away from the stadium rim.

At any rate, rubble must be removed by March 5 along the right of way for the new roads being built between the new stadiums. The remaining dregs must be cleared by April 27.

A crushing machine on site will reduce chunks of Three Rivers concrete to make reusable fill. In other words, what is now the stadium will be ground up and become part of the new parking lots currently on the drawing board.

Even in its afterlife, Three Rivers will serve multiple purposes. Add in the memories and the place will at least have a fitting epitaph.

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