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Ushering in new, holding on to old

Wednesday, April 05, 2000

In this, his 83rd April, Phil Coyne has found again his baseball rhythm, his Pirates rhythm.

He'll hop the 71 bus Downtown this afternoon, then grab the 501 over to Three Rivers Stadium. When he first showed up to usher at a Pirates game, he had only to walk the four blocks to Forbes Field from where his mother would listen to the crowd from the back porch.

That was 1934.

"Pie Traynor was on third," he smiled before the season opener was called for rain Monday night. "Honus Wagner was one of the coaches. I better get this right; they'll kill me if I make a mistake."

With that he looked across the outer circle from where we were leaning against a temporary fence outside Gate D. The hive of familiar usher faces was gathering there. A handful are even older than Phil Coyne. They were busy greeting each other after a long winter and griping about their new hats.

"It fits me," Phil shrugged.

You picture Phil as exactly this easygoing when he was a sophomore at Duquense Prep. He got his first usher assignments that year. Nine years later, on leave from the service during World War II, he picked up his union card at Gus Miller's magazine store on Forbes Avenue. When the war ended, he put his union card to use at every opportunity.

"I worked at Westinghouse Air Brake, WABCO, in Wilmerding, and we'd get off at 3:15. I was home by 4 and just walked over to Forbes Field from there. If you were in Oakland in those days and weren't an usher, there was something wrong with you. When the Pirates moved over here in 1970, I'd get the Trafford bus after work because there wasn't time to go home. I did that from 1970 until 1980, when I retired from Westinghouse."

And for the past 20 years, the rhythm has been a little easier as a life cooks slower to baseball's metronome, some memories fading, others crystallizing, still others keeping their freshness. Phil Coyne's got so many, it doesn't matter where you start a conversation with him or where you end it.

"I was standing on the third base side when Maz homered," he said about that unforgettable moment. "We were caught by surprise because the game ended so suddenly. When it ended, you were supposed to go down to the rail and out of the field, to ring the field with ushers. But by the time Maz rounded second, there were people all over the field. I just stood there and watched.

"I remember the club sold two tickets to each World Series game to the employees. I told my mother, 'Mom, you gotta go. It's the World Series!' So she came and sat out in right field with my little niece. Wouldn't you know, it was the game we lost 16-3."

Phil says he always liked Saturday afternoons best. A 2 p.m. game or a doubleheader. Fans filling the Oakland neighborhood, some lugging garbage cans filled with bottled beer to plant in the aisles. Seeing the players on the street and on the buses or in the bars after the game. Those days are virtually prehistoric to the modern game.

"One thing I'm sorry about, well, it's not like I regret it really, but I'd be a millionaire now if I'd just picked up some scorecards or some balls from that era and kept them," he said. "You could always get a ball. You'd get one with Honus Wagner's autograph on it one day, and the next it'd be all scuffed up because you played with it down the [Schenley] Oval."

One more April, and Phil Coyne will have ushered in three Pirates ballparks. He's anxious to get into PNC park, but he's apprehensive about where he'll be and to where his extended family of fans might be scrambled in the new seats.

"I've been 20, 30 years with some of these people," he said. "That's why I look forward to the opener so much. I'm anxious to see them and they're anxious to see me. I want to know that everybody got through the winter OK. You find out who died; who moved to Florida."

The union he still belongs to has no contract now, and there is skittishness over what the coming months hold as the club moves to a new park, a new era. However it comes down, somebody ought to know that the Phil Coynes of this town cannot be replaced, nor can the link they represent, the link they forged, the link they are between the ball club and the community.


Gene Collier's e-mail address is gcollier@post-gazette.com.



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