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The Pregame Show

The stakes are simple:The franchise’s future

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to a special edition of Pirates baseball, the behind-the-scenes saga of how the franchise prevailed in the most crucial fight in its history.Pregame180x265.jpg (12331 bytes)

The opposing lineups in the five-year long battle for the ballpark spoke volumes about the stakes.

Going to bat for the ballpark was an unlikely team (sometimes wearing pinstripes): a Democratic mayor, a Republican governor and a shotgun union of two Allegheny County commissioners. These political heavy hitters link the ballpark to the region’s major league status.

An equally unlikely alliance, from the blue-collared to the well-heeled, argue that the taxpayers are being fleeced to subsidize millionaire ballplayers. They included a Republican county commissioner, a think tank funded by conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife and a majority of citizens who made their stand known through public opinion polls.

But if this clash between baseball’s worth and its costs makes you pine for the good old days, forget it.

The game has been balled up in money woes since the franchise’s beginnings in 1887, when waves of immigrants were being recruited to toil in Carnegie’s steel mills and Frick’s coal mines.

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Three years after Pittsburgh joined the National League — that was so long ago a base on balls still was counted as a hit — the 1890 Brotherhood Revolt almost killed the franchise.

Upset that the owners refused to share profits, players formed their own league. Its roster stripped of stars, Pittsburgh’s NL club — known as the Innocents — staggered to a club record 114 losses, including 23 in a row and, believe it or not, three in a single day. At one game, there were 26 paid admissions.

Following that one year of turmoil, the Innocents became the Pirates. Sued by another team for using "piratical" measures to sign a free agent, the ballclub kept the player and the nickname.

A strange hybrid that is part private enterprise and part public passion, baseball really took off at the turn of the century by delivering what this city prizes above all else — a winner.

New owner Barney Dreyfuss, a German immigrant whose first job was washing out whiskey barrels for $6 a week in Louisville, Ky., produced winners. His 1902 team had a better regular-season winning percentage than last year’s Yankees.

He also fathered the World Series. His 1903 team challenged the American League’s Boston Pilgrims to a nine-game series, then lost.

Dreyfuss also begat Forbes Field, which was more sylvan than city when he built it in four months in 1909 with $1 million of his own money. That same year, Pittsburgh’s first superstar, John Peter "Honus" Wagner, the son of a Bavarian coal miner from Carnegie, led the team to its first world title. Wagner outplayed Ty Cobb — even split the crusty Cobb’s lip on a tag play — as the Pirates defeated Detroit in the Series.

Other legends followed: Hall of Famers like Kiki Cuyler, hero of the 1925 World Series; brothers Paul and Lloyd Waner — Big Poison and Little Poison — who lost the 1927 Series to the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig; home run king Ralph Kiner, Pittsburgh’s first $100,000 ballplayer, whose bat drew more than a million fans for the first time in franchise history in 1947; Harvey Haddix, the loser of the greatest game ever pitched in 1959; Roberto Clemente, MVP of the 1971 Series, just a year before he died on a mission of mercy.

And, of course, Bill Mazeroski. Any kid who ever hit a pebble with a broomstick has dreamed of homering to win a World Series. Maz did it in the ninth inning of the seventh game in 1960, defeating the Yankees of Maris, Mantle and Berra.

Tom Ridge, who grew up in Homestead and Munhall on the way to becoming Pennsylvania’s governor, tells how his Czechoslovakian-born grandma — his "Bubba" — reacted. "She hardly knew anything about baseball, but you’d have thought she hit that home run," Ridge said.

The Pirates this year will celebrate the 20th anniversary of their fifth world title, won by the 1979 team featuring Pops Stargell and the "We Are Fam-A-Lee" Pirates in their bumblebee uniforms and railroad conductor hats.

Back then, in the heyday of the City of Champions, fans danced as one with an enthusiasm both innocent and unabashed. Nobody took note of salaries or team payrolls.

But those days are as dead as disco.

That 1979 title came right before the steel mills closed and jobs evaporated. It was before the 1985 baseball drug trials — when Dave Parker, Dale Berra and the Pirates mascot were implicated in a cocaine scandal that was the worst blot on baseball since the 1919 World Series fix. It was before the nucleus of the division-wiinning 1900-92 teams — Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek — became unaffordable. It was before that blasted 1994 players’ strike.

Pittsburgh is different now. So is baseball. This year, Los Angeles pitcher Kevin Brown has a seven-year, $105 million contract. That is more than the current Pirates owners paid for the franchise and about half the cost of a new ballpark.

A 19th century pastoral game that was once synonymous with spring as a symbol of hope, baseball is still a diversion from workaday worries, sustenance for the spirit, a force that unites fans of different politics, religions, races, regions and class.

But baseball is also big business — actually, a cartel given anti-trust exemption by Congress — and who roots for big business?

The dynamics are such that no one argues the disparity between the haves and have-nots has practically created a caste system. Even die-hard fans wonder what the future holds, new ballpark or not.

Well, the stakes were as obvious as they are high. The Pirates either had to get a new ballpark or kiss ’em goodbye.

Now, the game within the game.

The PG Lineup

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