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Drama and nostalgia hold the front row seats at stadium exit

Monday, October 02, 2000

By Robert Dvorchak and Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Talk about a dramatic exit.

It was The Rocketman who provided the final blast, carrying the heart and soul of Three Rivers Stadium on his backpack as he ascended from the playing field and, like Elvis, left the building.

  Current and former Pirates say good-bye to the stadium and their fans. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

"Make sure you put your fingers in your ears before I take off," said Eric Scott of Dallas, before he ignited 30 seconds worth of hydrogen peroxide rocket fuel and roared over the stadium rim.

The Pirates could have used a blast -- their ninth-inning rally fell just short in a 10-9 loss on the last day of baseball in a stadium built 30-plus years ago -- but it mattered little to the 55,351 fans, the largest regular season crowd ever, who came to bid goodbye.

The Rocketman, wearing a No. 7 Pirates uniform, was an appropriate closing act. He symbolically transplanted home plate from the old to the new, where the new era of baseball begins in PNC Park in April.

(Here's a secret: He stopped at the stadium roof and didn't actually make it to the new park. Home plate will be secured there at a later date.)

"Nothing but net," said Scott, who has appeared in Super Bowls, Olympic Games and celebrations around the world. "We're really excited to be here because it means so much to Pittsburgh."

Just think, on the last day, it took Rocketman to figure out how to beat the traffic and parking snarls.

For a while, it seemed Three Rivers did not want to let go. The closing game lasted just 15 minutes shy of four hours and was one of the messier scorecards in stadium history, but what a show-stopper.

On a gorgeous evening at the conclusion of a gorgeous weekend, it was a perfect day for a send-off, the final score notwithstanding.

From the warm ovation for the departing Gene Lamont to the sustained applause for the old-time players to the closing fireworks, the concrete bowl had one last moment in the sun. There was one glitch at the closing as broadcaster Lanny Frattare referred to Lamont's send-off by confusing him with Jim Leyland, but he caught himself quickly.

    Pirates blow lead, lose final game


Ross Morgan, 44, of Shaler, soaked in the moment with a pre-game tailgate party for 700 people, complete with a disc jockey and a TV tuned in to the Steelers' victory.

"Like most people, I have mixed feelings," said Morgan, who bought his season tickets in 1985, one of the low points in Pirates franchise history. "I was here for the very first game in 1970, and I saw some great, great teams. I know PNC Park is going to be a better facility. At the same time, there's so many memories."

It was a day for many old friends to meet one last time in the multipurpose stadium that replaced Forbes Field. And they made the most of it.

George Ifft of the North Side was particularly touched by the ovation given Lamont, who won't be back to manage the club in its new surroundings.

"It was a nice gesture for Gene. And it's nice to see a full house for baseball. I feel like I'm in Wrigley Field," said Ifft, even though the Cubs didn't cooperate the way they did when they closed Forbes Field and Exposition Park.

"For one day, all's right with baseball. You couldn't ask for a better day," Ifft said. "But I won't miss this place. It's hard to have baseball memories in a place that's not a baseball park."

One of his buddies, Bob Gabig of Avalon, also came to bid farewell and echoed some of the same sentiments.

"I was here when it opened, took one look around, and didn't come back for 12 years. After growing up in Forbes Field, it just didn't feel like a ballpark. A whole generation grew up seeing baseball in something that's not a baseball park."

But Roger Dolan of O'Hara, who was also at the Forbes Field closing and will be here for the final football games, never thought the place was that bad.

"I'll always have my memories from here," he said.

Diane Petak of Avalon also confessed to having some sentiment for the old place, home to nine baseball division champions and two World Series titles despite the team having endured eight straight losing seasons.

"I shed a tear," said Petak, who was at the game with her husband, Terry. "It holds a special place in my heart. Pittsburgh is a sports town, and the Pirates are a part of who we are."

The sellout crowd was in a festive mood all afternoon, especially when hometown product John Wehner hit a home run -- the last ever in Three Rivers -- to give the Pirates a temporary lead. But well past the gloaming, it was Wehner who made the final out with the tying run in scoring position. Ah, in the Hollywood version, the players would have disappeared into a cornfield.

Still, with Sister Sledge singing the National Anthem and Steve Blass crooning during the seventh-inning stretch, it was a time to savor the moment. Sauerkraut Saul even won the pierogi race to finish ahead of Potato Pete and Cheese Chester for the season.

There weren't that many banners hung -- a couple for Willie Stargell and one for the Cobra, Dave Parker -- but one die-hard optimist flaunted a sign in right field that said, "Think Pennant."

Perhaps the most fitting sign was placed in the upper deck behind third base. It read: "Thanks For The Memories, Hello PNC Park."

This will rank as one of the strangest exits ever in Pittsburgh, a place that lives on sentiment. The Pirates sought a new ballpark as a condition for keeping the franchise here, yet some of the greatest players and greatest successes sprang from Three Rivers.

Nobody smiled more on this day than 80-year-old Ernest Sciulli, an usher who has worked for the Pirates since 1935. In fact, he was instrumental in getting Babe Ruth's 714th home run, the one that cleared the right field stands in old Forbes, placed in the Hall of Fame. He never got a nickel for it either.

"This stable doesn't rate with Forbes Field," said Sciulli, known by everybody as Peppers. "This place stinks for baseball."

Helen Zak, 77, and her sister, Emma Bishop, 80, wouldn't have missed the last game at Three Rivers Stadium for anything. After all, they've been going to Pirates games for decades.

Helen was married to Frankie Zak, who played shortstop for the Pirates in the early 1940s and even played in an all-star game.

She was dressed in her typical Pirates hat -- a big, floppy, white one with a Pirates insignia on top and a bright yellow ribbon around it. It's one of 25 hats she's made herself to wear to Pirates games.

"Our dad came to Pittsburgh from Europe in the early 1900s and went to games at the old Exposition Park," Bishop said. "He could just afford bleacher seats in left field."

When Three Rivers Stadium first opened, they would sit on the fifth level and have picnics between the games of doubleheaders. For the past several years, they've sat behind home plate.

"We've really had a wonderful time at the games," Zak said.

David Boden, a 37-year-old father from Charleroi, was also savoring memories -- of going with his father to the game in 1976 when John Candelaria threw a no-hitter.

"My dad was in the service and we only came back to Pittsburgh for one week a year," he said. "It was just luck to be there that night. I remember they gave away Clark bars at the gate" because the pitcher's nickname was Candy Man.

Boden brought his 11-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son yesterday. "People need to come to baseball games with children," he said. "They need to see the kids' faces. This is a big deal for my daughter. She loves it."

Another diehard Pirates fan at yesterday's final game was state Rep. H. William DeWeese, a Democrat from Waynesburg.

He said he'll be glad to see games on grass again.

"I was never comfortable with Three Rivers Stadium because of its lack of green grass," said DeWeese. "A grass field for baseball is inexorably magnetizing."

He called the cookie-cutter stadiums like those here and in Philadelphia and Cincinnati "round monstrosities, a bad idea, a late 20th century fiasco."

Mark Palmer of Observatory Hill also won't be sorry to see Three Rivers go.

"I'm looking forward to the new park," he said outside Gate A before yesterday's game. "Three Rivers is pretty bad for viewing baseball."

Palmer goes to about 50 games a year. "I've been to a lot of the new stadiums, including Cleveland and Detroit," he said. "They are definitely nicer than (Three Rivers). I have to figure that PNC Park will be nicer too."

But he will forever remember one great Three Rivers moment -- the July 1997 night when Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon combined on a 10-inning no-hitter.

Karen Morrison, a longtime season ticket holder from Ross, said she has liked Three Rivers Stadium.

"It breaks my heart to tear it down. Three Rivers is home. I know the new stadium will be modern, but this is still home," she said.

Another fan who'll miss the old place is Russ Valentine of Cambridge, Ohio, who saw his first game here 25 yeas ago.

"It's the only place I've seen Pirates games," he said, sitting in the right field seats with his wife and young son and daughter.

"I remember the World Series in '79 and the playoffs in the early '90s. I remember the teams with Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke. You wonder where those kind of players will come from in the future."

The Cordova-Rincon no-hitter of '97 is also the favorite Three Rivers Stadium memory for Kevin McClatchy.

The team owner's second favorite is his first game as owner, back in April 1996, when he gave a baseball to a boy named Tommy Ward, who had won a radio contest to throw out the first pitch of the season.

"My third favorite moment, I guess, is today's final game," McClatchy said in a brief interview at his seats just behind home plate.

"It's great to see a full house," he said of the capacity crowd. "There's a lot of enthusiasm and positive feelings here today."

One fan who was filled with positive feelings was Judy Gastgeb of Bridgeville, who threw a tailgate party for family and friends.

She said she'll forever be grateful to former Pirates manager Jim Leyland for his kindness to her autistic daughter, Shelly, now 25.

"We never liked baseball until Shelly started cutting Jim Leyland's picture out of the paper" soon after he came to the Pirates in 1986. Judy said.

"My husband and I said, 'Who is that guy?' I wrote Jim a letter about Shelly and he left five tickets for a game. We've been to Jim Leyland's house [in Mt. Lebanon] and we've gone to spring training to see the Pirates.

"I told Jim once that there is something special in his eyes. Shelly can see it. He even arranged for the Pirates parrot to come to Shelly's school once for her birthday."

Gastgeb said her family has been Pirates season-ticket holders for the past 10 years because of Leyland.

Longtime usher Ray Clougherty of Brentwood is wondering if he'll be back for the first season at PNC Park.

The 79-year-old man has been an usher for a staggering 62 years -- all 30 years at Three Rivers and before that, 32 years at Forbes Field in Oakland.

His most lasting memory from Three Rivers was Roberto Clemente's 3,000th hit in 1972.

"We were spoiled by Forbes Field. It was wonderful," he said, but he thinks he'll miss Three Rivers, too.

"Everyone thought this [stadium] was cold. Forbes Field seemed like a ballpark," he said.

Clougherty got a big hug yesterday from Nita Cullison, a 12-year season ticket holder from Scott, as she went to her seats in Section 25 between home plate and first base.

She said she likes the older ushers, many of whom have been at Three Rivers for its entire life and, like Clougherty, served before that at Forbes Field.

There is still a question whether the longtime ushers will work at PNC Park, however. Some Pirates officials have talked of replacing them with younger people, like tour guides at Disney amusement parks.

"You can see Disney in Orlando. This is Pittsburgh," Cullison said. "I am a traditionalist. I like continuity and familiarity. I like the old ushers."

Cullison said she first became a baseball fan back in 1968, at Forbes Field, when she sat near the bullpen and struck up a conversation with a Cincinnati pitcher named George Culver.

She also recalled former Pirate Sid Bream. "I remember people cheering for him even after he'd been traded to Atlanta," she said. "People chanted 'Let's go Sid' when he came up to bat. That touched me, from a human standpoint. Then he hit a pitch-hit home run against us."

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