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Pirates Pirates learn of Stargell's death, fall to Reds in PNC Park opener, 8-2

Tuesday, April 10, 2001

By Robert Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The day of rebirth began with news of a death. The cheers were mixed with tears before the first pitch was thrown in the ballpark that saved the Pirates.

Jason Kendall gets hit by a John Riedling pitch in the eighth inning yesterday. Kendall went 1 for 3 in the Pirates' home opener. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

"It was a very emotional day for myself and my players. Probably the toughest day I had in this game for quite a while. A tough one to get through," Manager Lloyd McClendon said in the wake of an 8-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds in the inaugural game at PNC Park.

"We'll all grieve in our own way. Somehow, we have to put it to rest and get on with it because I know that's what Willie would have wanted us to do. I wished we could have pulled one out for him," he added.

McClendon was stirred from his sleep with a call from Cam Bonifay in the wee hours that Pittsburgh icon Willie Stargell had died. The Hall of Famer who could barely throw the last ceremonial pitch at Three Rivers Stadium never got to see the statue erected outside the park in his honor or visit the crown jewel of a ballpark that officially opened yesterday.

With Kevin McClatchy wearing a No. 8 jersey as he threw out the first pitch and the Pirates wearing No. 8 on their caps, a video tribute to celebrate Stargell and his career was played on the new video screen, the memories a jarring contradiction to the hype and hoopla of the home opener. A moment of silence in his honor preceded the cheers for the player introductions.

"You talk about a big knot in your throat," said Jason Kendall, who got the Pirates' first hit in PNC Park and who caught that last pitch from Stargell on Oct. 1. "I know Pops would have wanted us to go out there and play the game hard. I wish we would've gotten the W for him. We didn't. That's the way it goes."

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While the day may have belonged to Stargell and the ages, the game belonged to Sean Casey. Having set aside 25 tickets for family and friends from Upper St. Clair, Casey got the first hit, first extra base hit and first two RBI by slamming a 1-0 pitch off Todd Ritchie over the 21-foot high Clemente Wall in right. The bleacher person who caught it did not throw it back.

Casey was a perfect 4 for 4 at the plate with five RBIs as the Reds, the team that opened Three Rivers by beating the Pirates in 1970, spoiled PNC Park's debut on a 79-degree afternoon with a sellout crowd of 36,954 on hand.

"That was really special. It really was," Casey said of his home run. "It really was. I was just hoping to get a hit. I thought it would be neat to be the first one to get a hit here. If I had tried for a home run, I probably would have grounded out to third."

Now Casey is the answer the a number of trivia questions. He got the last hit in Milwaukee's County Stadium, the first hit in the new Miller Park and the first hit at PNC Park.

"I grew up here in Pittsburgh. I have a lot of memories from Three Rivers. Now from PNC Park. It was a special game," Casey said.

He was so dominating that when McClendon was asked about the Reds' first baseman, he half-joked: "I wish he hadn't shown up."

The loss had some historical precedent. The Pirates christened Forbes Field with a loss to the Cubs and Three Rivers with a loss to the Reds -- both by scores of 3-2. They also have dropped eight straight home openers.

With the loss, the Pirates also missed a chance to climb above .500 for the first time since Aug. 15, 1999. They were 2-2 after four games a year ago but never climbed above .500.

After Casey's home run on a 1-0 offering by Todd Ritchie, the game may have turned in the bottom of the first.

With two outs, Kendall hustled for an infield hit and Brian Giles doubled to right to put runners at second and third. But third baseman Aaron Boone dove to stab a shot off the bat of Aramis Ramirez to end the threat.

"Probably the play of the game," McClendon said.

Ironically, Boone played a hand in the only inning the Pirates scored. After Casey's run-scoring single against a drawn-in infield put the Reds up 3-0 in the sixth, the Pirates got consecutive singles from Ramirez, Kevin Young and Pat Meares. With John Vander Wal pinch-hitting for Jack Wilson, Boone flubbed a potential double play ball to allow one run to score and keep the bases loaded. But he turned pinch-hitter Enrique Wilson's ground ball into a double play as the final Pirates run scored.

Casey put the game out of reach with a two-run double in the ninth off Marc Wilkins, who gave up four runs on five hits. Wilkins, who walked three consecutive batters in his last appearance at Three Rivers, also walked a pair. The bullpen had allowed just one earned run in the past four games before Scott Sauerbeck and Wilkins gave up five yesterday.

"It looked like he never found his groove," McClendon said of Wilkins. "He got behind on some guys, and it cost him."

Ritchie, 0-2, was touched for three runs in 51/3 innings. He also pitched the opener on the road last week in Cincinnati. Rookie Chris Reitsma worked six innings and scattered six hits to get his first major-league win. Three Reds reliever didn't allow a hit in the final three innings, something the crowd noticed with a smattering of boos.

The ball used for the first pitch -- delivered by a parachuting team of four Navy SEALs -- was signed later by Reitsma and Ritchie for display in the Hall of Fame.

In addition to the Stargell tribute, the pre-game ceremonies included the release of 115 white doves -- one for every year of the franchise's history -- and the largest balloon release in city history. The Pirates also wore sleeveless uniforms at home for the first time since 1970.

And the players couldn't help but get caught up in it, even though they had played two exhibition games against the Mets here last weekend.

"Last week was the dress rehearsal. This was the real show," said Vander Wal, who confessed to having chills down his spine. "A lot of people were waiting for this day. Now things start for real."

Giles, meanwhile, said it's time for the Pirates to regroup. Kendall broke the news to him about Stargell when he walked into the clubhouse.

"It would have been nice to have him here to open up the ballpark for the new generation," said Giles, who like thousands of fans planned to stop by the Stargell statue to pay his respects.

"I think this team has shown over the first seven games it's not going to give up. We're a scrappy group that puts the ball in play," Giles said.

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