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City, Pirates break ground for PNC Park with big civic party

Thursday, April 08, 1999

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The largest, loudest, most lavish groundbreaking bash in recent years topped off last night's celebration of a major milestone in Pittsburgh's proud sports history - the start of construction on PNC Park, the new home of the Pirates.

  State and local luminaries turn from glowing home plate to watch fireworks over the skyline during last night's groundbreaking for PNC Park. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

A 10-minute cannonade of dazzling fireworks above the Allegheny River - which followed a rock music-filled laser display that shot beams of green light across the river and bounced them off Downtown skyscrapers - topped an hour-long love fest of speeches by public and private officials, those who had worked for the past five years for a new ballpark for the Pirates and to keep the 113-year-old team anchored in Pittsburgh.

The speeches came after an evening ceremony renaming the Sixth Street Bridge as the Roberto Clemente Bridge, in honor of the Pirates' Hall of Fame right fielder, and a late afternoon block party along the bridge, which was jammed with several thousand happy sports fans and partygoers.

"This is an incredible time for Pittsburgh," said the beaming owner of the financially struggling Pirates, Kevin McClatchy, who came here from Sacramento, Calif., to buy the team in February 1996. He admitted some members of his family thought he was "nuts" to buy a money-losing team with limited resources and low attendance.

"This isn't just a celebration of the Pirates or of a ballpark, but it's a celebration of a city that's moving forward.

"It's time the rest of America knows that Pittsburgh is alive and well," said McClatchy, who has wanted a new revenue-generating ballpark to help him afford higher-priced players and make the team more competitive ever since he bought the franchise.

"Look out - here comes Pittsburgh," McClatchy said to the cheers of the multitudes gathered on the North Shore, where PNC Park will be built.

McClatchy noted that people have praised him for his courage and tenacity in seeking to keep baseball in Pittsburgh, his adopted home.

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"But when you have 113 years of tradition on your side, you can't quit," he said. "So many people have gone before - Danny Murtaugh, Roberto Clemente, Honus Wagner and others. We had no choice. We had to succeed."

Just as happy as McClatchy was Mayor Murphy, who's worked even longer - since before he became mayor in January 1994 - to get a new park built for the Pirates and keep them in town.

Murphy and McClatchy got standing ovations from the crowd of several thousand people sitting in temporary bleachers erected on the North Side site of the new PNC Park or strung out along the newly renamed Clemente Bridge.

"Do you like to ride the Jackrabbit at Kennywood?" Murphy quipped. "How'd you like to ride it for five years? But the roller coaster ride was worth it.

"Baseball is timeless," Murphy said. "It cuts across economic, ethnic and racial boundaries. It's a reflection of how society ought to work."

Gov. Ridge also was on hand to join in the festivities and to note that he has released the $75 million in state funds approved by the Legislature in February, the last piece of the ballpark financing.

"I understand there's a party going on down here!" Ridge shouted into the microphone.

Ridge, who spent his early years in Munhall, called last night's event "a celebration of a 21st century team, a 21st century city and a 21st century region. This is a celebration of a community. This region is being reborn and reinvigorated. It will be the most happening place in the U.S. in the next five to seven years."

Ridge recalled going to the old Forbes Field in Oakland as a boy and seeing Pirates greats like Dick Groat, Bob Friend, Clemente and others.

About the new ballpark, which is to open two years from now, in April 2001, Ridge said, "You will see the new stars of tomorrow right here at PNC Park."

There were plenty of police officers on hand, but police Chief Robert McNeilly said the large crowd was well behaved.

"Everybody wants to be part of this historic moment," he said.

Emergency officials did have several moments of concern, though, after Mayor Murphy turned around and realized he had lost sight of son T.J., 8, among the throng of 5,000 at the bridge dedication. Police found T.J. less than two minutes later, right where he was supposed to be - with his mother, Mona.

Serving as master of ceremonies last night was Pirates longtime announcer Lanny Frattare, who started things off in a voice that was almost a scream, "The forces of progress have been heard, and the vision becomes reality on this April 7th."

The groundbreaking event included a virtual reality tour of the new park, projected on a large Sony JumboTron screen, plus loud rock music, with "You Aint Seen Nothing Yet" and, of course, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," blaring.

Sharing the ceremonial ground-breaking chores with dignitaries including Ridge, Murphy and McClatchy was 9-year-old Kristin Klein of Hampton, winner of a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette essay contest.

The scars of the two-year-long battle to get financing for a new baseball park - along with a new football stadium and a larger convention center - seemed to have been largely forgotten, except for a longtime stadium opponent, Gary English, who carried a sign reading "Extortion Park."

Another opponent, Greg Yoest of the Good Sports Coalition, called himself "an unrepentant taxpayer protector to the end," and said the ballpark should have included more private financing than the $40 million pledged by McClatchy. Most of that commitment will come from the $30 million PNC is paying over the next 20 years to put its name on the park.

Also protesting was a group of about 50 black construction trades members from the African American Workers Union, led by Calvin Clinton.

"If we don't work, they don't work," they chanted, referring to workers who will, starting today, begin the actual construction. "Respect - that's what it's all about," Clinton said.

Murphy and Allegheny County Commissioner Mike Dawida have pledged to offer equal opportunities in construction jobs at the new stadium projects.

McClatchy couldn't resist getting a zinger in on county Commissioner Larry Dunn, a staunch opponent of public funding for the ballpark, who wasn't present last night.

Referring to commissioners Dawida and Bob Cranmer, who were, McClatchy said, "I want to thank the two commissioners [for getting funding for the park]. Did I say two commissioners?"

One of the thousands in attendance at the bridge party was Helen Zak, 75 of Hays, who is the widow of Frank Zak, the Pirates shortstop of the early 1940s.

"I come to the games every chance I can," she said. "I sit on the third base line. I hope I live long enough to see the new park open. But my mother lived to be 99, so I think I will."

Many mothers and families brought their children to last night's event, including Paul and Jane Cherkes of Avalon, who were with their 4-year-old daughter Katie and 1 1/2-year-old son Michael.

Paul said he's a season ticket holder with the Steelers but also goes to many Pirates and Penguins games.

"The sports teams are great for the city," Paul said. "I hope this new park keeps baseball in Pittsburgh."

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