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In the stands, nine innings of memories

Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Sure, Todd Ritchie was nervous. He always gets nervous. He never even takes a moment before a game to glance into the stands and catch a glimpse of his father. It would throw off his concentration.

So as he leaned in to throw the first official pitch in the history of PNC Park, he kept his mind on his fastball ... and hoped for a strike. The ball sailed out of his right hand and landed low and outside. A ball.

"Just a normal game," Ritchie said later.

Hardly.

A new ballpark. A new season. A new feeling about Pittsburgh.

It carried on the warm spring air from Downtown over the Roberto Clemente Bridge and into the party taking place around PNC Park.

The party tasted like cold beer, apple wood-smoked ribs and pretzels. It smelled like cigars and popcorn. It looked like balloons and small children and a woman wearing a shirt that said, "You always remember your first time."

Actually, what people hated was the fact that a legend had died that morning. Willie Stargell. And at the feet of Stargell's statue were flowers -- bunches and bunches and bunches of them -- and people who were looking at the statue as if it were a grave.

During pre-game batting practice, dozens of youths leaned over the low fence along the left field bleachers, pleading with players to toss them a baseball.

"Throw it to me -- it's my birthday," said one youth.

But eventually it was time for Ritchie to throw, to Cincinnati.

But first, there was a tribute to Stargell.

Irene DeLong of Munhall, 77 years old, wiped away tears as the moment gripped the stadium.

A diehard fan for the past 30 years, she'd actually met Stargell -- and given him a card when his second wife was in UPMC Presbyterian where DeLong worked pushing food carts from floor to floor. She once worked concessions at Forbes Field.

With her transistor radio on and scorecard in her lap, she watched as the radio announcer called, "And here's the first pitch in the history of PNC Park."

First inning

Actor Michael Keaton strolled in quietly, approached an usher and asked for help in finding his seat. Section 117. Just behind home plate.

A Coraopolis native, Keaton appeared in charcoal slacks and a long-sleeved, blue dress shirt. Eventually, he added a Pirates cap and dark glasses. But that didn't stop people from recognizing him.

Ten sections down, in 107, the less-famous Elizabeth Peace was less nonchalant. Giddy, even. The only thing she wanted for her ninth birthday was to celebrate it at opening day. Her father, Steve, of Apollo, checked the newspaper ads and called all of his friends, to no avail. He finally resorted to E-Bay, and after several losing bids, he snared a pair of tickets -- for $214.50.

Second inning

Frances Machi walked around holding the first ball ever hit out of PNC Park. Or so she thought. The 58-year-old Dormont woman was one of the revelers who never even got inside the park.

She'd been strolling along the Allegheny River during the first inning when she heard a roar and looked up to see a ball fly out of the park. She walked over to the man who caught it -- on one bounce, witnesses said.

"I was going to throw it back," he told her.

"Give it to me," she replied.

He did. She wouldn't let it out of her hand, although she did let someone touch it. That's when she got the bad news: major leaguers don't play with squishy, safety balls.

Reds first baseman Sean Casey had homered, but that ball didn't leave the park. Apparently, a fan in the outfield with good timing had thrown this ball out at the perfect moment, perhaps as a cruel joke to the glove-wearing guy on a promotional pontoon boat who was to win a fortune if he caught a ball hit to the water's edge.

PNC Park prides itself on providing handicapped fans with plentiful seating and nice views of the field.

One box for handicapped people looked so tempting that able-bodied George Key of Youngstown, Ohio, parked his ample backside there. He got the boot in the middle of the second inning, when usher Keith McKewn sent him to his assigned seat in Section 117, behind home plate.

"I'm not a bad guy. I'm just a big guy," said Key, who weighs about 300 pounds. He said his regular seat was a strain on his rear end and his aching back, so he abandoned it. He stood for much of the game.

Third Inning

Twenty-two-year-old Joel Matts, had sat in right field grandstands through the first two innings trying do decide, Hot dog or nachos? Hot dog or nachos?

Finally, he got up and took a walk for the dog. A five-buck foot-long.

First he had to customize it.

Cradling it beneath the mustard pump, he painted a thick stripe of yellow on one side of the dog. Up the middle, a stripe of red ketchup. The onions he sprinkled in a separate line on the dog's other side. That's just how he does it.

"You see a foot-long, it's kinda enticing," he said, explaining how he'd made his food decision while standing in a 12-deep line for an icy cold, plastic $5.25 bottle of beer. The line shrank fast, but not as fast as his sandwich did, so by the time he took his first sip, that dog was gone.

Alex Dapper, 9, and his sister Olivia, 7, sat soaking in the game from the left field bleachers. Front row. Above their heads, the scoreboard showed the Pirates down 2-0.

The kids, playing hooky with Dad, sank deep in their wooden seats as if they had been swallowed by a leather sofa. Both swung their short legs to the railing and back.

No school for them. One less vacation day for Dad.

Who cares? It was opening day and Alex's birthday.

Cause to celebrate, their father, Bill Dapper, thought while driving in from Swisshelm Park at 4:30 a.m. one day last month to stand in line for tickets.

"See that Pirate's River Watch sign over there with the double zeros," said Dad, pointing to the sign in right field. "They're going to count how many balls go into the river."

"Forever?" Olivia asked.

"Yup. That's going to be on zero for a long time."

Fourth inning

Three buddies checking out Pirates Outfitters, "The Official Team Store of the Pittsburgh Pirates," started to climb the steps to the store's upper level.

One look at the sign was enough for one of them.

"Home furnishings?" he said. "Later."

He walked out, but the other two stuck around. Giggling, they headed to the second floor, which also has "Women's Apparel."

They didn't get far before they were stopped by a police officer.

"Excuse me," the officer said, "they don't want open beers."

"Oh, sorry," said 25-year-old Adam Kirby of Scott. He set his beer on the floor near the entrance, right beside the cop, as did his buddy Steve Ayers, 24, of Shadyside.

"Thanks," the cop said, and the two went off to shop: Ayers wanted one of the "You Never Forget Your First Time" PNC Park shirts. He would have settled for a Stargell T-shirt, but couldn't find a small, and so they left -- picking up their beers right where they left them.

Last Friday, while Anita Berezansky was on hold with the ticket office, she made a pledge: "I said, I'm going to get into that game if I have to parachute naked into the stadium with a pirate patch over my eye!"

It didn't take anything so drastic.

Berezansky and two friends ended up buying tickets from a scalper. They screamed with delight as they entered the park at the left field gate, high-fiving each other three times.

Berezansky of Bloomfield and Lisa Ressler of Emsworth were happy not to be sitting in Highmark's customer service center "talking to hospital providers all day lohhhhhhhng."

And Ressler's relative, Lorelei, was equally happy to get a day off.

As the trio sauntered up to the first level, arms draped around each other, hands wrapped around beers, they quickly located the Highmark building on the Downtown skyline and giggled.

The fourth inning was just getting started when the Pittsburgh EMS cart pulled into the concourse over right field, the two paramedics aboard trying desperately to bull their way through the crowd.

Pedestrians clogged the thoroughfare, forcing the cart to a tortoise-like pace.

"There's got to be a better way than that!" shouted one guy going in the opposite direction.

When the paramedics arrived at Section 127-178, they hopped out and made their way down the steps, an orange backboard in tow.

Halfway down, in Section M, they found Krystle Kubrick, 18, of Plum, waiting for them in the stairwell. Her mother, Debby Kubrick, 43, was writhing in pain several seats in.

A fan trying to snag a hotdog shot into the stands by the Pirates mascot wasn't watching where he was going and landed smack-dab on Debby Kubrick's head.

"She has back problems already," Krystle grumbled.

The paramedics loaded Debby onto the backboard, made their way up the steps, put her on a gurney and made their long, winding way down a rotunda ramp, ending a day at the ballfield for one family.

Fifth Inning

Jim Ostronic has four sons, but he tries to conduct himself as an adult Ferris Bueller. That is, when he needs a day off from the grind of the world, he takes it.

Ostronic started yesterday on his job at Logical Automation in West Homestead. But, he said, it didn't feel right. With the Pirates opening their home season, Ostronic decided that he was taking life too seriously.

So he ditched work, bought a ticket from a scalper for $50, then never bothered to find his seat.

"It's standing room, so I'm standing here," he said from a spot behind Section 119, which provided a good view of home plate.

He drank beer, swapped stories with passersby and pulled out his overlooked ticket only once, using it to obtain an autograph from actor Michael Keaton.

Sixth Inning

Mike Chen and Tony Yeh were turning away customers at the Benkovitz seafood stall on the main concourse. The two sushi makers, outfitted in white, had run out of the Japanese delicacy a half-hour before, even though they'd brought enough raw fish and sticky rice to make 400 orders.

Chen, who owns sushi restaurants in Shadyside and on the South Side, never expected to sell-out, what with hot dogs, popcorn, pop and beer being the day's standard fare.

"I got many comments," Chen said. "Many people already liked sushi. But some had never had it before." Not all were buyers. Martin Wnuk approached "just wanting to look at the stuff."

Seventh Inning

The hulking doors of a freight elevator opened on the main concourse and out came Ed Martin with five crates of Aquafina water bottles balanced on a trolley. Martin began to wheel his way through masses of people to refill the beverage cart in front of section 121. Even though Martin is 6 feet, 8 inches tall, he could see none of the game as he earned his day's pay. "We're used to the 10,000 crowds, not the 38,000 crowds," he said, remembering his days at Three Rivers.

Dennis Rock and his 30-year-old son Joe stopped for a while in the left field handicapped section. "I like that there's lots of places where you can stand and watch," said Joe to his father.

The men, from Youngsville, Warren County, were among those fans who kept moving around. But they hardly moved at all as the Pirates loaded the bases and threatened to pull ahead. The throng pushing in behind the Rocks was six deep, and the stacks of souvenir beer glasses some of those people were holding were four deep. The Bucs thrilled them by scoring two runs to get within one, but the inning ended on a fly ball and a deafening groan: Reds 3, Pirates 2.

Eighth Inning

When the Reds' Ken Griffey Jr. hit a screaming line drive into Section 1 in foul territory in right field, a young boy took the worst of it. The ball hit him and then caromed around and landed in the lap of man a few rows back. He promptly gave the souvenir to his 13-year-old son.

Meantime, the other boy doubled over in pain.

The sacrifice long has been a revered part of baseball, but rare is the teen-age boy who would do what Michael Costa of Wilkins did next. Michael, a 7th-grader at St. Colman's in Turtle Creek, got up, walked over to the wounded boy, handed him the ball, and quickly returned to his seat.

What made him decide to give up a ball hit off the bat of the fabled Griffey?

"My dad," Michael confessed.

Paul Costa, a Democratic state representative, suggested to Michael that giving the ball up would be the right thing, and promised to try to get his boy another one.

As a kid, Helen Zak walked past Forbes Field on the way to high school. She's watched baseball for 60 years. So a Pirates game, even the opener, was no big deal. Neither was attending the home opener at PNC Park, really, since the Glenwood resident came to the first exhibition game last week.

Despite all that, Zak decided to do something special anyway yesterday. She carried an item close to her heart. Fishing around in her black Pirates handbag, Zak carefully removed a piece of black scrapbook paper with a newspaper clipping attached. It was a photo from the early 1940s of two men in Pirates uniforms, one old, one young.

Leaning on a metal cane above right field, she held it gingerly, the black paper a stark contrast with her pink sweater vest and matching lipstick.

"That's my husband," she said.

The two men are in the dugout, their hands open, fingers splayed. The old guy was your husband?

The old guy is Honus Wagner. The photo caption read: "Honus Wagner, Pirates coach, whose big hands helped him become an immortal baseball shortstop, looks over the ball-claws of Frank Zak, 19-year-old rookie infielder, at the Pittsburgh Pirates' spring training camp in Muncie, Ind."

In the bottom of the eighth inning and the Pirates surrendered another run, down 4-2.

"There's Lloyd [McClendon] giving signals," said Jim Staggers, glimpsing at a 20-inch Sony TV located outside an elevator on the right field main concourse level.

Beep ... beep ... beep ... beep. The elevator signaled him to close the door, shutting off the cool air flowing into the metallic, closet-like space. Someone requested another ride.

Going down, down, down.

The PNC Park employee had the first-time assignment of guiding passengers -- some disabled, others seated in suites or employees -- to one of the levels in the stadium.

Staggers, 63, never got to see the game live, but he took every chance he got to peek at the televisions located outside the elevator on each level.

"Think we're going to get a couple of runs here?" he asked a couple riding with him to the upper level.

"We hope," both cried out.

No such luck, the Pirates fall short and must head into the ninth inning.

Beep ... beep ... beep ... beep.

After seven innings in the 300-level, Chris Fauth decided to get a new perspective on the game. He and his wife ended up in foul territory in right field, on a landing in the corner of the second level.

The guy standing in front of him looked familiar. Then he sneezed, and Fauth said, "Bless you." The guy turned around to thank him, and Fauth realized that the man was Luis Clemente, son of Roberto, in whose honor the right-field wall below is 21 feet high.

How did he know? Easy. On the outside of Fauth's left calf, he has a tattoo of Roberto Clemente in full swing. The family resemblance was unmistakable. Fauth introduced himself and showed off his tattoo. Clemente's wife took a picture of Fauth's leg.

Ninth inning

Bottom of the 9th inning, section 117, behind home plate, Pirates down to their last strike. Rob Smith, 56, of Point Breeze, mades a prediction just before Pat Meares struck out to end the game: "The park is the victor."


This story was written and reported by Caroline Abels, Tom Barnes, Bob Batz Jr., Brian O'Neill, Edward G. Robinson III, Lori Shontz, Jonathan D. Silver and Milan Simonich.



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