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Smizik: Opening day takes some hits

Tuesday, April 10, 2001

All was in place for a memorable season opener, the kind Pittsburgh almost had forgotten.

It was more than just the fact that what might be the best ballpark in America was sold out and looking spectacular for its first regular-season game. The Pirates were doing their part, too. By unexpectedly returning from a season-opening, six-game road trip with as many wins as losses, the team was brimming with confidence, and, by its play, had raised the hopes of the home fans.

Add to all of this a fabulous spring afternoon.

"You couldn't have had a better day to play baseball," starting pitcher Todd Ritchie said.

The crowd was enthused about being part of history.

"It was electric," catcher Jason Kendall said. "It was pretty neat. It was first class. It was ... baseball."

And, sure enough, this was a memorable opener -- but for too many of the wrong reasons.

First and foremost was that, about 14 hours before the first pitch, the death of Willie Stargell, the greatest Pirate of the modern era, was made public.

The glorious day had taken its first hit.

And for 2 hours, 52 minutes after that first pitch, it took another hit.

We've seen this before. In fact, we've seen it for eight consecutive seasons. The Pirates, who haven't won a home opener since 1993, couldn't get the big hit and couldn't keep the Cincinnati Reds close in the late innings and absorbed an 8-2 loss at a sold-out PNC Park.

Sean Casey, an Upper St. Clair High School graduate, torched the Pirates with four hits, including the first home run at the new ballpark, and five RBIs.

Mostly, it was an ugly, dull affair that had too few of the moments the crowd had come to see.

The Pirates put together a stirring video tribute on the scoreboard to Stargell, who died yesterday morning after a long illness. It brought a long round of applause and a tear to many an eye.

"It was an emotional day," Manager Lloyd McClendon said. "Probably as tough a day as I've had in a long time."

It was only one game and, of course, no trends should be taken from it. But there were moments and events that stood out.

Rookie shortstop Jack Wilson, on whom the Pirates greatly gambled by elevating him from Class AA to the majors to handle the most difficult defensive position on the field, continued to make those responsible for his promotion look good.

Wilson started three double plays, two on grounders and one with a nice snag of a line drive. On a day when not much else worked, Wilson was a positive.

But McClendon warned the media not to get too excited.

"I've said it before: Jack is not Superman. I caution you people not to get too high on Jack. He's going to make mistakes like every young rookie will make."

The Pirates managed only six hits against four Cincinnati pitchers and none -- most significantly -- after they had loaded the bases with none out in the seventh while trailing, 3-0.

The most notable among the nonhitters was Derek Bell, a veteran outfielder the team signed as a free agent for a two-year, $9 million contract. Bell has three hits, all singles, in 27 at-bats and no RBIs this season. He was hitless in four at-bats yesterday. When he grounded out to second base in the eighth inning he made history of sorts: The first Pirate to be booed at PNC Park.

Welcome to Pittsburgh, Derek.

McClendon also had words for those too quick to jump Bell.

"Derek hasn't swung the bat real well. That's no secret. Derek will be fine. He's not the first veteran type to struggle out of the gate."

The Pirates had their chance in the seventh when singles by Aramis Ramirez, Kevin Young and Pat Meares loaded the bases. But pinch-hitters John Vander Wal and Enrique Wilson produced weak grounders, which both drove in a run but were not what the Pirates needed. Adrian Brown followed by cracking a liner to center that was run down by Michael Tucker, one of several outstanding catches by Cincinnati outfielders.

The crowd started to leave after the seventh and, after the eighth, there was a steady stream of people crossing the Roberto Clemente Bridge to downtown.

A win would have been a nice touch to this special day. But the Pirates claim to be undaunted.

"I wish it could have turned out a little differently," Kendall said. "That's how it goes. We'll get 'em Wednesday."

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.

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