A little over 30 years ago, I attended my first major league baseball game. Living in central PA, I grew up a Pittsburgh Pirates fan and was a faithful one throughout my childhood until the Sid Bream slide in ’92. I came back around after the 20-season losing streak ended in 2013 and consider myself a casual fan nowadays.
My love of baseball began in the ’80s. I played organized baseball from 1984 to 1990 for various leagues in Curwensville, PA. I can’t remember how it all started, whether I showed interest or if my parents just thought I needed the activity. My Dad was not a baseball fan in the least. In fact, the only professional sport we watched together was NASCAR, but he did enjoy watching me play.
My love of baseball grew as I became a better player. The apex of my career was making the 1989 little league all-star team and actually hitting a homerun during our first qualifying game (local newspaper clipping shown.) Then 1990 came. The start of the decade was a rough one for me. My parents separated and eventually divorced. My first year in senior league did not go well as I failed to adjust to my new coach and team. The commute to practice and games was another factor as Mom moved 9 miles away and worked full time. My chauffer was often my Gram, who I loved everything about except her brown 1976 Plymouth Duster. I also attended a small private school which did not have a baseball team so when 1991 rolled around, my athletic career shifted to basketball.
While my baseball career shifted from organized baseball to backyard wiffleball with my friend and his brothers, I still loved the game. The early ’90s was my peak time for collecting baseball cards and my Pirates built a great team. Downgrading to wiffleball, I still remember emulating the pitching motions of players like Doug Drabek and John Smiley. My Uncle Dave was also a Pirates fan and when I visited Gram (he lived with her,) we would watch games on television together. We also watched the World Series together which included the 1988 series with the Kirk Gibson walk-off homer and the “Earthquake Series” in 1989.
Uncle Dave passed away recently at 90 years old. I was fortunate to visit him just a couple months ago and he was still talking baseball. “Pirates stink this year” he told me which made me laugh. “Well, what’s new?” I said right back. Talking baseball for just a few minutes took me back 30+ years to Gram’s living room and watching games with him. He was also the one that took me to my first big league game and I thought now would be a great time to relive our trip to Three Rivers Stadium in 1991.
May 26, 1991
On a bright Sunday morning, Uncle Dave and I departed on our 2.5-hour drive from Clearfield to Pittsburgh. As luck would have it, Pittsburgh was in the national sports headlines but not for baseball. The previous night, the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Minnesota North Stars 8-0 in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals to become NHL champions. National and local media are alit with the names of future Hall of Famers like Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, and Joe Mullen.
As we entered the perimeter of Pittsburgh radio signals, we are greeted with “We are the Champions” by Queen. That song quickly became the background music of our day as we would hear it many more times in the car and at the baseball stadium. While I was proud that Pittsburgh had a championship team, I had to remind myself that we came for baseball.
The Pittsburgh Pirates were off to a great start and attempting to sweep a 3-game series with in-state rivals The Philadelphia Phillies. I was anxious to watch my current baseball heroes Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, and Andy Van Slyke for the first time. Walking into Three Rivers Stadium with my Uncle, I was handed a free t-shirt which to a kid was gold. This wasn’t just a t-shirt, but a Doug Drabek 1990 Cy Young award t-shirt with a Giant Eagle logo on the sleeve!
Uncle Dave also bought an official program for me. We weren’t even to our seats and the souvenirs were already starting to pile up. Our seats were at field level, a section above third base toward the outfield. I was amazed at several things when we finally sat down. First, the AstroTurf was so green! I had watched many games on television and new it wasn’t real grass but it seemed so bright and perfect. Next thing that went through my mind was the size of the field. I had been around baseball diamonds all my life so you would have thought I would have some kind of perception. I had only watched big league games on television so the fields seemed larger than life. Inside Three Rivers Stadium, I remember the field seemed much smaller than my 14-year old mind had imagined. Then, there were the players. Bobby Bonilla started the game at third base and I couldn’t tell if he was a human or a grizzly bear! I was mainly around skinny, tall kids during my baseball career and Bonilla’s wide frame made me wonder if we were at a Steelers game.
The game starts with John Smiley on the mound for the Pirates. There wouldn’t be much baseball action until the bottom of the 4th inning except between innings. Throughout the entire game while the teams entered and exited the field, a man appeared on the jumbo tron from random places around the stadium. Sometimes he was in the upper deck and sometimes he was on the field level. The stadium would erupt at the very sight of him, not because of who he was but what he was holding — a Stanley Cup trophy. Yes, we were there to cheer for the Pirates but couldn’t escape the celebration of a hometown championship team. No matter the current score, the stadium would come to life like Andy Van Slyke just hit a homerun.
And he did, to lead off the bottom of the 4th inning. A solo shot that I watched from bat to deep right-center field. Bonds and Bonilla followed with groundouts but the bottom of the Pirates lineup, even pitcher John Smiley, would manufacture 3 more runs in the inning. Another run came in the 5th which would turn out to be all the Pirates would need.
Another memorable moment for me came late in the game. The Pirates bats were relatively silent, however, a certain foul ball was quite entertaining. Three Rivers was a multi-level stadium with layers of exposed concrete in between the tiers. A foul ball from a left handed batter hit above our heads, careened off a layer of concrete and shot toward our general direction. My Uncle and I abruptly tried to protect ourselves from the projectile while a man holding a beer directly behind us, did not. In an effort to catch the foul ball, Beer Man dropped his beverage which created a boozy waterfall behind our seats. The liquid splattered on my Doug Drabek t-shirt and saturated the edge of my souvenir program sitting under my chair. My Uncle and I were a little miffed at the time but looking back at it now, it just added to the experience.
The Phillies would attempt a late-inning rally, but the Pirates held on to win the game 5-2 and sweep the series.
Looking back now, I got to experience some fun things that day. I got to see one of my favorite players hit a homerun. I got to experience a big league park with someone who enjoyed baseball as much as I did. I received some fun souvenirs to remind me of the day.
I would wear my commemorative t-shirt with its permanent beer stains for awhile in the weeks to come. Eventually, I tucked it away with my slightly wrinkled program in a memories box that I still have today. Uncle Dave would take me to another Pirates game in 1992, but I don’t remember as much about that one. After hearing about his passing, I pulled the shirt and programs (from both games) out of the box. They brought a big smile to my face and a tear to my eye knowing now he is gone.
Thanks for making a memory with me, Uncle Dave. If there is baseball in heaven, I hope we can watch another game together.