April 2012

Oh, Atlanta

The fun never stops.

Settling in from my last baseball trip, that you read about in my last one, I’m gearing up for another on a more Major level.

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Yes it has to do with the Pirates. No, it’s not in Pittsburgh.

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The Bucs are in Atlanta for a four-game weekend series and I’ll be there for three of them.

History hasn’t been kind to the Pirates playing in the ATL.

Mention the names Jerry Meals or Sid Bream to a Pittsburgh fan and you’re asking for trouble. Rather, stinging images that ruined games and seasons, while adding plenty of agony to already troubled years.

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July 26, 2011 and October 14, 1992. Nineteen years and nearly two months apart.

Two plays that have defined the Pirates’ history.

The Pirates went 19-42 the remainder of the way, last year, after sitting at 53-48 after Jerry Meals called Julio Lugo safe for the Braves’ 4-3 win in 19 innings.

Sid Bream’s slide at home was a little more clear cut, but still a call that could’ve gone either way. Yet no baseball enthusiast would’ve guess what it would do to a franchise for the next 20 years. Since that National League Championship game 7, Pittsburgh has failed to reach the postseason. The Pirates haven’t even had a winning season since Sid’s slide.

An awful twist of faith, a string of mismanagement, bad luck or some kind of weird hex — whatever has haunted the Pirates the most — it hasn’t made them win.

Atlanta owns a 93-61 advantage over the Bucs since that fateful NLCS.

Let’s hope I can reverse the curse.

Photo credits: youjivenmeturkey.com, hedgeco.net nbcsports.com, fansided.com

Minor League trippin’

Probably my favorite thing about baseball is the story that can be told.

Being at a live game is one of the most entertaining events one can attend and everybody in the stadium is there for a reason. Last week, my brother Zach and I had both a reason and  from it — had a story.

We went on a Minor League Baseball road trip to Buffalo, NY and Erie, PA.

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 Everything was set up perfectly. I had spent a few hours earlier in the week just scouring websites of various MiLB teams that are close to our home in Youngstown, OH. I first stumbled on Erie, with a game at 6:35 on Friday. Realizing that Buffalo was a mere hour and a half away, I checked the Bisons’ site out of curiosity. Lucky for us, they had a game at 1:05, earlier that afternoon.

ImageOh yeah, we had a baseball state of mind.

It took us just three hours to get to Buffalo, arriving at about noon.

ImageThat close to Canada, ah we’ll save that for later in the summer — really.

We found easy parking downtown, quickly bought tickets and we’re ready for baseball game No. 1 at Coca Cola Field.

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Built in 1988, it seats 18,000 people. The outside is very vintage, like an Ebbets Field. We were told it was meant to blend in with the other buildings of downtown Buffalo — and it really does. It can easily be mistaken for an office complex if you didn’t know any better.

ImageOne step inside, though, with one glance at that jumbotron, you’ll know you’re here for baseball. Unfortunately, the San Diego chicken wasn’t there that day. Perhaps more unfortunately, the Coca Cola Field scoreboard was recently unseated as the largest in the Minor Leagues. The Memphis Redbirds now hold that title.

We had two goals before the game started. Zach and I are kind of passed the autograph stage, but there were two people that we really wanted to sign.

Bobby Scales and Wally Backman.

Scales is a legend in his own right. My good friend Marc is a die-hard Cubs fan. Scales was a in the Chicago farm system for many years, but would only crack the North Sider’s line up around September call up time. Anyway, Scales has a large following, for whatever reason, and Marc said getting an autograph from Scales would be a life changing moment. If we got him to sign something, he was going to display it in between his Muhammed Ali and Michael Jordan signatures.

ImageThere was Bobby, but he didn’t sign. Not many guys stuck around to sign for us, or the maybe six others waiting. It was kind of like a Major League game when you can get close enough to yell at the players and they acknowledge, yet they usually disregard the opportunity to come over and sign. Truthfully, I don’t blame them. These guys are a step away from the big leagues and they have every right to have a professional approach to the game. That’s how AAA is, anyway. It’s not a promotion-ridden, activity-infested production. It’s as close to the MLB as it gets.

Still, some guys signed as soon as they saw a little kid, or elderly lady, hold up a ball.

 Oh, and Wally Backman? No sign of him — until game time.

He didn’t move from that position much coaching third base. And, much to our disappointment, there were no questionable calls for him to argue. If you’ve never seen him blow up on an umpire, YouTube “Wally Backman Home Run Ejection” or anything with his name in it. And, cover your ears, it gets quite vulgar — and hilarious.

Like I said before, Coca-Cola Field holds 18,000 people. Zach was not too impressed by the Friday afternoon attendance.

Yeah, this is a pretty cool portrait of myself. But look behind it and you can get a decent idea how how many fans showed up. It was spotty, at best, but I was impressed.

“There’s nobody here,” Zach exclaimed.

Actually, there was over 6,000 fans in attendance. Because it is a pretty massive stadium — for minor league standards — it can appear to be empty. In many other lower level fields — it’d be a sellout.

All of us there on the corner of Swan and Washington street on the sun-drenched afternoon were treated to a great game, itself, and quality entertainment.

When the starting lineups were announced and Zach and I penciled it into our scorebooks, I told him to watch out for DeWayne Wise. He was starting in CF for the Scranton Wilkes Barre, I mean Empire State, Yankees. Remember how he preserved Mark Buerhle’s perfect game a few years ago with the White Sox? Well he nearly topped it, minus the implications, with this bring back of a sure-fire Bisons’ home run. Very cool moment when the whole crowd stood up expected a dinger and I, honestly, had a hunch that Wise would go up and grab it.

Along with Wise, both rosters had notable players.

Former Pirate, Steve Pearce.

Decently regarded, Colin Curtis.

Omar Quintanilla, who has always flirted with the Mets roster.

Jordany Valdespin, who got “spun” around here:

Haha. He’ll be on the Mets roster soon — this week actually.

Jeremy Hefner is in New York now, too. He got the start last Friday and picked up the loss.

Now, for the name game.

With quality Italian names like that, there has to be a…

Yep. And the crowd loved it.

I thought the outfield wall provided a nice homegrown touch, but we wouldn’t have been in Buffalo with out some wings. The Bisons even threw in the celery and bleu cheese.

Bleu cheese got its first win of the season in the race. It wouldn’t be a minor league game without one of these and don’t worry — there’s two more left.

Again, the Bisons’ in-game production mirrored that of a major league game almost to the T. Which was refreshing, but not as charming.

They roll out three mascots. A pretty good number to keep potentially big crowds entertained — one would think. If Zach wouldn’t have stopped really fast, we wouldn’t have caught up with any of these three Bull-like creatures. The trio only appears during on-field t-shirt tosses, then rushes them back into a holding area. Never do they roam the concourses for pictures, hugs and high fives. If it wasn’t for their visiting in the seating areas, many little kids are bored at games. That was certainly the case in Buffalo.

One guy, however, stood out in the aisles.

dConehead has been a character at Coca-Cola Field for many years.

As for the game, the Yankees picked up four runs in the fifth inning after the Bisons jumped out to a 3-0 lead after the first three.

Usually around the seventh inning stretch of any game I’m at, anxiety takes over and my few hours of relaxation and baseball is about to come to a close. Reality sets in. This day was different, around that same time of unrest, I felt happiness knowing that another nine inning spectacle was about to come.

Down 7-4 in the bottom of the ninth, Buffalo got one across but couldn’t come from behind completely. The home team fell 7-5.

On to the next one.

Jeryry Uht Park in Erie, PA lacked the big city feel of Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo, yet it still had a pretty cool vibe. It was located in downtown Erie, but we didn’t know we were even close to it, unlike Coca-Cola where it’s visible right off the highway and in many angles of downtown Buffalo.

We entered about a half hour before the game and we were nervous. It was Justin Verlander poster night and we knew we’d be cutting it close because only the first 1,000 people received posters.

 In all honesty, we were one of the first people through the gates. And the first 1,000 — didn’t even show up. Plenty of posters were left at the end of the game.

During it, though, was a blast.

Zach and I were selected for an on-field contest. At the end of the first inning, we went on the field for the “Crazy Frog” race. From third base to home plate, we raced another pair of competitors — also Pirate fans! Let me tell you, 90 feet is further than you think, especially when you’re leap frogging somebody. So as we tumbled our way down the line, fans actually cheered for us. To their dismay and ours — we lost.

The process of getting selected by the “Wolfpack” promo team and introduced by the on-field host, it reminded me so much of my summer, last year. As a minor league intern for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, I was responsible for many of the promotional activities and contests, just like these kids were for more. Whether you’re entertained by the production or not, a lot goes into it and time is limited between innings. I had a lot of respect for those interns and next time you’re at a minor league game, try to understand what all goes into making it work. It probably won’t seem like much — but trust me — it is.

Needless to say, Erie had much more of a homey, intimate and well, minor league feel.

With just one mascot — C. Wolf stole the show.

However, the SeaWolves were hosting the Baltimore Orioles AA affiliate, the Bowie Baysox. And I pleased to see former No. 3 pick and top prospect Manny Machado.

Those interns I praised earlier, yeah, they didn’t do their homework. Whether they realized how highly regarded Machado is or not — he was named the Strikeout Player of the Game.

Well, their decision paid off as Machado whiffed in his very first at-bat.

We sat behind home plate, very first row, for much of the game. I though these pictures turned out pretty cool, too.

Also cool — and comfortable — for that matter is Jerry Uht Park, itself.

 Except for that big wooded wall in left field. “What an eyesore,” we thought right when we looked up. We thought there was no way that it’s normally like that and a security guard confirmed that it is only temporary for an amazing cause. Jerry hut Park is right next store to Erie’s sports arena that houses arena football, hockey and basketball. Actually, it’s right beyond the Home Depot demonstration. Construction is under way for a 50 million dollar project that will add connected suites that will over look both left field and center court. A very productive and well-thought out idea that I’ll have to check out when it’s finished, next year.

The left field fence stands just 312 feet away from home plate and, sure enough, it was in play.

That hole two panel away from the orange bench wasn’t there before John Murrian stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth. It was a two-run shot, part of a four-run inning, that gave Erie the come from behind, 6-2 win.

That’d be it for our marathon day. Zach and I will never forget this trip. It may have been crazy, our mother thought so, but that’s what was great about it. We put life to the side for a day and focused on the great game of baseball. No worries, no cares, no deadline, no hurry.

Hey, hey! I’m still not done.

A few days later, Zach handed the reigns over to my buddy, Andrew. Another day of minor league baseball was ahead for me and my lifelong friend.

We stayed in Ohio at Lake County for the Single A, Indians affiliated, Captains.

Francisco Lindor is their big name — Cleveland’s first-round pick from 2011, No. 8 overall.

Lake County is just one step up from Mahoning Valley — where I spent my summer all of last year. Lindor, along with several others, joined me for their first taste of professional ball.

Bryson Myles

Jerrud Sabourin

Alex Lavisky

I also got the chance to hang out with a staple of Eastwood Field, photographer Jesse Piecuch.

I think Im tough stuff with my camera, but Jesse’s is as fine as they come. And his photos — whoa, they are the best in baseball. Literally. The guy has a knack for the job.

In the afternoon sun, it was the perfect temperature for a game, with a slight breeze. I the shade, it was frigid. To keep even warmer, we migrated throughout Classic Park because we basically had the place to ourselves. Zach thought Buffalo was bad, I thought Erie was worse, but last Wednesday’s Lake County crowd was the slimmest I’ve ever seen. We counted no more than 50 people.

Still, the show went on.

Skipper was active.

And Captain Tony observed from his perch in center field.

The Captains rallied for four runs in the sixth and led 5-4 going into the bottom of the ninth.

Ahoy, blown save ahead.

The West Michigan White Caps, a Detroit Tigers affiliate, teed off for four runs of their own. The rally was started by Colin Kaline.

Yep, that Kaline. Well, not exactly as in Al. But he is a spawn — Al’s grandson.

He didn’t come in with legendary numbers, but I’m sure it took Al a while to be Kaline-like, too.

I can’t imagine pulling off a pilgrimage like this in any other sport. Basketball? Football? Hockey? No way anybody would hit three different games, of any level, within a 4-day span in those sports. They’re all too similar. Baseball games are unique, their special. Every field is different. Every stadium is different. With the other aforementioned sports, it’s all defined in the exact same matter everywhere you go. The football field is 100 yards long, the basketball hoop is 10 feet tall. Hockey is…always played on ice. Baseball presents its own special calling and only the patient and appreciative can answer the call to the game’s adventures and journeys.

I’m glad to be part of the club.

Believe in Opening Day

I start to tear up every time I watch the end credits of the Christmas movie, The Polar Express.

It’s not even one of my favorite holiday classics, I may have only seen the entire thing once or twice. I definitely don’t make it a point to sit down and watch it when December rolls around.

But I make sure I listen to the song.

Josh Groban’s Believe takes me back to so many childhood memories. The warm feelings of Christmas morning with family all around and holding onto the wonder and amazement of believing in Christmas.

Well, I believe in Opening Day.

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Both holidays, yes Opening Day is a holiday, evoke similar sensations of hope. People may get tired of hearing the same, “Hope Sprigs Eternal” and “There’s nothing like Opening Day.”

Yes, seeing is believing.

ImageNot everyday you get to see all 25 big league guys introduced, honored and standing down the lines of a sun-drenched packed stadium. That’s what makes Opening Day special, but it’s surely not all.

Most of it starts outside the park.

ImageImageImageImageThere’s swarming activity going on at every corner of the city. Pittsburgh was loaded last Thursday morning with fans, friends and foes. From the Strip District, to Downtown, to the North Shore parking lots — it felt like something special was about to happen. With wall to wall people walking around taking in the sights and tailgating, it was like a college football Saturday. With plenty of Phillies fans right neck in neck with us Pirates, it enhanced the football-feel — almost like a BCS bowl game.

Everybody is out and about in the hours before the gates open. Half the fun is just seeing who you’ll run into.

ImageJon Anderson, one of the original MLBloggers and hit sensation with the mceffect.com.

ImagePirates owner, Bob Nutting.

ImageColor commentator and former World Series champion Steve Blass.

It was hard not to get a little chocked up walking through the gates for the first time in months, even though it seemed like an eternity. There was still a light chill in the air, but the weather was perfect for an early April day.

Of course, a “Peaslee Pose” christened the new season.

As did this nice picture of Erin and I. The camera used for all these pictures is the one I received as a graduation gift last May. It’s big, it’s cool and I haven’t really figured out how to use it yet. But one of the PNC Park ushers fixed the settings and got the lighting to work just perfect. Really, though, it’s impossible to not take a beautiful picture in the most beautiful park in baseball.

See?

Like I said before, the number of Pirate fans was rivaled by an extremely healthy slew of Philly people. I don’t blame them for showing up in droves. However, I was surprised there was so many of them, considering it was Opening Day and during the week. Many made a weekend of it and I hope they enjoyed the better city in the great state of PA.

The new season is marking our first in a different section of the park. Section 315 is where I’ll be found all summer long.

A perfect view of the skyline, jumbotron and all game action. Specifically, on Opening Day, those riveting pre game introductions.

Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, faces of the franchise are ready for a special year.

The game, itself, was just how I like it. Pitcher-dominated.

Erik Bedard impressed in his Pirates debut going seven innings, striking out four, while giving up six hits and allowing just one run — a Carlos Ruiz sacrifice fly where former Pirate Ty Wigginton scored on a bang-bang play at the plate.

He was upstaged by Roy Halladay who went a fantastic eight innings, giving up just two hits. The funny thing about those two hits — they came back-to-back by Alex Presley and Jose Tabata in the top of the first.

Jonathon Papelbon made his first appearance in a Philadelphia uniform and sent the Bucs down in order for the save.

How can you be disappointed in that? Arguably the best starting pitcher and closer in the game. The Phillies were without stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, but they still bring one of the most potent offensives in the game.

People come from far and wide for Opening Day. Maybe they won’t make it back to another game until mid-July when they’re buddies are celebrating a birthday and need an excuse to drink. They probably won’t follow the team until then and, frankly, they won’t care.

For one day, they do.

And that’s what is great about baseball. It’s a rebirth signaling summer, signaling sunshine, signaling warm nights, high fives, walk off home runs, complete game shut outs, diving catches and winning streaks.

It’s cool and all when football, basketball and hockey season starts, yet they still don’t draw the attention and gain the fondness of baseball Opening Day.

The remaining 161 games of the major league schedule won’t be as eventful or have the pomp and circumstance, but that’s what makes it great.

There are 161 more chances to make the season special and you have everything you need to enjoy them all — if you just believe.

The “Mc” that saved Pittsburgh

As story this good hasn’t hit Pittsburgh since 1979.

Back then, a fictional basketball team hit the big screen. The Warner Brothers movie, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, was about a struggling team – The Pittsburgh Pythons. Playing in front of minuscule crowds at the now-ripped up Civic Arena, the Pythons were led by Moses Gurthrie (played Julius Erving aka Dr. J.). He was the star, one of the best in the league and the only worthwhile player on a forgotten franchise.

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The Pythons were bad, we’re talking Pittsburgh Pirates bad. Plenty of losing strung together with no real chance of ever getting better. Hopeless, downtrodden and demoralized, some players walked out on the team in Derek Bell-like fashion.

That’s where the story gets good. Wacky, rather.

Ready to attempt anything for the slim chance that the Pythons get better, Guthrie and chief team advisers go seek the tutelage of a star gazer. The fortune teller, of sorts, tell them to gather a team similar to Guthrie’s personal attributes if the Pythons wish to ever seek success. His astrological sign was Pisces, which is represented by a fish. The fortune teller advised them to assemble a team around the Pisces vibe, gathering players that all shared the zodiac sign of Pisces. Hence, the fish that saved Pittsburgh.

So, a ragtag group of less than-skilled players were signed by the team and, believe it or not, the Pythons who renamed themselves the Pisces in a true reshaping process, won the championships. It’s a tale that can only come true in Hollywood.

Or is it?

The Pirates may have taken a page from the Pisces, whether General Manager Neal Huntington and other front office brass have talked to a psychic remains to be seen, but they may have sought the guidance of a Waynesburg University student — Jon Anderson.

He’s had this blog called The McEffect for  few years now. Started in homage to Nate McLouth and rising star Andrew McCutchen, the site is a popular source for Pirates news, stats and all kinds of information. Jon has turned it into its own social media empire that has received national recognition and hundreds of thousands of views.

Huntington must have taken notice.

Even though McLouth was traded in early 2009, McCutchen came up to the bigs and made his mark right away. Then, along came pitcher Daniel McCutchen, who was acquired from the Yankees and James McDonald, who was acquired from the Dodgers.

In a flashback to the 1979 silver screen, things got even wackier.

Michael McKenry was brought in last year to help with catching duties and this offseason, Pittsburgh traded with the Brewers for 3B Casey McGehee and brought back McLouth. It rose the Mc total to six during spring training.

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Jon had the above shirts produced and they’ve drawn greater attention to the blog and the sheer ridiculousness of having six players with eerily similar names on the same team. They’ve been a hit, this off-season, with Pirates announcers giving them a shout out, WTAE news in Pittsburgh doing a story on him and in Flat Stanley-style, taking these shirts to cool place like Spring Training.

Bonus points for a picture with an actual Mc, like this fan with James McDonald.

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If the Mc’s aren’t the reason to believe in 2012, the B’s certainly are. Sticking with the name game, Huntington brought in catcher Rod Barajas, along with pitchers Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett. Not a McEffect, but rather a bomb of B’s, the signings were a viable fall back plan that further fuels the conspiracy.

It’s been 33 years since a made up basketball team from Pittsburgh used some goofy formula to save their season and fix their losing ways.

Nineteen years have passed since the Pirates have finished a season with more wins than losses. Maybe it was just time — time to do something crazy of their own. If Pittsburgh does have its first winning baseball season since 1992, you have to think the Mc’s are to thank.

It’s like Jon said in his television interview, “what else would it be?”

photo credits: soulstrut.com, mceffect.com

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