Sunday, June 15, 2014

Final Pitch 2013, MLB All Star Fan Fest

July 14, 2013
New York, New York
Jacob Javits Center
M.L.B All Star Fan Fest
Day 10, The Final Inning:

Grandpa, Ryan and Me, Outside Fan Fest
Right away I could sense something was "off." I wasn't sure how, or why, but I had this impending feeling that things were not as they should be. I had the very uncomfortable feeling that I was being watched and as I opened my eyes I knew exactly why.

"What the hell?" I said loud enough to make Nicole grumble and wiggle further down under the covers
That alone startled me, as I had forgotten where I was. After being on the road for over a week I was not used to sleeping in my own bed and for a moment I was wondering what city as I was in. The fact there was a woman next to me should have given me an indication, as she was my wife and hadn't gone on the trip. I should have realized I was home, but my brain was still a little foggy.

"C'mon, get up," the voice to my left said. "We've got to get moving."

Once again I was startled back into the present. I turned my head and quickly took in the sight of Ryan standing at the side of the bed, fully dressed and looking impatiently over at me.

"For the love of God, and all that's holy, what's wrong with you?" I hissed. We've talked about this."

Apparently this was a little too loud because Nicole smacked me in the head with her pillow and told me in no uncertain terms to shut up. Apparently she was less thrilled about being woken up by me than I was for being woken up by Ryan, who just laughed. Now I may not be the smartest person on the planet, but I know that a two-fronted battle was not the smartest thing to engage in, especially when one of the combatants was my sleep-deprived, cranky wife. I quickly retreated to the living room to get my bearings and a cup of coffee.

After a quick shower, and a lot of coffee, we headed out the door. The first stop was Tenafly to pick up my dad, who is known affectionately as "Grandpa Crazy." He had been tagged with that moniker many years ago by our friend Heidi, because she loved how he interacted with all his grandchildren and always reverted to a youngster when around them. The name stuck, and has been used in a playful, reverent way ever since. Ryan was hoping that his grandpa would have been able to join us for some games on this trip, but since he couldn't this was the next best thing. In fact, this was not the first MLB Fan Fest the three of us had attended; we had gone back in 2008 when the All Star Game had been held at the "old" Yankee Stadium in its closing year. We had a great time back then and were looking for more of the same today.

Major League Baseball has, for a number of years, showcased its All Star Game with the collaboration of the host city. The break in the MLB schedule by no means is a break from baseball activity and the league puts on quite a show, centered around the game itself. The Fan Fest was created as a traveling celebration that came to the All Star City each year and became the world's largest baseball theme park. Fans can wander through exhibits that celebrate the history of the players and the game; meet, greet and collect free autographs from baseball legends; participate in training drills; and take batting practice in portable cages, as well as meander through the world's largest MLB memorabilia and souvenir shop. After having gone to one a few years earlier, Ryan was eager to return again.

We picked up my dad and headed to the bus stop. After driving all over the "Rust Belt" for the last ten days, I was more than happy to take mass transit into NYC; besides, parking is a nightmare and way too expensive. The ride over was quick and I got to relax; Ryan spent the entire time telling his grandpa all about our trip, showing him the pictures that were still on the camera and planning our every move for the day. I was glad to hear how much he enjoyed our trip and listened intently to him recap it for my dad, putting his own spin on our adventure.

The bus dropped us off at the 42nd Street terminal and we walked a few blocks from there to the Javits Center. I was glad we were headed indoors, as the sun was starting to turn the Big Apple into the Baked Apple and I was not in the mood to wander around outdoors, sweating all day. Our plan was to purchase tickets at the Javits Center Box Office, but before we could get there we were approached by a young lady on the street, outside the front door.

"Do you guys have tickets?" she asked us.
"No," I responded. "Our plan was to get them at the box office."
"You guys look like big baseball fans," she surmised.

That was all Ryan needed to tell her about our last ten days on the road. She listened, intently, to his five-minute speech and then completely floored us with her generosity.

"I work for T-Mobile, who sponsors the Fan Fest," she told us. "I have some passes to give you, so you don't have to purchase tickets."
"Are you sure?" I asked, in disbelief.
"After what this cutie-pie just told me," she said, nodding at Ryan, "You guys are huge baseball fans and I can't think of anyone better to give them to. In fact, I'll even throw in some 'jump the line" passes, so he won't have to wait at the interactive exhibits."
"Thank you very much. But please let me offer you something," I said pulling out my wallet.
"Just seeing how much this means to you guys is thanks enough," she said, sticking three tickets and ten passes into my hand, before walking off.
"Thank you very much," Ryan said, excitedly. "I really appreciate it."
"You're welcome, sweetie," she said, as she walked away smiling.

Once again, I couldn't believe our luck. Out of nowhere, a stranger comes up to us and offers $75 worth of tickets and another $35 worth of "jump the line" passes. The generosity of yet another baseball fan left me speechless.

TV Screen In The Lobby

We were all smiles and laughter as we walked into the Javits Center. Ryan was quite happy to walk past the ticket booth and straight to the exhibit entrance, and after seeing the lines, so was I. As we patiently waited for the gentleman at the "gate" to take our tickets, we were able to watch MLB highlights on a giant television screen just over the entrance. In fact, we waited just a few moments longer to go in, so we could see the ending.

Three Generations of Baseball Fans

As we walked into the first floor exhibition hall we were shepherded to the left. Right in front of us was what
was billed as the world's largest baseball, complete with autographs from Willie Mays, Derek Jeter, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams and a host of others. Ryan insisted we get a picture of the three of us in front of it and I wasn't going to argue. I am never one to turn down an opportunity to photo-document our adventures.

Hometown Heroes: NY Mets Exhibit

A little past the baseball picture area was an exhibit on the history of the Mets, entitled "Hometown Heroes," which included a photo-mural, a pictorial timeline and lots of memorabilia from the team's history.

Mets History

"Do we really have to see this?' Ryan asked his grandfather and me.
"It is baseball history," Grandpa Jim informed him, "You love the history of the game, so let's see if there's something you can learn."
"I didn't realize we were going to be studying minor league teams," Ryan said, shaking his head.
"Pipe down, before you offend someone," I laughed.

As the three of us studied the franchise history, Ryan became so immersed that he lost all track of time. He
was constantly reading, commenting, taking pictures and discussing the team that he forgot he didn't want to see this exhibit in the first place.

1969's Miracle Mets
"Oh good Lord," I heard him exclaim.
"What's the matter" I asked, walking to him.
"This must have been during his mid-life crisis phase," he said, pointing to a picture of Yogi Berra during his Mets' years.
"He did win a World Series with them," I reminded him.
"Even the blind squirrel finds the nut every now and again," was his response.
"Now this is what I like," he said, excitedly.
"Go figure," I laughed, looking at the exhibit for the 2000 Subway Series that the Mets lost to the Yankees.
"Just making sure things are kept in context," he told me.

The Negro Leagues
Negro Leaguers in The Hall of Fame
The next section of the hall was dedicated to the "Negro Leagues" and their place in  baseball history. This might have been my dad's favorite exhibit in the place. As many people know, he grew up a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan and loved the players that Jackie Robinson paved the way for. His favorite was Roy Campanella, who he says was the best catcher in the National League, surpassed only by Yogi Berra, and not by much. You could see his eyes widen as he and Ryan walked the exhibit, read the timeline, looked at the pictures and saw the artifacts. It was almost as if he were magically transformed back to Ryan's age as he told us of growing up and watching these men ascend to baseball immortality. He grew
especially wistful at the sight of a re-created locker, which housed Robinson's
Satchel Paige
# 42
uniform and gear. We told us about how walking Jackie was the same as giving up a triple, because he would steal second and third before the pitcher could throw another four pitches. He explained how great Don Newcomb was, even though the knock was that he could never win the big game. He told us of seeing Satchel Page, in his later years, and how he had been told that Satchel might have been the best there ever was, had he been allowed to play in the majors years earlier. We discussed Buck Leonard, "Cool Papa" Bell, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson and all the others who never had the chance, but would have been stars had they only been white.

Grandpa, Ryan and Roy
"Grandpa, come here," I hear Ryan call. "I need this picture with you. Dad, please take it."

I looked over to where my son was and thought I saw my dad get choked up. Standing right in front of a giant baseball card of Roy Campanella was Ryan, with a giant smile on his face.

"C'mon, Grandpa. This was your favorite player when you were a boy, let's get a picture of us with it. That way you can put it in your office and always look at it."

Once again, my eldest son showed a maturity beyond his years. He remembered his grandfather's favorite player and wanted a picture taken, specifically for his grandpa. I was so proud I could have burst.

Jeter Jersey For Auction
1998 NY Yankees Print
After the emotional Negro League exhibit we walked through the "MLB
Auction" area. Here we saw many, many items from MLB history that were being put up for sale in a silent auction. There were jerseys, autographed by players such as Ted Williams, Derek Jeter, Mickey Mantle and Tom Seaver. We saw autographed photos, paintings, equipment and even a motorcycle that was once owned by Ken Griffey, Jr. There were even non-baseball items, such as a watch that belonged to Lou Gehrig, an engraved ashtray from Babe Ruth, a set of golf clubs that once belonged to Lou Pinella and what I thought was interesting: a drivers' license from a former MLB star. If you could place a bid on an item, they had it. Ryan's favorite item was a game-worn Derek Jeter jersey, while I was partial to a painting of the 1998 Yankees, signed by the entire team.

Baseball Around The World
The next stop on our trek was the "Baseball Around the World" exhibit. The official title was the "World Baseball Classic" exhibit, but in reality it was outlining all the countries that play baseball and charting where some of the more famous ones came from, outside of the United States. The first person Ryan looked for was Roberto Clemente. After finding his plaque, he gave my father a "tutorial" on who he was, how great a player he became and how he perished in an airplane crash, delivering supplies to Nicaragua after a deadly earthquake.

"El Magnifico"
"Who drafted him, Ryan?" my dad wanted to know.
"C'mon, Grandpa, that's easy. The Brooklyn Dodgers, but they tried to hide him in the minors and the Pirates grabbed him. Anyone who knows baseball knows that."

I looked over at my dad and laughed. He just shook his head, smiled and rubbed the top of Ryan's head.

"You get an "A" for that answer, Ry," he told him, smiling.

Minor League Baseball Map
Our next stop was the Minor League Wall. Here there was an interactive map of the United States and they had listings for every MLB team and their affiliates throughout baseball. Ryan went through every level of every organization and determined which teams he had seen, which teams he wanted to see and what might be available to us the next time we hit the road. He was a little disappointed that he hadn't seen more than he had, but when we did the math of all the minor league teams that belonged to the major league clubs, he got a better understanding of how many teams there really were throughout the country.

"There, there, there," Ryan yelled, running ahead.

Spending Time With "Our Trophy"

Ahead I saw what caught his attention: The Trophy Room. Here were all the major awards that were handed out to the players every year. Ryan ran right over and waited his turn to pose with our favorite, the Commissioner's Trophy, which is given out every year to the World Series Champion.

"We need to stop lending that one to other teams and take it back," Ryan laughed.
"We'll get it back when we earn it," I reminded him.
"Just so long as Boston doesn't win it before us," he said, ensuring the disaster that would come three months into the future.

AL Rookie of The Year
World Series MVP
After getting our picture taken we walked around and saw the Jackie
Robinson Award (Rookie of the Year), the Warren Giles and William Harridge Trophies (NLCS and ALCS winners), Cy Young Award (best pitcher), Silver Slugger (best offensive player at every position), Gold Glove (best defensive player at every position), the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Award (AL/NL MVP), the World Series MVP Trophy, the Roberto Clemente Award (sportsmanship/community involvement and contribution to his team), the Hank Aaron Award (best hitter in each league) and the Mel Ott Award (Home Runs), as well as the WBC Championship Trophy.

"Is this like Cooperstown?" Ryan wanted to know.
"Yes, but a lot smaller," I told him.
"Look over there," Grandpa pointed out.

Right around the corner, as if ion cue, we saw the traveling Cooperstown exhibit. Ryan made a beeline in that direction, but stopped dead in his tracks halfway there.

Buster and Ryan
"Picture, please," he said, pointing to a giant banner of one of his favorite players...Buster Posey.
"How did he become a Posey fan?" my dad wanted to know.
"We watched him as a college player, for Florida State," I told him. "He saw him on TV and followed him to the majors."
"Hey, Ryan," Grandpa called out. "Tell me about Posey."
Well," Ryan started out. "He started out as a shortstop, then was moved to catcher after his freshman year. He became a great catcher, finishing second in the Johnny Bench Award then won the award for best college player and even played all nine positions in one game. He struck out both batters he faced that day, as a pitcher. In the summer he played in the Cape Cod League for Yarmouth-Dennis and won championships there as a shortstop one year and a catcher the next. He was drafted by the Giants, won the Rookie of the Year and a World Series in the same year."
"Wow," my dad said looking at me. "He knows his stuff."
"You expected anything less?" I wanted to know.

"Say Hey" Jjersey
The Great Bambino
As we entered the Cooperstown area, Ryan's jaw dropped to the floor. ThereA League of Their Own." There were placards around the exhibit reminding people that in a few weeks the Hall would be inducting three new members: Hank O'Day, Jacob Ruppert and Deacon White.
were jerseys from Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Christy Mathewson. We saw Willie Mays' plaque and a very cool section on "The Women in Baseball," which was basically the real story and memorabilia that was depicted in the movie "

2013 Inductees

"Do any of those names look familiar?" my dad quizzed Ryan.
"Jacob Ruppert was the owner of the Yankees. He was the guy that rescued Babe Ruth from Boston and brought him to New York."
"I never really thought of it that way," my father said laughing. "You know, he was a very good ballplayer in Boston," Grandpa reminded Ryan.
"Yeah, but he became BABE RUTH here."
"Are you done 'correcting' him?" I wanted to know.
"I give up, he's like answer for everything."
"Where do you think I got it from," I asked.
"Look, a trivia contest...c'mon," Ryan called to us, running towards the front of the room.

Sure enough, at the front of the exhibit there was a small stage
Women In Baseball Exhibit
with a few chairs on it, in front of many more chairs set up to accommodate an audience. We sat down and listened to the lady on stage say that they were going to pick contestants to come up and win prizes for correctly answering baseball trivia questions. We tried to get them to pick us, but unfortunately we were never chosen. We sat for about three rounds and answered the questions between the three of us, while those on the stage struggled to get the correct answers. After staying for about twenty minutes, we got up to go, but Ryan wanted to learn more about the Hall of Fame. We walked over to the customer service table and I decided to purchase a membership to the Hall. My dad thought it was a great idea and decided he wanted in on the deal to, so I bought the basic membership and my father chipped in the rest to get a family plan.

"This is because you've impressed me with all your baseball knowledge, Ryan, and I want you to learn even more and tell me all about it," my dad told his grandson.
"Thanks, Grandpa, but I'm only going if you come with me," he said, giving his grandfather a huge hug.
"Lets get something to eat," I told them. I was suddenly hungry.
"FOOD!" Ryan said, heading towards the concession area.

Big League Dreams
On the way to the eating area, Ryan found a replica of Andy Pettitte's Yankee Stadium locker. Of course he had to move the rope across the front (which was there to presumably keep people out), sit in the chair, and have his picture taken. I didn't exactly discourage him, so he got in, got his picture taken and got out, right before we were chastised for moving the rope. C'est la vie.

Lunch was nothing special, a sandwich for each of us and beer for my dad and I, while Ryan sucked down a root beer. He was interested in now doing all the interactive stuff that we had "jump the line" passes for, so we finished rather quickly and headed back out to let him "show off" his skills.

Tracking A Fly
Making The Catch
The first spot we stopped was a large cage, broken into four sections, with a
pitching machine in each section. Each station had the pitching machine shooting balls out and you had to field a grounder, a line drive, a pop up and a fly ball. Ryan presented his ticket and was immediately taken to the head of each line, much to the chagrin of the people that had been waiting their turn. It was here that we got the full appreciation for the passes we were given, because some folks had been waiting over twenty minutes for their turn. Ryan took his spot and went through each of the drills flawlessly. The fly ball gave him a bit of trouble, as he first took a step in, instead of out, but he quickly corrected himself and made an over the shoulder, Willie Mays-like, catch. After nonchalantly tossing the ball back in, he turned and bowed to the crowd and walked out of the cage. My father and I just shook our heads at the little hot dog.

Throwing Accuracy
Our next stop would be in the cages that tested arm strength and accuracy. Ryan has never been a pitcher, nor will he ever be, but he has never met a radar gun that he hasn't wanted to try out. He walked to the front of the line, handed his passes, took his turn in the velocity cage and declared himself a second baseman. This elicited some laughs from those waiting and showed he does, indeed, have a sense of humor about his skills. The next cage, however, I do have to say, he rocked. The accuracy cages had tires hanging from the ceiling at different distances and the idea is to see how many of the eight you can put the ball through. Ryan made perfect throws through all eight and again made it look easier than it was.

Batting cages were up next, but Ryan wasn't overly eager to jump in.

Batting Practice
"Whatsa matter?" I asked
"I don't have my bat," he told me. "I'm not going to do well here."
"Go in, have fun and enjoy yourself," Grandpa told him. "That's what we're here for.

In he went, more than a little unnerved. The first cage was for bunting, which Ryan is pretty good at. He laid down three perfect bunts, which put a smile on his face, and moved on to the next station where he would be hitting away.

Things did not start well, as he swung and missed at the first three.

"Relax," I called in. "You'll be fine."

He took a deep breath, stepped back in and proceeded to hit five of the next seven, well. He came back out of the cage smiling and laughing, which made me feel good.

"You did well," I told him.
"I could have done better."
"You were fine. Now, let's head over to the sliding pit. That's the last station here."

The "Sliding Pit" Station

The "Sliding Pit" is an interactive exhibit, in the middle of the Javits Center, which allows multiple people to simulate stealing a base at the Major League distance of 90 feet. Ryan loved the idea and quickly walked to the front of the line, handed his "jump the line" pass to the man in charge, and walked into the staging area.

I looked around and marveled at the setup of the exhibit. The "players" would stand on an MLB base, run 90 feet down what looked like a base-path carpet and slide on a frictionless matt, into the next base. Above the base each participant was sliding into was a video screen where a projected a shortstop would try and apply the tag in a myriad of different ways.

"This ought to be interesting," I said to my dad, as Ryan studied the video board trying to detect a pattern.
"Think he makes it?"
"I'll bet he does. Look at him watching the different ways that the shortstop makes the tag, he's looking for a pattern."

Getting In Ahead of The Tag

Just as I said that, Ryan was off like a streak. OK, maybe not a streak, but definitely faster than I anticipated. He ran all out until he was about five feet from the bag and then launched himself headfirst towards the bag. The shortstop attempted a swipe-tag to Ryan's right, but he reached out with his left hand and got in around the glove.

"SAFE!" the lady acting as an umpire indicated.
"YES!" we heard Ryan exclaim, as we laughed to ourselves.

He picked himself up, dusted himself off and trotted back over to where we were standing.

"Lucky steal," my dad said, rubbing his head.
"Lucky, my butt," Ryan laughed. "I found a pattern in where the video applied the tag and slid to the other side."

I looked at my father, as if to say "I told you so," and we all walked towards the exit.

"Is there anything you want as a souvenir?" my dad asked Ryan.
"Can I get one of the McFarlane figures, please?"
"Those are the statues that look just like the players, right?" Grandpa wanted to know.
"Yup, I collect them and want to find a Mickey Mantle," Ryan informed him.
"Well, let's go look," my dad told his grandson, putting an arm around his shoulder and walking toward the area that housed all the collectables.

Mantle McFarlane
Ryan quickly found his way through the maze of jerseys, t-shirts, pins, baseball cards, books and stickers, to the item he was looking for. There in the center of the floor was the stand he wanted,  the one with the McFarlane figurines. Now for those that don't know, these replica figurines were created by Todd McFarlane and run the gamut from rock stars, to comic book characters, to sports figures. They are highly detailed and look amazingly like the person they are depicting. Ryan had started collecting Yankee players years ago, but had now expanded his collection to one player from every team on our road trip. His bedroom has overflowed and has now spilled out into the boys' playroom, where they can be seen by everyone who comes in the house.

It took two times around the booth to find the one he wanted, but he knew what he was looking for and once he found it, he locked in.

"May I please see the Mickey Mantle?" Ryan asked the man behind the counter.
"Which one?" he said, pointing to four different versions.
"The one in the pinstripes, batting from the right hand side, please." Ryan replied.

The man took the figure down and handed it to Ryan, all the while keeping an eye on him in case he decided to make a break for it without paying.

"That's the one you want?" Grandpa asked.
"Yes, please," Ryan said, looking up and doing his best puppy-eyed expression.

He didn't need to do that, as my dad was happy to get it for him and the look on his face was priceless when he was handed the bag.

"Thanks, Grandpa," he said, giving my dad a big hug.
"Did you want anything else?" my dad wanted to know.
"No thank you, this is perfect."
"You got off lucky," I said.
"He's a good boy, he knows a lot of money was spent the last ten days. He's not greedy," my dad said.

As we headed out we walked past the autographed memorabilia section. Here they had specially signed baseballs in commemorative All Star Game cases. Ryan walked over and quickly came running back.

"Do you have the receipts for the things we bought today?" he needed to know.
"Somewhere, why?" I asked.
"Well, if we add them all up we might be able to get a signed baseball. Can I please get one, if we're able to?"
"Absolutely," my dad told him, rifling through the bags and his pockets for all the receipts.
"Here you go," he said, handing them over. "Go pick out a good one."

Gossage Autograph

Five minutes later Ryan came running back with a big smile on his face and a huge box in his hands.

"I see you got one," I said to him.
"Yeah, with what we spent here today I was able to get a Goose Gossage ball, and he signed it with his Hall of Fame year," he said proudly.
"You've made out pretty well today," I told him.
"Yeah and I still have about six jump the line passes left," he said, looking around.

Now I thought he was thinking about doing some more interactive exhibits, as he carefully scanned the room for just the right one.

"There," he said, pointing. "C'mon."

He walked right up to a family with two little boys, waiting in line at the end of the sliding pit. He tapped the father on the back and when the man turned around, Ryan made me the proudest person in the Javits Center.

"Sir, these were given to me and I used a lot, but I'm done now and your boys might like them." I heard him say.
"Are you sure?" the man said, as his sons' eyes grew wide.
"Yes, I'm going home, but you're Yankees' fans and there can be two for each kid. I hate waiting in lines and I bet they do as well."
"Thank you, son. Boys, what do you say to the young man?"
"Thank you," both boys said and clapped Ryan on the back.
"I'm really proud of you," I told him. "That was a very generous gesture."
"I got them for free, I used the ones I needed, now someone else can have some fun too. Always try to help, you always told me that."
"You're a good kid," I said again, and gave him a big hug.

As we walked out the door, a lady with a microphone approached us. She had just witnessed the exchange that had taken place and wanted to talk to Ryan. As it turned out, she was from the Channel 11 News (WPIX), and was doing a story on the Fan Fest. After asking Ryan a few questions about what he had done today the topic turned to how much he loved baseball and that's when he started talking about our trip. What started out as a quick question and answer segment turned into a real interview about where we had gone, what we had seen, what were his favorite things along the way and where he wanted to go next. My dad and I stood back and let Ryan have his interview, while a small crowd gathered to listen to his story.

After the news lady finished the interview, we stayed a few more minutes and answered questions from the people that had listened. I let Ryan handle all questions, unless someone directly asked me, or he deferred to my answer. He enjoyed his time as a mini-celebrity and as the crowd moved away I noticed he was yawning and just a little glassy-eyed.

"Tired?" I asked him.
"It's been a long week," he smiled and said.
"Ready to head home?" Grandpa wanted to know.
"Yeah, I think it's time to head back to the bus.

We walked back to the 42nd Street terminal, got on our bus and headed back to the car. Five minutes into the ride, my dad tapped me on the shoulder and gestured towards Ryan. He was holding his Mantle figure in one arm, cradling the Gossage baseball case in the other, and fast asleep.

I pulled him closer, leaning him on me, and turned towards the window. It had been a long week, but it was amazing in its scope and depth. We had travelled about 1500 miles, had visited six cities, seen five MLB games, two minor league ones, the NFL Hall of Fame, Thurman Munson's grave and visited a few long-demolished stadiums. We had visited old friends, made new ones, enjoyed the hospitality of both, eaten some fantastic meals, seen some eye-popping sights, took a riverboat cruise and had gotten to share every mile of the journey with people we loved to be with. In the end, for me, the best part was watching the world through my son's eyes and seeing him grow, as a person, with each different destination we visited. I always knew our baseball adventure was going to allow me to watch him interact with the world around him, allow him to find his way and become more self-assured and confident, but I never imagined the changes would take place on a daily basis and be as profound as they were.

As I leaned my head on his, I sighed loudly, closed my eyes and started to put together some baseball- themed activities for the fall and winter, as well as some ideas for next summer. I knew where I wanted to go and I didn't think I would get much argument, but first I had to talk to Rob and Tony. That could wait for a couple of days though; first Ryan and I had to spend every waking moment with Nicole and Brendan, telling them every detail of our trip and listening to them tell us about theirs. Right now, though, all I could think about was; New Jersey to Cincinnati to Columbus to Canton to Cleveland to Toledo to Detroit to Pittsburgh to New Jersey to New York City and back to New Jersey, all in ten days. It was a fantastic trip and I couldn't wait to start planning the next one.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A City To Steel Your Heart

PNC Park
Pittsburgh, PA
July 11-12, 2013
New York Mets Vs Pittsburgh Pirates

Day 7, Thursday July 11: An Off-Day Spent Exploring The Steel City:

Pittsburgh, Ahead

I shook my head to stay awake and looked about the darkened van. Rob was asleep in the passenger seat,
Tony was snoring, behind Rob, in the "captain's chair" and Nick was stretched out across the back bench,with his head on a pillow, on top of Ryan.

It was 4 AM and we were in the home stretch of our all-night journey from Detroit to Pittsburgh. We had left on our four and a half hour journey after scarfing down some delicious Detroit Coneys and the first two and a half hours had been fun. There was music, jokes, laughter and the occasional "stink bomb" that could only be produced by our final meal in the "Motor City." In fact some were so bad that they actually woke people from a dead sleep, much to the delight of others...namely me. We had stopped for gas and a turbo shot iced coffee somewhere in the Ohio countryside, but other than that had kept going. Now, I was exhausted and really fighting it, but since there was only about a half an hour to go I was intent on pushing through to get to Pam's house, and a nice comfortable bed.

I had known Pam for quite a few years; we had met at a Springsteen concert tailgate party and had been to quite a few since. In fact, she had been at the first three shows Ryan had ever attended and loved the fact that this bright, brash youngster loved the music as much as she did. Over the years we had communicated quite a few times, in fact she only lived about thirty minutes from our home, but had moved back to Pittsburgh, where she grew up, and was thrilled when I told her PNC Park was on this year's itinerary.  She offered up her home, so we would not have to stay in a hotel, even though she was working and wouldn't get to spend a lot of time with us. In fact she had even stocked her fridge and pantry with foods the boys liked to eat, because she didn't want us to have to spend any more money than necessary. She was even staying up to greet us, even though she had to work the next day. Once again, it was the kindness of friends that was helping us along from city to city.

With about ten minutes to go in our journey I woke Rob; I needed help reading the directions as I was navigating the winding streets of the sleepy suburb. As we pulled into the driveway, a porch door opened and out popped Pam, looking as excited as I was that this long journey was over. Rob woke Tony and Ryan, as I gave Pam a big hug and started unpacking the car. Nick, apparently was not about to be roused from his sleep-coma.

"Nick, get up, we're here," Tony said gently, running his shoulder.


"Nick, c'mon, time to get up and go inside," he pleaded again.

Still nothing.

Now, Ryan was up and anxious to get out of the car, but he couldn't move until Nick got off him. In essence he was trapped and he was not happy about it.

"Nick, let's go," I heard Tony say.

"C'mon Nick, I gotta go," Ryan said impatiently.

Nick didn't move, so Ryan took matters into his own hands. He asked Tony for a bottle of water and without thinking Tony handed one over. Big mistake...I knew what was coming, but I was powerless to stop it and, truth be told, I wanted to see it play out. As we all looked on Ryan unscrewed the bottle cap and slowly poured the entire bottle over Nick's head.

Nothing happened, so Ryan asked for another bottle. Needless to say, we didn't give him one. Tony, who was exhausted in his own right, became a little more forceful and Nick started to stir.

"Where are we?" he asked his father.
"The van," Ryan answered before Tony could.
"We're in Pittsburgh," Tony told him.
"Why am I wet?" he wanted to know.
"'Cause you wouldn't move," Ryan told him.
"Hunh?" was Nick's only reply.
"You wouldn't move, so I dumped water on you," Ryan told him.
"You did what?" Nick asked.
"Suck it up, cupcake. Let's go inside and go back to sleep," Ryan said, grabbing his gear and heading towards the house.

Tony, Rob and I laughed, Nick swore under his breath and sleepily made his way towards the house, where Ryan had already beaten us to the bathroom.

Once inside, we could see Pam was the ever gracious hostess. She had the sofa-bed in the den set up for Ry and I, Tony and Nick had the giant air mattress in the living room and Rob had his own bedroom, upstairs. Everyone quickly went to the bathroom and fell back asleep, except me. I was now wired and stayed up a few minutes to get the lay of the land and to thank Pam for all her hospitality. She showed me around a bit and told me where everything was before she went back to bed for a few more hours, as she still had to get up for work. After padding around for a little bit I walked into the den, where Ryan and I were staying, and noticed that she had very thoughtfully laid out some towels, face-cloths and a "WELCOME TO PITTSBURGH" candy bar for each one of us. I smiled at the thought that we had such great friends, kissed Ryan on the head, put my head on the pillow and fell fast asleep.

I opened my eyes and slowly tried to remember where I was. After a minute it all came back to me and I was energized to get up and into the city.

"Oh crap," I thought. "What if we've slept half the day away?"

I quickly grabbed my phone and looked at the time, it said 7:54. I shook my head, rubbed my eyes and looked again. Nope, it was still 7:54 and I had been asleep for less than three hours. I was not happy, but I knew I wasn't going back to sleep, so I headed off to grab a cup of coffee and then to the computer room to check the times for the PNC Park tour, which we were intent on taking today.

After a few minutes of surfing I found that the tours were being held at 10 AM, 12 PM and 2 PM, which left us with one option, 12 PM. There was no way I would be able to get them all up and moving for the 10 AM tour and 2 PM pretty much killed the day, so noon it was. I took another pull on my coffee and settled in to read some e-mail, after a few minutes I reached back for the coffee, put it to my lips and tasted....nothing. I looked into the cup and saw that it was empty, that's when I heard the giggling and I knew exactly what had happened.

"Good morning, Ryan," I said without turning around.
"Coffee needs a bit more milk," he told me laughing.
"Smart ass," I said, rumpling his hair and giving him a big hug.
"OK, so what's the plan and how long before I can wake them up?" he asked, brown eyes smiling at the thought.
"We'll give them a bit more sleep, we don't have to be at the park before 11:30," I told him. "Why are you up, anyway?"
"I must have had enough sleep in the car, after you finished farting me awake," he laughed. "Besides, I don't want to miss anything."
"Fair enough," I told him. "What do you want to do until we have to wake them up?"
"Well," he thought, "We're taking to tour today, let's look at Pirates history before going."
"Great idea," I told him. "Pull up a chair and let's start."

For the next hour and a half, the two of us researched the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates and I had a front row seat watching just how interested, inquisitive and excited my twelve-year-old son was when it came to studying one of his favorite subjects...Baseball History.
Pirates History:
Exposition Park At the Turn of The 20th Century
Pittsburgh has a baseball history that dates back to 1876, which was an era of independent teams that played around the countryside and were not affiliated with a particular league. The strongest of these teams, the Alleghenys, joined the American Association in 1882 as a charter member. The team would play its games in a then-separate city, Allegheny City, across the river from Pittsburgh, which would be annexed in 1907.

The Alleghenys would play their games at Exposition Park,which was located along the Allegheny River, for two seasons (1882-1883). The park, which was the first to house professional baseball in Pittsburgh, was also used for horse racing and circuses. Unfortunately, after the 1882 season the park was destroyed by fire and flooding from the nearby river and a newer incarnation, Exposition Park II, was built. The Alleghenys would play there for one season (1883), before moving on to Recreation Park, which was out of the flood plain.

In 1887 the team changed its name to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys and joined the new National League, where it would enjoy moderate success, but in 1889 many of the players jumped to the Pittsburgh Burghers, of the upstart Players League, which decimated the team. This forced ownership to sell the club back to the league, but immediately ownership became minority partners in the Burghers and repurchased the National League franchise and rechartered it under another name, the Pittsburg Innocents.

It was around this time that the United States Board of Geographic Names forced the city of Pittsburgh to undergo a name change; the "h" at the end was to be dropped. This was decided because the Board was looking to standardize the way cities with the same "burgh" at the end of their name were spelled and found that originally the city was chartered without the "h" to begin with. This spelling would last until 1911, when the "h" was allowed to be restored to the city's name.

The Innocents would last one year, but their way of doing business lent itself to the franchise's final name. Ownership would continually sign players from the American Association, which led to complaints from the A.A. that the team was being "piratical." The team was found not guilty of any wrongdoing, but to poke fun at those that thought otherwise the team formally changed its name to Pirates, which is what it remains to this day.

After the 1899 season ended, the team would make what could be considered the best trade in its history. The owner of the Louisville Colonels, Barney Dreyfuss, was told that his team was going to be eliminated shortly, as the National League was dropping from 12 teams to 8, so he bought a half share of the Pirates and worked a deal to send most of the star players to Pittsburgh under the guise of a "trade." Dreyfuss would eventually purchase the whole team, and keep it until his death, but the damage was already done as the Pirates acquired outfielder/manager Fred Clarke and shortstop Honus Wagner.

The Pirates would dominate the National League for quite a few years, sporting records of 79-60 (1900), 90-49 (1901) and 103-36 (1902), primarily because they lost very few players to the rival American League during those years. In fact the Pirates finished as the National League Champions all three of those years, as well as 1903, when they went 90-49 and played in the inaugural World Series against the Boston Americans.

The American League was formed by Ban Johnson in 1901, as a direct result of the contraction of the National League a few years before. American League clubs quickly raided National League teams for star players, which cause bad blood between the two leagues. A truce was called after the 1902 season and the National Commission was organized to oversee both professional leagues. In 1903, the Pirates and the Boston Americans (later renamed the Red Sox) both won their respective League Championships and agreed to a best-of-nine series between the two clubs. The first three games would be played in Boston, the next four would be played in Pittsburgh and if the remaining two were necessary they would be played back in Boston. An important note of fact is that this was a voluntary agreement between the clubs, not the leagues, which allowed for the 1904 National League Champions, the New York Giants, to choose not to play a series as they refused to recognize the American League as a real league. However, in 1905 the National Commission ordered there to be a year-end series between both leagues henceforth.

Honus Wagner

Going into the 1903 World Series the Pirates were led by Wagner, who batted .355 and drove in 103 runs, as well as player/manager Fred Clarke, who hit .351, and Ginger Beaumont, who hit .341 and led the National League in both runs and hits. The Pirates also had two "aces" on the mound in Sam Leever and Deacon Phillippe, who won 25 and 24 games respectively.

The Americans were led by standout pitcher Cy Young, who won 28 games that year, as well as Bill Dineen and Long Tom Hughes, both of whom won at least 20 games. At bat, Boston was led by outfielders Buck Freeman, Patsy Dougherty and Chick Stahl. Though they had a very good year, the Americans were considered the underdogs because no one thought an American League team could play as well as a National League one.

Pittsburgh took two of the first three games (7-3 and 4-2), played at the Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston, and went home up two games to one, needing only three wins to capture the title. The Americans played well in the two losses, but did manage to shut the Pirates out (3-0), in Game 2. They headed back to Pittsburgh vowing to play better, which they did.

The Pirates would take a three-games-to-two lead in the series, winning Game 4 by a score of 5-4, but that's when Cy Young and Bill Dineen took the series by the throat. The Americans won the next three in Pittsburgh (11-2, 6-3 and 7-3), with Young winning Games 5 and 7, and finished off the Pirates back in Boston, in Game 8, winning 3-0 behind a Dineen masterpiece.

The Americans had "shocked" the baseball world by defeating the National League Champions so handily, but the truth was the Pirates weren't the same team that had waltzed through the N.L. Otto Krueger, a versatile utility-type player, was hit in the head in mid-September and couldn't play much; 16 game winner Eddie Doheny had a nervous breakdown and was committed to an insane asylum; Sam Leever injured his pitching arm and made it worse by skeet-shooting; and, worst of all, Honus Wagner tried playing through a sore leg and thumb and was never near 100%. The Pirates would definitely contend with a "World Series hangover" the following year, finishing in fourth place (87-66), behind the New York Giants.

For the next few years the Pirates would continue to play well, led by the same star players that had brought them to the World Series in 1903, but they would finish either second or third through 1908. In 1909, however, there would be no denying them. During this time the Pirates were outgrowing Exhibition Park and would be in need of a new home, which would come mid-way through the 1909 season.

Forbes Field:

Forbes Field, Early 1900's

As far back as 1903 Dreyfuss had been looking for a spot to build a bigger ballpark for the fans, who were flocking to Exhibition Park to see the Pirates play. In the end, he purchased land in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, near Carnegie Library and Schenley Park, as his new home. Critics quickly deemed it a folly, as it was going to be located outside the center of the city, a ten-minute trolley ride, and said no one would come. Undeterred, Dreyfuss broke ground on January 1, 1909; the stadium was built in 122 days and opened for business on June 30, 1909.

Unlike most ballparks of the era, Dreyfuss announced he would not build his new park out of wood, but rather a three-tiered stadium of steel and concrete to ensure it lasted longer. The ballpark would feature the newest modern amenities, such as ramps and elevators for the fans, a room for the umpires and a visitors' clubhouse that was similar to the one the home team used, though the scoreboard would still be operated by hand.  Many in the press urged Dreyfuss to name the new park after himself, but he declined, instead choosing to honor General John Forbes, who captured Fort Duquesne from the French and re-named it Fort Pitt, in 1758, during the French and Indian War.

Forbes Field would seat 22,000 on its Opening Day, but that would increase to 41,000 in 1925 and fluctuate until the final capacity of 35,000 by 1970. The playing field was larger than most parks of the time, due to the fact that it was said Dreyfuss "cheap" home runs. The original dimensions of the field were 360' to Left-Field, 462' to Center-Field and 376' to Right-Field. Over the years the fences were changed; in 1925 the right-field grandstand was extended into fair territory and reduced the line to 300 feet, but Dreyfuss erected a 28-foot-high screen to keep the ball in the field of play; in 1947 the left-field area dropped from 365' to 335' and 406' to 376' in center. The final dimensions were listed at 365' to Left-Field, 406' to Left-Center, 457' to Center, 436' to Right-Center and 375' to Right-Field. Based on these configurations, over-the-wall home runs were far and few between, though there were many triples and inside-the-park-home-runs. Supposedly, the longest hit ball in the history of the park was Babe Ruth's final career home run (#714) and it traveled over the wall in right (375 feet) and cleared the roof (89 feet high) as well.

Aside from the Pirates, Forbes Field was called home by the University of Pittsburgh (1909-1924); the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues (1922-1939); the Pittsburgh Pirates/Steelers of the N.F.L. (1933-1963); the American Football League's Pittsburgh Americans (1936-1937); the one-year N.F.L. wonder Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Steagles (a combination of the Steelers and the Eagles, 1943); another one-year N.F.L. merger, Card-Pitt (a combination of the Chicago Cardinals and the Steelers); and, finally, professional soccer's Pittsburgh Phantoms (1967). Also during its lifetime Forbes Field was used for boxing matches and a multitude of other events in the city.

Forbes Field opened on June 30, 1909 with the Cubs besting the Pirates, 3-2. Though the Pirates would lose that day, there wouldn't be much losing during the season. They would finish with a record of 110-42 and would easily coast to the National League title and face Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

Wagner and Cobb: 1909 World Series
Though this was the Pirates' first trip back to the World Series since 1903, they were led by the brilliance of Honus Wagner (who led the league with a .339 average and 100 runs batted in); it was the Tigers' third straight year reaching the Fall Classic, having lost the previous two. Detroit's star outfielder Ty Cobb was but one player in a vaunted Detroit attack and he was the three time- defending American League batting champion.

The teams would trade wins through the first six games, with the Pirates winning Games 1, 3 and 5 (4-1, 8-6, 8-4), and the Tigers taking Games 2, 4 and 6 (7-2, 5-0, 5-4), setting up a winner-take-all Game 7, in Detroit. For the final game, Pittsburgh leaned on a rookie pitcher named Babe Adams, who had already won two games in the series, while the Tigers went with "Wild" Bill Donovan.

Donovan, and the Tigers, got off to a horrid start, hitting one and walking six in the first two innings. He lasted three, but left the game on the wrong side of a 2-0 score, which the Pirates would build on with two more in the fourth, three in the sixth and one in the eighth. Adams would go the distance in the 8-0 rout and the Pirates had their first World Series Championship.

1909 World Champions
Wagner would be the star of the series, hitting .333, with six stolen bases and seven RBI's, while Cobb would hit a measly .231, but led the Tigers with six RBIs. Though they would play many more years, neither player would ever again return to the World Series, leaving Wagner with one championship and Cobb with none.

The decline of the Pirates would coincide with the decline of their star shortstop. The team would finish second, third, or fourth between 1910 and 1913, but fall off a cliff after that, finishing seventh, fifth, sixth and eighth from 1914-1917, respectively. 1917 was as bad a year as the club endured, as they ended the regular season with a record of 51-103.

Pie Traynor

The Pirates would right the ship, so to speak, between 1918 and 1924, as they would never finish below fourth (1918-1920 and 1922) and as high as second, in 1921. Though they finished third in 1923 and 1924, they were destined for good years to come, led by players such as outfielders Kiki Cuyler and Max Carey, and third baseman Harold Joseph "Pie" Traynor, each of whom would one day be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Everything came together for the young Pirates in 1925; they led the National League for most of the year and in the end they won the pennant, over the Giants, by 8 1/2 games. Seven of the eight starters would bat over .300, led by Cuyler with a .357 average and followed by Carey (.343) and Traynor, at .320. The pitching staff, led by Lee Meadows' 19 wins, was also rock solid as they did not have a starter with fewer than 15 victories.

Their opponents in the Fall Classic would be the defending Champion Washington Senators. The Senators roster was loaded with talent as well, led by Hall of Fame players Walter Johnson and Stan Coveleski (pitchers), Leon Allen "Goose" Goslin, Sam Rice (outfielders) and Bucky Harris (Second Base/Manager); they would be a formidable foe.

Washington would win Games 1, 3 and 4 (4-1, 4-3, 4-0) behind Johnson, while the Pirates would win Game 2, 3-2. Game 3 would have a controversial play, that would be a bone of contention to Pirates fans for years. In the eighth inning Pirate Earl Smith sent a line drive screaming into the Right-Field stands. Sam Rice ran the ball down with a diving catch, but ended up in the stands. He did not return to the playing field for about ten seconds and the enraged Pirates contested that he did not catch the ball, but was looking for, and finally found it, before emerging from the stands. The call stood and Rice would answer questions about it the rest of his life. Rice left a sealed letter for the Hall of Fame, to be opened after his death, which read:

"At no time did I lose possession of the ball."

Heading into Game 5 the Pirates were staring at a three games to one deficit, but came roaring back to win the next two, 6-3 and 3-2, evening up the series and sending it to a dramatic Game 7.
Game 7 started out poorly for the Pirates, who found themselves in an early hole after giving up four runs in the first inning. They would cut the lead to 4-3 in the third, but the Senators would score two more in the top of the fourth. After scoring one in the bottom of the inning, the Pirates found themselves down 6-4, with nine outs to go. That's when Senators shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh made an error in the seventh and eighth innings, opening the floodgates for the Pirates to plate four unearned runs and win the game 9-7, and the series four games to three.

Playing conditions that day were no help, as rain poured down over the field and turned it into a mud hole. The losing pitcher, in relief, was Johnson who was aiming to join a select group of hurlers who had won three World Series games. In the end, though, he couldn't overcome Peckinpaugh's errors, or his exhaustion and injured right leg.

The Pirates would fall to third place in 1926, suffering, it seems, from that same World Series hangover that had afflicted them after the 1909 win.  But they would rebound to win the 1927 National League Pennant and return to the World Series...and their prize for doing so was a date with what some consider to be the best team in baseball history, the 1927 New York Yankees.

The 1927 Pirates had a core of their 1925 World Series winners back, plus a combination of future Hall of Fame brothers (Lloyd and Paul Waner), in the outfield and Arky Vaughan at shortstop. The pitching was solid and the team had finished 34 games above .500, at 94-60, though they barely squeaked past the Cardinals, who finished 1 1/2 games behind. Yet none of that would help them when facing "Murderer's Row."

1927 World Series

The 1927 Yankees had perhaps the most feared team in baseball history. Miller Huggins managed a group that included hitters Babe Ruth (.356, 60 HRs, 164 RBIs), Lou Gehrig (.373, 47 HRs, 175 RBIs), Tony Lazzeri (.309, 18 HRs, 102 RBIs), Earlie Combs (.356, 6 HRs, 64 RBIs, 137 runs scored, as a lead-off hitter) and Bob Meusel (.337, 8 HRs, 103 RBIs), as well as pitchers Waite Hoyte (22-7, 2.63), Herb Pennock (19-8, 3.00) and Urban Shocker (18-6, 2.84). Rounding out the staff were Dutch Ruther (13-6, 3.38) and George Pipgras (10-3, 4.11); they even boasted a star in the bullpen in Wilcey Moore (19-7, 2.28).  This team would send the manager (Huggins) and six players (Ruth, Gehrig, Combs, Lazzeri, Hoyt and Pennock) to the Hall of Fame. This was not a team to be trifled with, which the Pirates quickly learned.

Legend has it that the Pirates watched the Yankees take batting practice before Game One, at Forbes Field, and were so intimidated that the series was over then and there, but that doesn't seem to mesh with what actually happened.

Game 1 was a back and forth affair with the Yankees scoring in the top of the first and the Pirates answering with a run in the bottom of the inning. The Yankees scored three in the top of the third, but the Pirates cut the lead in half with a run in their half of the inning. In the fifth the teams again traded a run and the game stayed that way 5-3, New York until the Pirates scored one in the bottom of the eighth to cut the lead to one, but they came no closer. In the ninth, the Pirates went down in order and the Yankees had prevailed 5-4.

Games 2 and 3 were Yankees blowouts, with New York winning 6-2 and 8-1, to take a three-games-to-none lead in the series. The Yankees' offense roared to life scoring 14 runs on 20 hits, while Pipgras and Pennock held the Pirates to 3 runs on 10 hits, over 18 innings. It was no longer a question of who was going to win the series, but whether or not the Yankees were going to become the first American League team to sweep a World Series.

For Game 4, in Pittsburgh, Huggins sent out his multi-purpose reliever Wilcey Moore to start the game. In a reversal of Game 1, the Pirates opened the scoring, with a run in the first, and the Yankees tied it in the bottom of the inning. New York would score two in the bottom of the fifth, to take a 3-1 lead, but the Pirates would tie the game with two of their own in the top of the seventh. The game stayed tied into the top of the ninth inning, when Combs walked and Mark Koenig beat out a bunt, putting runners on first and second for Ruth. Pittsburgh reliever Johnny Miljus, who had entered the game in the seventh, then uncorked a wild pitch to put the winning run on third. Pirates manager Bush ordered Ruth intentionally walked to load the bases. The next two Yankees hitters, Gehrig and Meusel, both stuck out, but with two outs and one strike on Tony Lazzeri, Miljus threw another wild pitch that brought Combs home and gave the Yankees a 4-3 lead which they would not relinquish, The Pirate went down in order in the bottom of the ninth and the Yankees were World Champions.

Losing the 1927 World Series was devastating to the Pirates. They had been a good team, had won 90 games and had been rather easily brushed aside by the Yankees. The bitter loss stayed with many of the players for years to come and although they would contend quite a few times, they would never again finish higher than second place, until 1960.

True to form, the Pirates had a World Series hangover in 1928, but bounced back to finish second, 10 1/2 games behind the Cubs, in 1929. Despite a good feeling around the club the team finished in fifth place in 1930 and 1931.

1932 and 1933 saw the Pirates again finish in second place, first to the Cubs and then to the Giants, but the biggest loss was in the front office. On February 5, 1932, owner Barney Dreyfuss passed away at the age of 66, leaving the team to his family, with his widow as the head of the group. The franchise honored Dreyfuss by placing a monument in Center-Field during the 1932 season, where it would stay until it was moved to Three Rivers Stadium and eventually PNC Park.

From 1934-1937 the club would occupy third, fourth and fifth place, with a cumulative record of 330-221, but 1938 would provide a special kind of heartbreak for the team. With Pie Traynor installed as the manager and Honus Wagner as one of the coaches the team came charging out of the gate and would be neck-and-neck with the Cubs all season. Players such as Arky Vaughan, the Waner brothers, Heinie Manush and a cast of others kept the team in the hunt all season long. In the end, however, the pitching faltered and the "Bucs" would finish two games out. The team would not finish this high again for the next six years.

1944 saw the Pirates make yet another run at the National League flag. Manager Frankie Frisch and coach Honus Wagner led the upstart team, who had finished 1943 in fourth place (80-74), to a 90 win season. All Stars such as Rip Sewell (21 wins), Bob Elliot (.297, 10 HRs, 108 RBIs) and Vince DiMaggio led a cast of no-names to an incredible record of 90-63, which would have been good enough had the Cardinals not posted a record of 105-49. This would be Pittsburgh's last hurrah for more than a decade and a half.

The next fifteen years would not be good ones for the Pirates or their fans, who turned out in droves to make "The Bucs" one of the highest attended teams in baseball. The Pirates did have one true superstar during this time, Ralph Kiner, who made his debut on April 12, 1946 and either won or shared the National League Home Run Crown for seven consecutive seasons (1946-1952).

Ralph Kiner
Kiner, who was born in New Mexico in 1922, would become synonymous with the Pirates despite his brief tenure in Pittsburgh. In his rookie year, the outfielder would hit 23 home runs and expand on that after working with future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, who the front office convinced not to retire. Kiner would explode the next year with 51 and build on that, each year winning, or sharing, the HR crown. Kiner grew to be such a power threat that the left field stands, where most of his homers landed, were renamed "Kiner's Corner" in his honor. During his eight years in Pittsburgh, Kiner would bat .280, hit 301 HRs, 153 doubles and 32 triples; unfortunately the team did not produce as prodigiously as he did.

In 1947 the team, which had been owned for almost 50 years by the Dreyfuss family, was sold to a group headed by Indianapolis businessman Frank McKinney, and included singer Bing Crosby and real estate mogul John Galbreath. By 1950 Galbreath would emerge as a majority owner and he and his family would run the team for almost 35 years.  One of McKinney's first moves was to hire former Brooklyn Dodger G.M. Branch Rickey to stabilize the team. Rickey, who had been credited for the creation of the farm system and breaking the color barrier with the signing of Jackie Robinson, immediately went to work on rebuilding the moribund Pirates. He would purge the roster of expensive veterans (such as Kiner, in 1953), and went to work bringing in youngsters such as Vern Law, Dick Groat, Bill Mazeroski and prize outfielder Roberto Clemente.

Between 1948 and 1957 the Pirates would be perennial cellar-dwellers, with the 1952 team finishing an abysmal 42-112, 54 1/2 games out of first. In fact, during this time the club would only have two winning seasons: 1948, when the team went 83-71 and finished in fourth place and 1958. Their cumulative record would be 608-931 and the team would never finish higher than fourth. Making matter worse, Rickey would have to retire after the 1955 season, citing health concerns. As with St Louis and Brooklyn before, Rickey had set the Pirates up for future success by putting into place a tremendous farm and scouting system. Though it would not be known at the time of his leaving, the foundation was set for a stunning World Championship.

In 1958 the Pirates made a huge jump, going from 62 wins the year before to 84. They would challenge the reigning champion Milwaukee Braves all summer, but in the end would finish second, four games back. Led by manager Danny Murtaugh, the club showed off some of the gems that Branch Rickey had drafted and signed, such as Law, Groat, Mazeroski, Virdon and Elroy Face,but the crown jewel would be a man who would become the face of the franchise for years to come, Roberto Clemente.

El Magnifico: Roberto Clemente

Born in Puerto Rico in 1934, Clemente's talent allowed for him to become a professional baseball player at the age of 18, when he signed a contract to play winter ball, in his native land, for the Cangrejeros de Santurce. He was a bench player for the first season, but made the starting lineup the following year, 1953. It was at this time that the Brooklyn Dodgers offered him a professional contract to join their organization.

By 1954 Clemente was signed by the Dodgers and sent to the Triple-A Montreal Royals, as there was no immediate room in the Dodgers' outfield. While in Montreal, Clyde Sukeforth, a scout for the Pirates noticed Clemente and advised the front office that they should look into drafting him in the 1954 rookie draft, which would take place in November. After hitting .287 that summer, Pittsburgh did just that and Clemente became Pirates property.

Clemente did not return to the minors after becoming a member of the Pirates, he made his debut on April 17, 1955 and proceeded to hit .255, with 5 HRs and 47 RBIs in his rookie year. The transition from Puerto Rico to America was a difficult one for Clemente, who felt the backlash of not only racial tension from the media and some teammates, but the extra disadvantage of not speaking English very well.

Clemente would gradually become a force in the heart of the Pirates order, averaging .280, 5 HRs and 44 RBIs in his first five years. He would become one of the game's best defensive outfielders, but it was at the plate where he grew by leaps and bounds, as he would never hit below 10 HRs, and only bat under .300 once for the rest of his career.

As Clemente's career improved each year so did the fortune of the Pirates, who went from eighth in his rookie year, to second by 1958. 1959 saw the team slip back to fourth, but 1960 would be a magical year for the team and its fans.

The Pirates started making news long before taking the field for Spring Training in 1960, by discussing a trade that never happened. During the winter meetings, the team agreed to trade shortstop Dick Groat to the Kansas City A's in exchange for outfielder Roger Maris. When manager Danny Murtaugh got wind of the proposed deal he immediately told the front office he didn't want to lose Groat and the deal was scuttled. Maris was eventually traded to the Yankees, where he teamed with Mickey Mantle, and helped turn a good team into a great one.

All through the 1960 season the Pirates would battle back and forth with the Milwaukee Braves, led by Henry Aaron, and the St. Louis Cardinals. The teams would fight down to the final weeks of September, but when the dust cleared the Pirates would finish in first place, seven games ahead of Milwaukee and nine in front of St. Louis, and meet Roger Maris and the New York Yankees in the Fall Classic.
1960 World Series Program

As the 1960 World Series opened the Yankees were considered by all to be a heavy favorite. They had just won their tenth pennant in the last twelve years and were bolstered by Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, as well as 1960 M.V.P. Roger Maris and Elston Howard, considered by some to be the best catcher in the game.  The Pirates roster was formidable, led by Clemente, Mazeroski, Bill Virdon, Gino Cimoli, Dick Schofield, Harvey Haddix, Dick Groat and Clem Labine, but no one put it on par with the Yankees.

Game 1 started off auspiciously for the Pirates when Roger Maris drilled a home run to open the scoring, but the Bucs bounced back in the bottom of the inning, scoring three runs off Yankees' starter Art Ditmar, and taking a lead they would never relinquish. They would score two more in the fourth and one more in the sixth, eventually holding off the Yankees' late comeback, to win the game, 6-4.

Games 2 and 3 saw the Yankees' firepower on full display as Mickey Mantle would hit three home runs and the offense would pound out twenty-six runs to the Pirates three. By the time the Series reached Game 5 it was assumed the Yankees would pick up where they left off and put a stranglehold on the Championship. That assumption would be wrong.

As in Game 1 the Yankees would score first, on a Moose Skowron home run in the fourth, but the Pirates would strike for three runs in the fifth and another in the seventh to take a 3-1 lead. After the Yanks cut the deficit to one, with a run in the seventh, Elroy Face closed the door the rest of the way and the Pirates had inexplicably tied the series at two games each.

For Game 5, Yankees manager Casey Stengel went back to Game 1 starter Art Ditmar, but he couldn't get out of the second inning, leaving after giving up three runs and putting his team behind 3-0. The Yankees would score one in the bottom of the inning and another in the fourth, but the Pirates would add one in the third and one in the ninth to take a three-games-to-two lead and position themselves one win from an improbable World Series Championship.

Game 6 was yet another Yankees blowout. The score was six to nothing after the third inning, and then New York slowly pulled away. They would score two runs in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings to breeze to a 12-0 victory and set up a deciding-winner-take-all Game 7 at Forbes Field.

For the seventh game the Pirates sent Vern Law, the winner of Games 1 and 4, to the mound, while the Yankees countered with Game 2 winner Bob Turley. Turley was tremendously ineffective and was gone after one inning, down 2-0. The Pirates added two more in the second, before the Yankees would score one in the fifth and four in the sixth to take a 5-4 lead. They would add two more in the eighth, which looked insurmountable as Pittsburgh came to bat in the bottom of the inning...and that's when things got crazy.

The Pirates led off the eighth inning with a pinch-hit single by Cimoli. The next batter was Bill Virdon who hit a ground-ball to short, that seemed destined to be a double play, but it struck a pebble on the rock-hard infield and took a bad bounce, hitting Tony Kubek in the throat. Both runners were safe and Kubek had to be removed from the game. Dick Groat then singled in a run, but Bob Skinner was erased on a sacrifice bunt, which moved both runners up. Rocky Nelson then lifted a fly ball to right, which Maris easily caught, but Virdon stayed put at third, not wanting to challenge Maris' arm.

Up next was Clemente and after two quick strikes he hit a Baltimore Chop down the first base line, which was fielded by Skowron. Yankees pitcher Jim Coates could not get to first quick enough and Clemente had beaten the toss and allowed Virdon to score, cutting the lead to 7-6. Hal Smith followed that with a three-run home run, giving the Pirates a 9-7 lead heading into the ninth.

The Pirates would send Bob Friend to the mound to close out the game, but he couldn't stop the Yankees offense, which tied the score after two quick singles, a Maris foul-out, a Berra ground-out and another single by Mantle. Pittsburgh would get the next batter, but the lead was blown and the game was tied going to the bottom of the ninth.

Mazeroski's HR Wins It
After coming into the game in the crazy bottom of the eighth, the Yankees sent Ralph Terry back to the hill for the bottom of the inning. The first batter he would face was Bill Mazeroski, who lined a 1-0 pitch over the left field wall for a game-ending, World Series-ending home run. As Mazeroski floated around the bases the Yankees stared in disbelief at the wall.

In the end, the Pirates had been outhit (91-60), out-averaged (.338-.256), out-homered (10-4) and still won. The deciding factor for the Pirates may not have even been a decision they made, but it was one that had repercussions nonetheless. Yankees' manager Casey Stengel had forgone the chance to pitch ace Whitey Ford in Game 1, and had "saved" him for Game 3. This kept Ford from pitching in three games (1,4 and 7), and limited him to Games 3 and 6, which was a monumental error in judgement when looking at Ford's stats (two games started, two games completed, two games won, 18 innings pitched, NO earned runs, NO runs against). It was a decision that would cost Stengel his job during the off-season.

The 1960 World Series shocked the baseball world and made heroes of the Pirates, most notably Mazeroski, and though they beat the vaunted Yankees they would come no closer to returning to the Fall Classic for the rest of the decade. In the next 8 years the Pirates would finish in third place three times, fourth place once, sixth place three times, and seventh and eighth place, once each. Their record would be 753-696, but the fans would still hang onto that magical fall of 1960.

Three Rivers Stadium:
Three Rivers Stadium

As far back as 1948 the Pirates entertained the notion of a new stadium, but the traction wasn't made until the late 1950s and early 1960s. Forbes Field, which had been opened in 1909, was the oldest ballpark in the country and in 1958, the team sold it to the University of Pittsburgh who, in turn, leased it back to the team until a replacement could be built.

A spot on the north side of the city was approved in late 1958, which coincidentally was the site of the old Exposition Park, where the Pirates had vacated in 1909. Unfortunately, political red tape kept the stadium from being finalized for ten years, but once ground was broken on April 25, 1968, it took two years until the building was completed and the Pirates could move in.

Three Rivers Stadium was named after its construction location, which was the point at which the three rivers of Pittsburgh (the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio), all come together. The original target date to open the facility was in May of 1970, but failure to install the lights on time pushed the date back to July.
The design of the stadium was one that was spreading throughout the country at the time, similar to Riverfront Stadium (Cincinnati), Busch Memorial Stadium (St. Louis) and the Astrodome (Houston), which called for a multi-functional design to allow for more than one sport to be played in the facility. Due to similar designs this type of stadium became known as "cookie-cutter" ballparks, as they all looked and felt the same when the fans were inside.

The dimensions of the playing field were symmetrical, with Right and Left-Fields being 335 feet from Home Plate, Right and Left-Center-Fields being 375 feet and Center-Field being 400. The stadium originally sat 50,500 for baseball and 50,350 for football, but the sight-lines were much better for football, as a majority of the baseball seats (almost 70%), were in foul territory.

Being a multi-purpose stadium, Three Rivers was the home to not only the Pirates, but the Steelers as well. Both teams began play there in 1970 and stayed until new, separate facilities were built for each. The stadium also was the home of the Pittsburgh Maulers of the USFL in 1984 and the University of Pitt Panthers in 2000. Aside from sporting events the stadium hosted many outdoor concerts, such as; Led Zeppelin, The Doobie Brothers, The Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, Guns N' Roses, the Grateful Dead and the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival. The largest audience in city history, 65,935, showed up on August 11, 1985, to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform on their "Born in The USA Tour."

Three Rivers Stadium opened its doors on July 16, 1970, when the Pirates hosted the Cincinnati Reds in an afternoon game. 48,846 fans showed up to see Dock Ellis take the mound and throw the first pitch, a strike, but they sadly watched the Reds win the game, 3-2. Nevertheless, the team would give the fans a fun summer, finishing 16 games over .500, with a record of 89-73 and winning the National League Eastern Division. Unfortunately, they would be swept out of the playoffs by the Reds, losing all three games played in the best-of-five-series. This may have left the fans disappointed, but it marked a resurgence of sorts for the team, who would finish either first or second every year until 1979, except for 1973 when they finished third.

1971 was the Pirates' first full year in their new home, and they did not disappoint. Led by 1960 hold-overs Mazeroski, Clemente and manager Danny Murtaugh, the team rocketed out of the gate and battled to a 97-win season, easily outpacing the Cardinals, who won 90 games that year. Though it was the "old guard" that led the way, the farm system had been cultivating young talent and those players more than held their own over the past few years, making the Pirates a dominant team. A pitching staff consisting of Steve Blass, Dock Ellis and Bruce Kison would take the mound and hold the lead given to them, more often than not, by the above-named players, as well as Manny Sanguillen, Richie Hebner, Rennie Stennett, Vic Davilillo, Al Oliver and Willie Stargell, who were all kids off the Pittsburgh farm. By the end of the year the Pirates had once again finished in first place in the National League Eastern Division, and this time they drew the San Francisco Giants as their opponents for the Championship Series.

The teams would spilt the first two games, played in San Francisco, with the Giants winning the first, 5-4, and the Pirates coming back to take the second, by a score of 9-4. Returning home to Pittsburgh was just exactly what the Pirates needed  as they took the next two games, 2-1 and 9-5, to finish off the Giants and move on to the World Series, where the defending champion Baltimore Orioles were waiting for them.

The O's were appearing in their third straight World Series, having lost to the Mets in 1969 and beating the Cincinnati Reds in 1970. They had won the last 11 games of the regular season, outdistancing the Tigers by 12 games and sweeping the A's in the American League Championship Series. Led by four 20-game winning pitchers (Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson, Jim Palmer and Dave McNally) and the hitting of Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell and Mark Belanger, the Orioles had won 100 or more games for the third straight season and were the favorites to win the Fall Classic.

The Pirates certainly did look overmatched, losing the first two games in Baltimore, 5-3 and 11-3, but took the next three, back home, by scores of 5-1, 4-3 and 4-0. Game 5, back in Baltimore, saw the Pirates jump out to a 2-0 lead through five innings, but they couldn't hold it and the Orioles tied the score with a run in the sixth and another in the seventh on a home run by Bob Johnson and an RBI single by Davey Johnson. In the bottom of the ninth, the O's had runners on second and third with two outs, but failed to capitalize, while the Bucs loaded the bases in the top of the tenth, but also failed to push a run across. Baltimore's Frank Robinson would work a one-out walk in the bottom of the tenth and go to third on a single, off the bat of Merv Rettenmund. He would barely beat the throw home, on Brooks Robinson's short fly to center, but it was enough to give the Orioles the win and tie the series, forcing a deciding seventh game.

For Game 7 both teams would send an ace to the mound, McNally for the O's and Blass for the Pirates. Neither team would score for the first three innings, but Clemente put the Bucs on the board first with a solo home run. The Pirates would push another across in the top of the eighth when Willie Stargell was driven home by a Jose Pagan double. Baltimore would cut the lead in half in the bottom of the inning, but Blass would shut the door after that, picking up his second complete game win of the series, and sending the Pirates to a World Championship.

Clemente Triples To Left: 1971 World Series
Though the Orioles were heavily favored this series was very evenly matched; the difference proved to be Roberto Clemente, who played like a man on a mission. In the seven games, Clemente would come to the plate 29 times with 12 hits, 2 doubles, a triple, 2 home runs and a .414 batting average, which would win him the World Series M.V.P. Award, the first ever for a Latino player. If he had flown "under the radar" earlier in his career, the baseball world certainly sat up and took notice now.

Unlike previous years, the Pirates did not suffer any World Series let-downs. Picking right up where they left off, the team would win the National League West in 1972, beating out the Cubs by 11 games, but falling to the Reds in five games in a hard-fought Championship Series. What was most heartbreaking for the team, and their fans, was the fact that the Pirates led 3-2 with three outs to go in the ninth inning of Game 5. Reds catcher Johnny Bench tied the score on a home run and the inning spiraled out of control from there. Tony Perez singled and was replaced by a pinch runner, George Foster, who went to second when the next batter singled. A long fly ball moved Foster to third, where he would stay when the next hitter popped out to the infield, but a wild pitch would send him home with the series-winning run, and send Pittsburgh home for the winter where a much crueler fate awaited them.

On December 23, 1972, Nicaragua's capital city was wracked by a devastating earthquake and when it was discovered that three flights loaded with aid for the people had never reached the people in need (because they had been had been diverted by corrupt officials), Roberto Clemente, who spent his off-seasons heavily involved in charity work, decided to get involved. On New Year's Eve, Clemente chartered his own plane, helped load it with relief supplies and decided to be on the flight himself, to ensure the supplies reached the people so desperately in need. What he didn't know was that the plane, a DC-7, had a history of mechanical problems, which were exacerbated by the fact that when it was fully loaded was 4,200 lbs overweight. A few minutes after take-off the plane crashed into the ocean, off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. A few days later the body of the pilot and parts of the plane were found, along with Clemente's suitcase, but nothing else, including Clemente's body, were ever recovered. He was 38 years old.

Clement's Last Game
At the time of his death, Clemente had a lifetime batting average of .317, 240 HRs and
1,305 RBIs. He had recorded 3,000 hits, the final one coming on the last at bat of the last regular season game of his life, was a 15-time All Star, 2-time World Champion, 12-time Gold Glove winner, 4-time batting champion, N.L. M.V.P. (1966) and a World Series M.V.P. (1971). The Baseball Hall of Fame waived the 5-year waiting period and enshrined him in 1973, making him the first Latino player inducted into the Hall.

Clemente's death was not something that the Pirates were able to work through and the 1973 season was played out in a foggy haze, with the team finishing third in the Eastern Division, two games under .500, at 80-82. Even though the Pirates finished below .500, the division was so weak that they were only 2.5 games behind the winners, the New York Mets, which would bode well for the team, as they were still young and had quite a few good years ahead of them.

The Pirates would finish both the 1974 and 1975 seasons as winners of the National League East, they would run into the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati's "Big Red Machine," in the Championship Series. In 1974 they were badly outclassed by LA, losing in four games by a combined score of 20-3, while in '75 the Reds would sweep the three-game series and go on to beat the Boston Red Sox in an epic World Series that some refer to as the greatest ever played.

The next three years saw the Pirates stay in contention, but never able to win their division and make the playoffs. In all three years they would finish second, behind the Phillies. Though the team was frustrated, and growing older, they vowed to win the division in 1979.

The Pirates, now bolstered by a line-up that included pitchers Jim Bibby, John Candelaria, Grant Jackson and Kent Tekulve, who were backed by position players Manny Sanguillen, Dale Berra (Yogi's son), Tim Foli, Bill Madlock, Lee Lacy, John Milner and Dave Parker, were all led by veteran Willie "Pops" Stargell. It was Stargell who rallied the team around the memory of Clemente and the song "We Are Family," by Sister Sledge, to a 98-win Eastern Division Championship over the Montreal Expos and a date with the Cincinnati Reds in the Championship Series.

Though the Reds were a team that had also grown older, and did not resemble "The Big Red Machine" of a few years back, they had won 90 games and beaten out the Houston Astros for the N.L. West by 1.5 games. Though the Pirates would sweep the series in three games, it was closer than is evident at a quick glance. The first two games were won in extra innings and the final contest saw the Pirates pull away for a 7-1 win and a trip back to the World Series, where they would again face the Baltimore Orioles.

Like the Pirates, the Orioles were a much different team than had battled for the 1971 World Series. The only holdovers from that squad were manager Earl Weaver, pitcher Jim Palmer and shortstop Mark Belanger. Now the team was led by a pitching staff of Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, Dennis and Tippy Martinez and Tim Stoddard, while leading the offensive charge were Doug DeCinces, Lee May, Eddie Murray and Ken Singleton. The Orioles, with 102 wins, outdistanced the Milwaukee Brewers by eight games and the New York Yankees, who had lost captain Thurman Munson to an airplane crash back on August 2, by 11.5.

The Series was predicted as a close one and the first two games did nothing to change that feeling. The O's took the first game, 5-4, behind Mike Flanagan, after scoring all their runs in the first inning and holding off the Pirates comeback. Game 2 went to the Pirates, who scored a run in the ninth, on a pinch-hit, two out single to win the game 2-1 and even the series at one game apiece.

Games 3 and 4, back in Pittsburgh, went to Baltimore (8-4 and 9-6), who promptly took a stranglehold on the series at three games to one. Game 4 would prove to be the turning point, as the Pirates squandered a 6-3 lead in the eighth by allowing Baltimore to score six unanswered runs and take the game, 9-6. This infuriated Stargell, who called a team meeting and stressed focus and playing "Pirate Baseball." Stargell's clubhouse meeting worked, as the Pirates came back to take Game 5, 7-1,  and Game 6, 4-0, which evened the series and forced a winner-take-all, Game 7.

The deciding game would pit Grant Jackson Vs Scott McGregor, with both pitchers trading zeroes for the first two innings before Rich Dauer would give the O's a 1-0 lead on a solo home run. The Pirates would score two in the sixth and add two more as insurance in the ninth,  to win the game 4-1 and the series, four games to three. The man of the night was Pittsburgh's Stargell, who went 4-5, with a single, two doubles and a home run. Though the series was a hard-fought seven game affair, it was what Baltimore didn't do that cost them; the Pirates would outscore the O's, 32-26, but Baltimore would outhit Pittsburgh, 81-54. Pittsburgh would make the most of their men on base, while the Orioles would squander many an opportunity, no one more so than Eddie Murray who went 0-21 after Game 2. The Pirates would take the winter to bask in the glow of another World Championship, which was a good thing because they would never again reach the summit of the baseball world.
1979 World Champions

The decade of the 1980' was not a kind one to the Pirates or their fans. The team's farm system, which had carried it from the late 1950s through the mid 1970s had dried up and the Pirates could no longer rely on the pipeline of young talent funneled up to the big club. From 1980 through 1989 the team would finish above third just once (second in 1983) and would sport a record of 732-825, finishing dead last for three consecutive years, 1984-1986. After the 1985 season the Galbreath family would sell the team to a consortium of local business groups, known as the Pittsburgh Associates, to keep the franchise from being relocated. In 1986 the team promoted Jim Leyland to manager and hoped his guidance would resurrect the flailing franchise and restore it to a place of prominence.

The team, under Leyland's steady and patient approach, would climb out of the cellar in 1987, finishing in fifth rather than sixth, and would reach second in 1988. Led by young players such as Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke (also known as the "Outfield of Dreams), as well as Jay Bell, Sid Breame, Jose Lind, Mike LaValliere and pitchers John Smiley and  Doug Drabek, big things were expected from the Pirates in 1989. Unfortunately, injuries and uninspired play led to a disappointing season,in which the team dropped back down to fifth, but brighter days were just over the horizon as the 1990s dawned.

Barry Bonds
In 1990 the Pirates would win 95 games, which would be the most in the National League, and were led by N.L. M.V.P. Barry Bonds, who would hit .301 with 32 doubles, 3 triples, 33 home runs and 114 R.B.I.s. This would be his fist M.V.P. season and he practically carried the Pirates on his back to the Championship Series, where they would meet their old foes, the Cincinnati Reds. The Pirates were a favorite to win and return to the World Series for the first time since 1979, but the Reds, who were led by manager Lou Pinella and future Hall of Fame shortstop Bary Larkin,  right fielder Paul O'Neill, left fielder Eric Davis and pitchers Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble, Randy Meyers ("the Nasty Boys"), surprised the Pirates and took the series 4-2, en route to sweeping the Oakland A's in the World Series.

Going home earlier than they thought they should be sent the Pirates into the 1991 season feeling they had something to prove to the baseball world, and their play on the field showed that edge. The Pirates would finish with 98 wins, the best in either league, easily handling the National League East over the Cardinals, by 14 games. Their opponent in the NLCS this year would be the Atlanta Braves, who had finished with 94 wins. The Pirates were again led by Bonds, who finished second in M.V.P. voting, and returned to the Championship Series as prohibitive favorites due to their experience from the year before.

The Pirates had been to the NLCS the year before, and were the first team to win back-to-back division championships since the Phillies of 1976-1978, who were expected to reach this series. It was the Braves, however, who had finished dead last in their division in 1990, that left many scratching their heads.

The Braves were a young and upcoming team, built on starting pitchers John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery, with Mike Stanton and Mark Wohlers coming out of the pen, that had taken the baseball world by surprise. They were managed by Bobby Cox and balanced out with strong defense and timely hitting, but Pittsburgh was supposed to be able to handle them. The key words were "supposed to be."

The Pirates won Game 1 handily, beating Atlanta 5-1 at Three Rivers Stadium. This may have led to a bit of overconfidence as the Braves came back in the next game and returned the favor, 1-0, behind a beautifully pitched game from Steve Avery.

Back in Atlanta for Game 3, the Braves demolished the Pirates, 10-3, scoring six runs in the first three innings and never looking back. Game 4 saw the Pirates tie the series, but not before giving up two runs in the first inning and having to go to extra innings before winning it with an RBI in the top of the tenth inning. Pittsburgh would regain the lead in the series by winning the last game in Atlanta, 1-0, behind their own beautifully pitched game by Zane Smith. The Pirates were heading home, up 3-2 in the series and needing one more win to move on to the World Series. Little did they know that they were just going home to go home.

Game 6 may have been one of the best pitched games in the history of the NLCS. Avery and Drabek matched zeroes for eight innings while the players and the fans sat on their hands in nervous anticipation. In the top of the ninth the Braves' catcher Greg Olson doubled home Ron Gant and the Braves would end up winning the game, 1-0, and tying the series at three games each. It was the third straight 1-0 game of the series and set up what should have been an exciting Game 7, but that was not to be.

For the deciding game the Pirates sent twenty-game winner John Smiley to the mound and before many of the crowd could sit down he had surrendered three runs. The Braves would add another in the sixth and the Pirates would lose the game, and the series, after having failed to score in the final 22 1/3 innings of the series. It was back to the drawing board for 1992.

At the start of the 1992 campaign, the Pirates vowed to finish the job they had started each of the last two years. They would use the frustration of failure as fuel for the fire and cruise to a third straight division title, with 96 wins. Barry Bonds would again be the catalyst, winning his second N.L. M.V.P. in the last three years. The Pirates would finish 9 games ahead of Montreal, with the second-best record in baseball, two games behind the Braves. They would return to the NLCS for the third straight year, once again facing Atlanta. There was pressure for the Pirates to win this series, not just because they had lost the last two, but because they were facing the financial pressure to keep this team together after having lost Bobby Bonilla to free agency the year before and having Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek as soon-to-be free agents.

The series, beginning in Atlanta, couldn't have started worse for the Pirates, as they lost the first two games, 5-1 and 13-5, to John Smoltz and Steve Avery. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield closed the gap to two games to one with his Game 3, 3-2, win, but the Braves took Game 4, 6-4, behind Smoltz who appeared to have put a stranglehold on the series.

Games 5 and 6 saw the Pirates come roaring back, winning 7-1 and 13-4, as Wakefield notched his second win of the series and Pittsburgh found a way to get to Avery. This set up yet another winner-take-all game, which would go down as one of the greatest NLCS games ever played.

Game 7 would feature the third pitching match-up pitting Drabek, who had been less than impressive in the series, and John Smoltz, who had won both of his previous starts. The Pirates struck first, in the opening inning, after a walk, a double and a sacrifice fly, to take a 1-0 lead. After that neither pitcher gave up a run until the sixth, when the Pirates made it 2-0 on a Van Slyke single. The closest the Braves came to breaking through was in the bottom of the inning, when they loaded the bases with none out and then proceeded to line into an unassisted double play and a fly ball out to left. Drabek was easily pitching his best game of the series and had the Braves down, 2-0, heading into the bottom of the ninth.

Drabek, tiring, was sent out to finish what he started and promptly gave up a lead-off double. The next batter, David Justice, hit a ground-ball to sure-handed second baseman Jose Lind, who unexpectedly booted it, which put runners on first and third with none out. Drabek then walked Sid Bream to load the bases, before Leyland removed him for reliever Stan Belinda.

Belinda recorded the first out of the inning by getting Ron Gant to fly to left, but a run came in, making the score 3-1. Belinda then walked Damon Berryhill to reload the bases and Braves manager Bobby Cox called for Brian Hunter to pinch hit. Hunter swung at the second pitch and popped the ball up to the infield for the second out, putting the Pirates one out away from advancing to the World Series. With the pitcher's spot due up, Cox again went to his bench and used Francisco Cabrera as his second straight pinch hitter.

Belinda's first two offerings were balls and the third was lined hard down the left field line. Seeing this, Andy
"The Slide"
Van Slyke in center motioned to Barry Bonds, in left field, to play shallower, but Bonds ignored him (some reports say that Bonds gave Van Slyke the middle finger, but this has never been corroborated) and the very next pitch was lined to the spot Van Slyke had wanted Bonds to set up in. Justice came home with the tying run and Breame was waived around third in an attempt to take the lead. Bonds came up with the ball, but had to throw across his body, which led to the throw being up the first base line, away from catcher Mike LaValliere who had to grab the ball and reach back to try and tag Breame. It was this slightly off-line throw that  allowed the slow-footed Breame to get in ahead of the tag and score what proved to be the third run of the inning. The Pirates did bat in the ninth, but it was a mere formality, as Jeff Reardon shut the door and snuffed out the Pirates hopes.

1992 was the Pirates' last glimmer of hope for the next twenty years. After being three outs away from a World Series berth and falling short again, the team lost Bonds and Drabek to free agency that winter and Van Slyke during the next off-season. The team decided to go into full rebuild mode, but they never imagined it would last twenty years.

Between 1993 and 2000 the team would finish 554 and 872 and only three times above fourth place (third in 1994 and 1999, and second in 1997). The one saving grace during this time was the decision to build a new ballpark, which quickly became one of MLB's crown jewels.

PNC Park:
PNC Park From The Allegheny River

As far back as 1991 the club started to look into the possibility of a new ballpark on the city's north side. Three Rivers Stadium had been built for its ability to house more than one sport and become a multi-purpose facility, but the age of "retro ballparks," which started with Camden Yards in Baltimore, had showed that a one-team facility could not only be economically feasible, but would generate money as well, if done correctly. The discussions took on a serious tone after Tom McClatchy took over ownership and spearheaded the project. Eventually the site that was selected was just upriver from the Pirates' original home, Exposition Park, and ground was broken in early 1999.

Originally, the thought was floated to name the new park after Roberto Clemente, but the naming rights were purchased by Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank and the city then decided to rename the Sixth Street Bridge, just outside the left field gate, as Roberto Clemente Bridge as a compromise. As part of the original plan, the bridge is closed to vehicles two hours before game time so fans can park in the city's "Golden Triangle" and walk across the river to the park, which provides for a unique experience. Two years after breaking ground the park was completed, three months faster than the construction of any of the newer ballparks at that time.
The franchise christened the new park on March 31, 2001, with two exhibition games against the New York Mets, and hosted the first regular season game on April 9th, against old foe Cincinnati. The first hit was a two run home run, by Cincinnati's Sean Casey (a Pittsburgh native), and the Pirates' first hit was a Jason Kendell single in the bottom of the inning. The Reds spoiled the festivities, winning the game 8-2, but the new park was a hit with fans who have come out in droves since that first game.

Unfortunately the new ballpark was a lot nicer to the fans than the actual team was. Between 2001 and 2012 the team would never finish above .500, sporting a record of 820-1121, and never end a season higher than fourth. During this time the roster turned over quite a few times, featuring players such as Oliver Perez, Jason Kendell, Aramis Ramirez, Freddy Sanchez, Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte and many others. The players were not the only ones the organization put through a revolving door; managers Gene Lamont, Lloyd McClendon, Paul Mackanin, Jim Tracy and John Russell all came and left by the beginning of the 2011 season.

Following a dreadful 2010 year, which saw 105 losses, the Pirates brought in Clint Hurdle to be the new skipper. Hurdle was part of the 2007 pennant-winning Colorado Rockies organization and had also been a respected hitting coach for the Texas Rangers. He was a no-nonsense manager who held the players accountable and stressed fundamentals to bring back a much-needed winning atmosphere.

The results could be seen almost immediately; in 2011 the team upped its win total by 15, to 72, from the year before and raised that to 79 in 2012. Led by youngsters such as Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Xavier Paul, Neil Walker, Josh Harrison and Pedro Alvarez, as well as veterans Lyle Overbay, Derrek Lee, Jose Veras and Jason Grilli, the Pirates started to turn things around. In both 2011 and 2012 the team was over the .500 mark after the All Star Break for the first time since 1992, but late-season losing streaks kept them from reaching the mark both years.

By 2013 the team felt it was ready to import some veterans, through free agency and trades, to take them to the next level and Russell Martin, Mark Melancon and Francisco Liriano were all brought in. These players paid immediate dividends as the team was not only above .500, but fighting for a division crown by the time we arrived in town, for their weekend series with the Mets. Things were definitely trending in the right direction at the time of our visit.

"C'mon, let's wake them up," an impatient Ryan implored.
"Let's get ourselves cleaned up first," I said. "That way we're out of the shower and ready to go."
"No hold up," Ryan said, as the light bulb in his head went off. "OK, you go first."
"Why me?" I wanted to know.
"Because I'm hungry," he said, walking towards the kitchen.
"What else is new?" I asked, shaking my head.

After setting him up with some eggs and a bowl of cereal, and another cup of coffee for me, we cleaned up and went to get the others.

"I need a cup of water," Ryan said, giggling.
"Not on your life," I told him. "You've doused Nicky once in the last five hours, that's enough."
"But the look on his face is priceless," he pleaded.
"You'll soak him and that will then become your bed," I warned.
"OK, it's not as funny when you put it that way," he told me, with a heavy sigh.

An hour later, we were all up, fed, showered, in the car and on our way to the ballpark to take the "behind the scenes" tour. The boys weren't the only ones excited; I had heard that PNC Park was one of the most beautiful in the majors. I wouldn't be disappointed. After parking the car and purchasing our tickets we still had almost a half an hour to work with, so we decided to look around the outside of the stadium.

Honus Wagner Statue

The first thing we saw was the statute of Honus Wagner, at the Home Plate Gate. This statue was originally dedicated in 1955 at Schenley Park, outside Forbes Field, then moved to Three Rivers Stadium in 1972. It was brought to PNC when the ballpark opened, and greets fans as they pass by this entrance.

While looking at the Wagner statue, we were informed that three more were placed around the  outside of the ballpark, one each for Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski.

Ryan, Roberto and I
Clemente's representation was also brought from Three Rivers Stadium, having been unveiled in 1994 and
moved to PNC Park as well. The statue is located at the foot of the Roberto Clemente Bridge, just outside the Center Field Gate, and stands on a granite base with a baseball diamond etched in it. At each of first, second and third bases there is a glass capsule which houses dirt from the three fields Clemente played: Santurce Field, in Puerto Rico; Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium. There is also a stainless steel rim, with fifteen spaces containing events from Clemente's life engraved into the rim that encircles the diamond. A sixteenth spot was left blank, signifying the incomplete circle of his life.

"Pops" Stargell

Standing at the Third Base Entrance is the Statue to Willie "Pops" Stargell. Stargell threw out the last pitch at Three Rivers Stadium and at that time was presented a model of the statue that would be presented to him before the next season. The statue was dedicated on April 7, 2001, but Stargell could not attend the ceremony due to severe health issues and died of a stroke two days later.

Mazeroski Statue

The final statue, of Bill Mazeroski, was unveiled at Right Field Gate in late 2010 and celebrates the fiftieth
anniversary of  Mazeroski's World Series-winning home run in 1960. Mazeroski is frozen in time, holding his helmet aloft, while circling the bases and trying to outrun the jubilant fans. The statue is flanked by a brick wall that resembles the one in Forbes Field and actually contains a portion of that wall.

Ryan, knowing the history behind Mazeroski, and the 1960 World Series, was not at all interested in lingering at this particular statue. It wouldn't be the last time, as Yankees fans, we would come face-to-face with this moment.

By now it was time to head inside to begin our tour, so we all filed in through the Third Base Gate. We were instructed to go sit in the left field bleachers and wait for our guide, who was named Mike, to take us around the ballpark.

World Series Banners At Home Plate
As we entered the park it was immediately apparent that all I had heard about this place was true; the park was gorgeous and I was amazed at how open and clean it was. The seats were a dark blue, while the walls were a limestone color that nicely complemented one another. Behind home plate, above the seats but below the press box, were pennants emblazoned with the years of the five World Series Championships the team had won (1909, 1925, 1960, 1971, 1979). You could slightly see the river over the outfield wall from our vantage point, but there was a full view of the city skyline, which I knew was only going to get better as we got higher inside the ballpark.

"Welcome to PNC Park, folks," I heard Mike, our tour guide, call out. "I'm going to be telling you all about the history of the ball-club, as well as this facility, and by the time you leave you'll all agree it's possibly the best you've ever seen."

Mike started off by telling us that the design of PNC Park was intended to pay homage to other classic-style ballparks around the league, such as Fenway and Wrigley, as well as the team's past home, Forbes Field. At the time it opened, PNC Park was the first two-decked ballpark to be built since Milwaukee's County Stadium opened. It was also the first-ever to have an out-of-town scoreboard that gives the score, the inning, the number of outs, the count and the base runners for every game being played at the time and has a 24' x 42' Jumbo-Tron, which has the first-ever outdoor LED video replay system. The park was originally constructed to hold 37,898 fans, but was upgraded after 2003 to accommodate 38,496 and further alterations, after 2007, have brought capacity to 38,362.

Despite PNC Park being built for the Pirates, other events have been held there. The park hosted the 2006 MLB All Star Game, as well as the "PNC Park City Game," a college rivalry game between the Pitt Panthers and the Duquesne Dukes, which ran from 2003-2010 with Pitt winning four of the six games; it was played here until Duquesne disbanded its baseball program after 2010. There have also been non-baseball events held at the park, such as concerts by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Pearl Jam, Jimmy Buffet, The Rolling Stones and the Dave Matthews Band, as well as a US Department of Homeland Security drills to plan for a terrorist attack on the city. The park has also been used in two motion pictures, "She's Out of My League" (2010) and "Abduction" (2011).

After this brief introduction Mike led our group up the circular ramps, on the left field side of the ballpark, to the second deck. On the inside of the ramps the Pirates have placed long rectangular banners to commemorate each of the team's World Series Championships. As we climbed higher the beauty of the park became more apparent, but I was still waiting for what I knew would be the ultimate view, from behind the home plate area.

1909 World Series Suite
Our first stop on this portion of the tour was in one of the "World Series Suites," the "1909 Suite." This group of suites is located down the left field line and seats 30-50 people. Each suite is decorated in a motif for that its namesake year and has its own private balcony, which allows for the fan to either sit outside or stay inside and watch the game on TV. Further down the corridor there are smaller luxury suites, which seat 15-20 guests and make for the perfect place to host small gatherings to watch the game, or conduct business in a "high end" manner.

1903 Jersey
1937 Jersey
As we walked deeper into the world of club seating we came to the
two most prestigious areas of the park, "Club 3000" and "Club Cambria." "Club 3000" is a full-service sports bar, which is reserved for all premium season ticket holders. The club features many different pieces of Pirates memorabilia through the years and has a full bar, serving craft and import beers, as well as high-end wine. There is a 50-inch, HD, flat-screen TV, a pool table, shuffleboard table and a few arcade-style games, such as "bubble-top hockey. "Club Cambria" is the parks most upscale, members-only lounge, located on the third base side, in the private level, and provides a fantastic ballpark experience. There is a full service bar, nine flat-screen TVs, gourmet chef tables, suite attendants and private rest rooms. There is a lot of high-end Pirates historical memorabilia, such as original jerseys, game-used equipment and photos, both autographed and unsigned, spread throughout the suite.

As we made our way out of the luxury area we headed towards the press box area and when we got there three words confirmed everything I had been told about the views from the park.

"Oh my God," Nicky said, making everyone stop to look.
"Holy crap on a cracker," Ryan said, loud enough to bring about a few snickers, a dirty look from an older woman, and a playful smack to the back of the head from me.

As we all gazed, open-mouthed, at the view in front of us, Mike gave us a brief understanding of what we were looking at.
The View From The Pressbox

"When this site was picked for PNC Park it was to honor the previous stadiums that stood in this area, the ability to develop the surrounding area and use the rivers , bridges and city skyline as a backdrop over the outfield walls. Since we have opened our doors, we have been called ' of the top 10 places to watch a baseball game...', '...everything a stadium could ever hope to be...', ' immediate contender for the title of best baseball park ever built...' and that PNC Park '...combines the best features of yesterday's ballparks, with the latest in fan and player comforts...'"

Batters' Eye Bushes
There was no denying, it was a stunning combination of the ballpark and view of the river and city that made everyone rave about the total fan experience here at PNC. As I looked out across the field I noticed that in the "batter's eye," in center field, there was a large green wall that stood over a large row of bushes. These bushes were trimmed so that they were in the lettering of the team's name. Mike also pointed out to us that the right field wall had been named "The Clemente Wall," in honor of  right fielder Roberto Clemente, and stands 21 feet tall (Clemente's jersey number). There are also ten retired numbers (1, Billy Meyer; 4, Ralph Kiner; 8, Willie Stargell; 9, Bill Mazeroski; 11, Paul Waner; 20, Pie Traynor; 21, Roberto Clemente; 33, Honus Wagner; 40, Danny Murtaugh; and 42, Jackie Robinson), displayed on the facade that rings the ballpark, on the overhang of the second deck.

1901 Placard In The Concourse

After our visit in the press box we were taken back down to the main level and walked from the right field
foul pole toward the third base area. Looking up, I noticed there were red placards, in the shape of a baseball diamond, which had pictures and captions from historic moments in Pirates history. There were commemorations for clinching the team's first NL Championship, in 1901, each World Series Championship, the first game at Forbes Field, and the All Star Games that had been played in Pittsburgh. The placards were in descending order, from right field to left, so if you wanted the chronology of the team you would have to start at the left field side of the park.

As we got to the area right before third base Mike pointed out a small eating court  which had a multitude of small stands, but he made sure to inform us that no trip to PNC Park would be complete without stopping at "Familee Bar-B-Q," which was the home to the ultimate ballpark treat...the pulled pork pirogi stacker. According to Mike this sandwich was a culinary delight, piled high with fresh, local, pulled pork and topped with another Pittsburgh staple, pierogis, all on a pretzel roll. As soon as I heard this delicious sounding concoction I knew someone would have something to say about it, and I was right.

"Pulled pork, with pierogis, all on a pretzel roll?" I heard my always-hungry son announce. "We have got to get that for dinner tomorrow night."
"He's planning tomorrow night's dinner?" the man next to me laughed.
"He's always three meals ahead," Tony said laughing.

Ryan was still talking about the sandwich when Mike told us that it was time to go downstairs to the Pirates clubhouse.

Ryan and Rob Outside The Clubhouse

When we reached the clubhouse we were sad to be informed that we were not going to be allowed inside. The team had just gotten home from a road-trip and all the gear was being unloaded and set up for the next day's game, so we had to settle for a "video tour" just outside the door. It was killing Ryan and Nick to be this close, but not be able to go inside, but they sat down, watched the video and kept their disappointment to themselves. Though we couldn't go in, we were allowed to take some pictures of the clubhouse entrance and logos before heading on to our next stop, the dugout.

Clemente's Sign

From the clubhouse, Mike took us on the exact path that a Pirate player would walk on his way to the field.When I put on my uniform, I feel I am the proudest man on earth," a quote atrributed to Roberto Clemente. Mike told us that this sign was to remind each player that it was an honor to wear the Pittsburgh uniform, and they should act with class and dignity while doing so, before they stepped out onto the field. The small stairway took us to a long corridor, under the stands, which took us right to the dugout.
We were led to a set of stairs, above which was a large sign with black lettering that said "

Ry and I in the Pirates Dugout

As we stepped into the dugout and our eyes became acclimated to the light, we were amazed at the sight that awaited us. I thought the view from upstairs was fantastic, but it was nothing like what the players got to behold on an every-game basis. After a few pictures of us in the dugout, we were allowed to walk on the field and go behind the home plate area.

"Look at that view," I said to no one in particular.
"Imagine this being your office," Tony said, in a reverential tone.

The View From Home Plate

As we looked out from behind the plate the ballpark and an amazing view of the city spread out before us. The Clemente Bridge was just beyond the center field wall and even though you couldn't see the river, it didn't matter. The city skyline rose, majestically, beyond the outfield wall and despite the fact that I had been in the city less than twelve hours, I was now in love with this city and its ballpark.

Mike interrupted my revelry to tell us about the playing field.

Left Field View
Right Field View
"PNC Park has a natural grass surface and some players have said it's
the nicest infield they have ever played on. Now, considering Forbes Field was one of the worst and Three Rivers Stadium was AstroTurf, we've come a long way. The dimensions of the playing surface are, 325' to Left Field, 383' to Left-Center, 410' to the deepest part of Left-Center Field, 399' to Center, 375' to Right-Center and 320' to Right-Field." He again pointed out the batter's eye and the "Clemente Wall," and then brought our attention to the huge scoreboard in Left-Field, which took up the entire area above the bleacher seats. He then asked us to look up at the seven light towers that encircled the playing field. These light towers, we were told, were an absolute replica of the ones that had been used in Forbes Field. They are called "toothbrush fixtures," due to the fact that they resemble an actual toothbrush and are environmentally friendly as well.

Legacy Square

Satchel Paige
Josh Gibson
Mike told us there was one more stop on the tour, before we exited the building, and that would be Legacy Square, just inside the Left Field Gate. This area of the ballpark serves to honor the history of the great Negro League teams from Pittsburgh, the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Inside the exhibit are life-sized statues of former greats Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, "Cool Poppa" Bell, Oscar Charleston, "Smokey" Joe Williams, Judy Johnson and Buck Leonard, each with their own plaque and interactive kiosk, at the base of the statue, telling their contributions to the game. There is also a 25-seat theater that will play a movie, about 12 minutes in length, chronicling the history of the Negro Leagues.

"This is so cool," I overheard Ryan tell Nick.
"Do you actually know who these guys are?" he asked back.
"Some, but not all. They were great ballplayers, but they weren't allowed to play in the majors because they were black."
"So, it was before Jackie Robinson?" Nick asked.
"Yeah and my dad says some of them could have been superstars, if they were allowed to play. Josh Gibson might have been better than Babe Ruth," Ryan continued.
"Really?" Nick asked.
"What else do you know," I jumped in.
"Well he was a catcher, he and Satchel Page were rivals and that he might have hit a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium," he said. "At least that's what I remember hearing and reading."
"Nice," Rob said, elbowing me in the ribs.
"He loves baseball history," I said, smiling.
"Eating too," Tony chimed in.
"Sucks that these guys couldn't play cause they were black," I heard Nick tell Ryan. "If they were good enough, they should have had the chance."
"Smart boy," I heard an older gentleman in a Clemente jersey say, smiling at the kids.
"When we get home, how about we find a book on some of the Negro League stars?", I asked Ryan.
"Sounds good to me," he said.
"It's all about the teachable moments," I said to Tony and Rob.

At this point the tour was over, we thanked Mike and headed out through the team store, where Nick and Tony  grabbed some hats and shirts, but Ryan and I were told we had to wait for the next night's game to get our scorecards and programs.

Once outside the boys wanted to walk across the Clemente Bridge, into the city and grab a "Slurpee" from 7-11, because they had been told that because today was 7/11 the drinks were free. There was no reason not to, the price was right, the day was nice and we had nowhere else to be for a few hours. So we headed across the bridge.

"So, you know what today is, right?" I asked Ryan.
"Yeah, free "Slurpee" day," he said, making a slurping noise.
"What else?", I pressed.
"Thursday?", he asked.
"Try again and think of the date."
"July 11...Oh crap, it's mommy's birthday," he suddenly realized.
"Lets call and sing "Happy Birthday," I suggested.

So, the five of us stopped in the middle of the bridge, pulled out the phone and sang "Happy Birthday" to Nicole, much to the amusement of the passersby, who looked at us like we were nutty.

After our walk, our bridge singing, and some free "Slurpees", we decided that we were hungry and we should get some lunch. Rob had spied what he thought was the perfect place to grab a seat, some appetizers and a beer, while we watched the Yankees' game, which we had seen on TV in a neighborhood bar. Since his last recommendation, "Steak and Shake", had gone over so well back in Ohio, we trusted his judgement. Once again, his instincts were correct. About a half-mile from PNC Park, tucked into a small "mini-mall" was a restaurant named "The Tilted Kilt".

The Tilted Kilt, as it turns out, is a Celtic-themed sports bar, where the waitresses are dressed in short plaid kilts and bras, with a white dress shirt tightly worn on top. The franchise originated in Las Vegas, by Mark DiMartino, and has since spread across the United States and Canada. The corporate office has since been moved to Arizona, where it still resides. The bar serves a various array of beers, both import and domestic, but it is known for its fine selection of micro-brews and the menu is varied with plenty to offer in the way of appetizers, burgers, sandwiches, pizza and entrees with a Celtic theme (Irish Stew, Shepherd's Pie, and Fish and Chips). Think "Hooters," but with better food and hotter waitresses.

We sat down, had a few pints and some wings, nachos, Irish Nachos and a Pub Pretzel and watched the game. It was definitely a "guys' themed place," but there were a few ladies as well. The food was good, the beers were cold and the wait staff was gorgeous, which Ryan noticed right away. Our waitress was good looking and talkative, but didn't seem very interested in hanging around the kids, which was understandable. But Ryan didn't appreciate that fact, which caused his eyes to wander until he spotted the bartendress.

"Pssst, look over there," he quietly hissed at me, while jabbing an elbow into my ribs.
"What?" I said grumpily, after having been hit when I wasn't looking.
"Over there...look...but don't look," he told me, being as subtle as a gun.
"What? Where?" I asked again.
"There," he said emphatically.
"Holy crap," I heard Rob say.
"Oh, my," Tony continued.

The Bartender and The Boys
I looked over my shoulder and saw what can only be described as the best-looking woman in the place. She was drop dead gorgeous and I didn't know whether to be embarrassed that my twelve-year- old was noticing these things, or to be proud for the same reason.

When it was time to go, Tony had a thought.

"Let's get a picture with the bartender," he suggested.
"Um....NO," Nicky told him.
"Absolutely," Ryan countered.

Rob and I agreed and after a few minutes of cajoling Nick, Ryan went up and asked the lady to take a picture with us. She agreed and the five of us posed for the picture before heading back out to the car. Rob thought it humorous to post the picture to Facebook, which I agreed with, and before we knew it Ryan was an Internet sensation, much to Nicole's chagrin.

"Where to next?" I asked as we got back into the car.
"Well, we have to meet Pam at Primanti's later on, so let's head over to the strip district, where it's located," Rob suggested.
"Strip district?" Ryan's ears perked up.
"No that kind of strip," I told him, shaking my head.
"Damn," was his response, as we all laughed.

Centered around St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, a Polish cathedral built in 1891 the Strip District is the neighborhood between 11th and 33rd Streets, bordered by the Allegheny River to the north, and the Hill District in the south. In the 19th Century it was the area of the city that housed factories and mills, because it was easily accessible to the river for freight transportation. Some of the more famous businesses located there were the Fort Pitt Foundry (cannon makers during the Civil War), U.S. Steel, Westinghouse, Heinz and ALCOA. Because of the ability to easily ship goods, other companies took up residence there as well.

During the 20th Century, as waterways and railroads were replaced by highway shipping, many of the companies left the area for locations more accessible to highway transportation, and the Strip District suffered an economic downturn. Late in the century, the district saw a rebound of sorts as the empty mills and factories were renovated into small specialty shops, restaurants, nightclubs, bars and apartments. Today it has become a historic market-style area where people can dine on ethnic foods, and shop in art studios and boutiques.

We parked the car and walked up and down the streets, which were pretty crowded for a late Thursday afternoon in July. The Strip District usually comes alive on weekends, but for whatever reason it was busier than normal today. We stopped in front of fish markets, butcher shops, restaurants and souvenir shops, which were teeming with merchandise of the local sports teams and colleges. We had discussed meeting Pam for dinner at Primanti Bros., so after walking around for about 45 minutes we headed over to the restaurant, which we had been talking about all day.

Primanti Bros.
Now Primanti Bros. is no ordinary restaurant; it has been featured on all kinds of food shows and in all sorts of magazines and newspapers and has become synonymous with the city of Pittsburgh. It was founded in 1933, by Joseph Primanti, in Pittsburgh's Strip District, as a sandwich cart for hungry, long-distance truckers who needed something they could eat while on the go. It was here that the idea of meats, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and french fries on a sandwich was born. Because of the volume of business he was doing, Joe decided to open a small shop, with his brothers Dick and Stanley, and their nephew, John. The restaurant was open 3 AM to 3 PM and would feed the truckers and the late night shift workers in the neighborhood. Joe moved out to California in the 1940s, but the others kept the business going for the next 30 years, until they sold it to Jim Patrinos in 1974. Patrinos would make a few tweaks, such as staying open 24/7 and expanding to a few new locations, such as the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, by the University, where it too became a big hit with the college crowd. Today, Primanti Bros. has seventeen locations in greater Pittsburgh and three more in Florida, and has become a recognized name for hungry citizens and tourists from all over. Of course Ryan had seen it on an episode of "Man Vs. Food" and insisted we try it.

Primanti Bros. Menu
Walking into the shop was quite a treat as our noses were assaulted by the wonderful smell of all kinds of grilled food. The staple at Primanti Bros. is the over-stuffed sandwiches, but they also sell pizza, wings, burgers, chili, soups and breakfast foods, if you get there early enough. After looking at the menu board I decided on a corned beef sandwich, while Tony and Rob went with pastrami and Nicky and Ryan chose cheese-steaks. We called Pam and she decided to go for corned beef as well, but when we went to grab a table they told us that the wait would be at least an hour. There was no way we were doing that, so we decided to walk up the street and grab a beer and an appetizer at another restaurant, wait for Pam and then come back after she got out of work, hoping the wait would be shorter.

After a quick conference the five of us decided to try Roland's Seafood Grill, just around the corner, as it had an outdoor patio that we could sit on and watch the world go by. Another Pittsburgh treasure, Roland's was started by Italian immigrant Roland Chelini, on 17th Street, in 1957, and eventually moved to its current location, 1904 Penn Ave., two years later. Roland and his wife ran the restaurant until he retired in the early 1970s and sold the restaurant to his son, Paul. Over the years there have been many alterations to the restaurant, including an iron landing balcony in 1996 and a private dining room in 2011, but the premise of feeding hungry people the freshest food possible has always stayed the same.

Rob At Rolands
We decided to sit outside and have a plate of wings and some crab-spinach dip, some beers and sodas. Rob, Tony and I ordered a sampler of beers, which consisted of six, 5-ounce glasses of locally craft brewed beers. Believe it or not, we were each able to order enough different kinds of beer that there were only 2-3 "doubles" and each one seemed better than the last. I was preferential to the I.P.A., while Tony liked the pale ale and Rob was drawn to the stouts. Nick and Ryan decided that they couldn't be left out of the fun, so they would pilfer a sip from each of the glasses when the coast was clear. They did their best beer critic impersonations and it seemed that from the little they tasted the I.P.A was Ryan's favorite, while Nick preferred the pilsner style. The five of us spent the next hour waiting for Pam, enjoying the food, the beers and the warm afternoon sunshine, as people passed by on their way home, or out, after work.

About an hour and fifteen minutes later Pam joined us for a quick drink. We discussed going back to Primanti Bros. but she said the wait would only be worse at that time of the evening, and then suggested we go to one of the satellite locations, closer to her house. We thought that was a great idea, as it had been a long day and we were getting tired, but Pam had yet another great idea up her sleeve for the ride home: the inclined railways.

Duquesne Incline
Since the 1800s, the city of Pittsburgh has operated approximately two dozen inclined railways that carried passengers, or freight, from the hills above the city down to the river. During the first half of the 20th Century the inclines were still used on a daily basis, but as other modes of transportation came about they were closed, one by one. Today only the Monongahela (still the steepest anywhere in the world), and the Duquesne Incline are still in use. Pam decided that it would be best for us to visit the Duquesne Incline, as it offered what she described as the best views of the city.

"Holy Crap," Ryan exclaimed from the back seat, as we pulled up to the foot of the Duquesne Incline.
"That's steep," Nick said, echoing his thoughts.
"Wow," was all Tony could say, as we got out of the van and walked towards the station house, at the base of Mt. Washington.

Incline Trolley
The lower station house had a red brick facade and we could see the track, which was almost 800 feet long, that would carry us 400 feet up to the top of the cliff. The grading of the track is approximately 30 degrees and the car used to carry passengers moves along at about six miles per hour. The car itself holds 18 people at a time and looks like an exact replica of the trolley seen in the children's television show "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood", which was produced in Pittsburgh.

Pam told us that the view from the top was a must-see, so we paid the small fare, climbed in the car and started on our way up. All of us marveled at the views we were seeing on the way up, but nothing prepared us for what we would see once we got to the top.

Upon reaching the summit and exiting the car, we walked through what could only be described as a mini-museum and gift shop, dedicated to the history of Pittsburgh's inclines. There were pictures, plaques and other historical artifacts from the days when incline travel was the quickest, and safest, way to the river.

As we left the station house and walked out onto the observation deck, we could see the whole city, and the three rivers, spread out before us. The view was tremendous and went on for miles, but Pam told us that we could get an even better one if we went about a block up and grabbed a table at  a restaurant overlooking everything. We were up for it, so off we went to The Grandview Saloon.

The restaurant was beautiful, with three floors for dining and an outside deck where patrons could sit and take in the view of the city, but we weren't about to ruin our Primanti Bros. dinner, so we grabbed a table on the balcony, ordered a round of beer, wine and soda, and unwound from the long day.

View of The Point
Downtown View
Pam was absolutely correct in her assessment of the view; it was much better than the one on the observation deck of the incline. If we looked to our left, we could see "The Point", which is where all three rivers converged into one, and scanning back to our right we could see Heinz Field (home of the Steelers), PNC Park, all the bridges connecting to the city and all the way up to the Oakland district and beyond.

Nick, Pam and Ryan

The View Going Down
We took some pictures of the view, as well as some of Pam and the boys,
before finishing off our beverages and calling it a day. On the way back down the incline the boys made the mistake of looking down the track, towards the bottom. The view seemed much steeped than the one going up; they quickly retreated to the back of the car and didn't make that mistake again.

"I'm starting to get hungry," Ryan let us all know as we got into the car.
"When aren't you hungry," Tony quickly asked.
"I'm hungry too," Nick let us know.
"Anyone else want to be heard from?" I said, half jokingly.
"I could eat," Rob piped up.
"Well, let's get you all home and some dinner," Pam said. "I'm hungry too."
"Can we stop and get some beer for the house?" Tony wanted to know. "I'd like to try Iron City Beer"
"There's a place we can hit on the way home," Pam told us. "Then we can grab the sandwiches and settle in for the night."

Suddenly I had an idea.

"Let's get some cigars, too."
"Sounds good to me," Tony said.
"'S'all good," Rob concurred.

Now, I am not usually one for a cigar, but it just seemed the thing to do. What would be better than having dinner, grabbing a beer and sitting out on the porch with a cigar? It just seemed like the perfect ending to the day.

We stopped at the beer distributor  on our way home and grabbed a case of Iron City Light, which we planned to have at Pam's and at our tailgate before the game Friday night. What ensued could only happen to us.

"I need a case of Iron City Light," I said to the shopkeeper as I stood at the counter.
"You want to drink that?" he asked, incredulously.
"Is there something wrong with it?" I wanted to know.
"Well, not if you like drinking shit beer," he told me..
"I'm not from around here, I've been told to try it while I'm in Pittsburgh, but if you can suggest something better, I'm willing to listen," I responded.
"Well, personally, I like Coors Light better. But when I'm in the mood for an import, I'll grab a Corona," he said, trying to look educated on the subject.
"I'll take my chances with the Iron City Light," I said, trying not to look to stupefied at the fact that I had just asked advice of someone who thought Coors Light was a good beer.
"Consider yourself warned," he told me, shaking his head.
"Noted," I told him. "I'll also need a few bags of ice."
"Oh, we don't have any ice," he replied.

I shook my head, paid for the beer and walked back to the car to load the cooler.

"Where's the ice?" Rob asked, when we broke open the case.
"He says they don't carry any,"I said.
"Then what the hell is that for?" Tony wanted to know, pointing at the ice machine.

I again shook my head, trudged back inside and steadied myself for what was sure to be another round of insanity.

"Um, sir. You told me you didn't have any ice, but there is a large freezer outside that says 'ICE' on it."
"Oh, you wanted ice? I thought you said rice. That'll be $1.89 a bag."

I'm sure the sound of my jaw hitting the floor could be heard back in New Jersey. Somehow I managed to not show my shock over our latest discussion, fork over the money for two bags and walk back outside without saying anything that would get me in trouble.

Upon getting back to the car I relayed the interaction to the others, who had nothing to say for a moment. But only a moment.

"Rice? He actually thought you said rice?" Tony spat out between guffaws.
"Maybe that's how they magically cool their beer here in Pennsylvania," Nick offered.
"Dafuq?" was all Rob could get out.
"First he offers Coors Lite, then he thinks we want rice?" Ryan laughed. "Apparently we're not in Kansas anymore."

After our rice and beer escapade we dropped Rob and the boys off at the house, they were tired and wanted to relax, while Tony, Pam and I went over to the local Primanti Bros. to pick up our sandwiches. On the way back we stopped and grabbed some cigars for the deck, but even that wasn't without what, to this day, is considered an epic laugher.

Like I said I am not a cigar aficionado, but I do know what is bad. So, when going into the smoke shop Tony and I steered clear of the packaged cigars and went into the humidor, looking for something with some flavor, but not overwhelming. Now, somewhere between walking into the store, picking out six cigars (three for tonight and three for our final night), and stepping up to the counter to pay, my stomach went into rebellion and there was only one way for relief. Now, I was quiet, I didn't make a scene and I thought I was being stealthy...I was sooooooo very wrong.

"What the fuck?" I heard Tony say. "Jesus, Jimmy, what the hell did you eat that I don't know about?"
"I had the same things as you," I whispered. "Now shut up, it's not that bad and don't call attention to it."
"You don't think it's that bad?" he said, eyes agape. "Look around."

I turned around, and to my horror the kid at the counter had his shirt up around his nose, like Billy the Kid robbing a bank, and his eyes were watering.

"Sorry," I said sheepishly.
"Dude, don't be sorry. That was epic,"he said, not removing his shirt from his nose.
"Yeah, dude, you're epic," Tony repeated, trying not to laugh so hard he gagged.
"Shut up," I said, quickly signing the receipt and making my way to the door.
"You're never living this one down," he told me.
"Get in the car," was my only reply.

Primanti Bros. Sandwich
Once back at the house, Pam set the table and we all sat around munching Primanti Bros. and drinking in relative silence, only broken by someone expressing how good the food was. The sandwich itself was a simple enough concept, one we have all had thousands of times before, but there was something much different here. The bread was a freshly made soft Italian loaf, piled high with your choice of meats (we had cheese-steaks, corned beef and pastrami sandwiches), each generously piled high with cole slaw, tomatoes, and a heaping handful of french fries. These sandwiches were as good, if not better, than I had heard they would be.

Nom Nom Nom
The bread was soft, yet not too doughy, but did not crumble when holding or biting into it. The meats were flavorful and tender, cooked to just the perfect consistency, not too tough and not too chewy, and the natural flavors and spices mixed well with the tart of the cole slaw. The coup de grace of the whole package is the french fries, which supply a crisp texture and balance out all the other flavors nicely. We each tasted a different kind of sandwich and I found the corned beef to be my favorite. Ryan, who couldn't decide, ate all of his and half of mine, along with bites from everyone else. I expected nothing less.

After dinner, Pam excused herself to go rest and get ready for bed (she did have to work the next day), while the boys lounged out in front of the TV, watching a ballgame on the MLB Network. Tony, Rob and I went out on the porch with a couple of beers and our cigars and spent the next few hours laughing, joking and discussing what we had seen so far on our trip, as well as planning the next day. Somewhere around midnight sleep overcame us and we all settled in for the night. It had been a long day and we were looking forward to tomorrow.

Day 8, Friday, July 12: "The Wall," A Riverboat Ride, Church and Our Final Game:

Waking up on Friday was a lot easier than it had been the day before; a good night's sleep was had by all and Ryan was even the first one up. Tony, Rob and I had decided that we should do a little more exploring today, before heading to PNC Park to see our final game. We were going to visit the site where Forbes Field once stood, take a riverboat cruise and visit a church that our friend Brian had said was more than worth the visit, before showing these Pittsburghians how we tailgate before a ballgame in New Jersey. After a quick breakfast and some coffee we were off to see where Mazeroski broke the hearts of Yankees fans, back in 1960.

Forbes Field Was Here

The location of Forbes Field was in the Oakland section of the city, about 25 minutes outside the city proper. It had been demolished in 1971 and today the University of Pittsburgh owns the land on which the fabled stadium once stood. Some sections of the stadium still stand in their original location and have become something of a "Mecca" for baseball fans over the years.

Ry and I At The Wall
Rob and Ry Peer Up At The Wall
The portion of the Left Field wall where Mazeroski's home run
famously cleared is no longer in that spot. It has been taken down and was given to the Allegheny Club in Three Rivers Stadium, before being moved to its final spot,behind the Mazeroski statue outside PNC Park. The original location is now outlined by bricks, with a plaque on the ground marking the spot that the ball cleared the fence. The original Left-Center and Center-Field wall still stands, with the distance painted on it, along with the stadium's flag pole.
After parking the car and making a quick stop at Dunkin Donuts we started searching for "The Wall." After a few stops and starts (it was harder to find than you'd think), we found it and slowly approached.

"Bill Mazeroski. He made Mickey Mantle cry," Rob said, reciting a line from "A Bronx Tale".
"He cried? Really?" Nick wanted to know.
"Sure did," I told him. "He said it was the most disappointed he's ever been after a loss. He went to his grave believing the Yankees had the better team, but the lesser manager and that's what cost them."
"Do you think this place is like a shrine for Pirates fans?" Nick wondered.
"It certainly is," I told him. Every year on October 13th fans gather at the flagpole and sit and listen to a re-broadcast of the game. It started in 1985, with one person, and on the fiftieth anniversary there were over 1000 people here paying tribute."
"That's pretty cool," Tony said. "I wish we had some kind of a tradition like that."
"We win too much," Rob said. "What game would we pick?"
"The Bucky Dent game," Ryan immediately offered. "We could do it outside of Fenway Park every year."
"Yeah, that'll go over real well," I laughed. "C'mon, let's head over to the site of home plate."
"They have that immortalized too?" Ryan said, shaking his head. "How much of this game am I going to have to endure?"
"It's from the last game played at Forbes Field," I told him. "Not the World Series game."
"Oh, that's fine," he said. "That's cool."

We all laughed and started walking across the campus, to Posvar Hall, where the final home plate was forever sealed under a Lucite casing in the floor.
Home Plate From Forbes Field

When we got to Posvar Hall we quickly found the plate, which was set in the hallway floor. Above the plate is an plaque that reads :

"Home Plate Forbes Field
Final Game
Pittsburgh Pirates vs Chicago Cubs
June 28, 1970"

While we were taking a few pictures of the plate and looking around the area a student saw us and came by to give us a little history lesson on the plate. She told us that this was not the actual location of the plate, because architects didn't take it into consideration when building the academic building. Were the plate in its original location it would have to be placed inside the fifth stall of the ladies bathroom, just around the corner, which would keep half of the population from viewing it, so it was moved here. We were also instructed not to stand on it, as it's considered to be a "landmark" by the university and they take great pride in the fact that they are connected to baseball history.

Life Magazine Photo

After spending about ten to fifteen minutes wandering around Posvar Hall we decided it was time to head back to the car. On our way out we noticed a picture hanging on one of the walls about 20 feet from the plate. It was a "LIFE" magazine cover from 1960, and showed the Pitt students watching the 1960 World Series from atop a building on campus. The boys couldn't get over the fact that this was a popular occurrence at the time, and thought it would have been cool to do.

After our venture to Forbes Field it was time to take a cruise on the three rivers. Rob had come up with theGateway Clipper Fleet, which seemed to give the best, most comprehensive river tours in the city.
idea the day before, while we were going up the incline, after he saw a tour boat going up and down the river. Tony had done the research on the vessel and determined that it belonged to the

As we walked down the ramp to the dock to purchase our passes we noticed a very detailed, hand painted, pictorial history of the city of Pittsburgh on either side wall. We had some time before our cruise, so we took a few minutes to study the timeline and the pictures, which were very well done.
Time To Cruise The Rivers

After paying for our boarding passes we grabbed a brochure that told us all about the company. Started with one riverboat (the Gateway Clipper,) 55 years ago, in 1958, the company has expanded to six boats and is seen as the premier cruise line in the Pittsburgh area; they are believed to be the largest inland riverboat fleet in the nation. Originally located at Monongahela Wharf, the fleet is now moored at Station Square.

Our Boat
There are many types of cruises that are offered, both public and private, (sightseeing, day trips, party boats, dinner and brunch cruises), as well as hosting for school functions and receptions, both formal and informal and on game days the fleet serves as a river shuttle for both the Pirates and the Steelers, which provide a whole different experience.

Nick and Ryan On The River
Convergence of Three Rivers
We had decided on a one-hour sightseeing cruise and it did not disappoint. The
boat had a snack and drink bar, so we grabbed some beverages, sat down on the roof-top deck and prepared to set sail. Over the course of the next hour we traveled on all three rivers (the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio), while the captain and the tour guide, Jill, informed us about the points of interest. We traveled under all the major bridges into the city, saw the beautiful skyline of Pittsburgh, the sites of the former Three Rivers Stadium, as well as Heinz Field (home of the Steelers), PNC Park, the Duquesne Incline, the different parks and recreation facilities around the banks of the rivers and "The Point", which is the spot where all three rivers converge into one.

Rob, Nick, Jill, Me, Ryan and Tony
Considering all we saw, I would say the three most interesting sights were the two stadiums, which looked absolutely beautiful from the water; "The Point", which the kids thought was cool; and the incline, which showed how really steep a ride we took the day before. As the boat pulled into the dock we decided we needed a picture with Jill, and she was happy to pose with us. After debarking a familiar refrain was heard from Ryan.

"I'm hungry, when are we eating?"

We all just shook our heads, but did agree it was time to grab a bite.

"I know just the place,"Rob told us, "But you have to be polite because it's like being in church."
The Church
"We're going to church?" Nick asked, with more than a hint of disdain in his voice.
"You'll see," Rob told him. "I haven't steered you wrong yet."

We drove away from the city to Liberty Avenue, in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, until we came to
St. John The Baptist Church. We parked the van and told the boys to get out. They looked around and couldn't figure out where we were going to eat; all they could see was the church. Confused, they walked to the front of the building, took one look at the sign, and the light bulb went off in both their heads.

Our Kind of Church

The Church Brew Works is a brewpub that is set inside a restored Catholic church. The building was originally built in 1902, but was deconsecrated in 1993 and lay dormant until it was bought and renovated into a brewery. It opened for business in 1996 and in 2012 was named one of the best Pittsburgh breweries.

Beer Is Proof God Loves Us
Pour Stations
As we walked into the building an amazing sight spilled out before us.
Not only was the original edifice left to look like a church, but the inside still resembled one as well. The long center aisle remained but there were tables and booths on either side, where the pews once stood. At the front of the "church", where there should have been an altar were large vats that were used to brew the beers that serve the hungry parishioners, while there were smaller bars and pour stations on either outer wall. The stained glass windows remained, but mixed with semi-biblical scenes there were angels flying around with pint glasses full of beer.

Happy Angels

We sat down and grabbed a menu, which offered a wide variety of homemade beers with church-style names, such as Celestial Gold, Pipe Organ Pale Ale, Pious Monk Dunkel and Rotating Stout; they also serve their own bottled beers, Millenium Trippel and Cherry Quadzilla, as well. After placing an order for three beers (the Celestial Gold, Pipe Organ Pale Ale and the Pious Monk), and two homemade root beers, we opened the menu and looked for some food.

Church Brew Works does offer up a full service menu, which includes appetizers, side dishes, salads, sandwiches and entrees, but we decided upon some appetizers, which would tide us over until getting into the ballpark. Our three choices were beer-braised chicken wings, traditional pierogies (served with sauteed onions, melted butter and sour cream), and wild boar quesadillas. Yes, you read that right: wild boar quesadillas.

The beers came first and I will say all were good, but my favorite was the Pipe Organ Pale Ale. According to the menu it's "a medium-bodied dry-hopped ale, brewed with a hefty amount of pale malt and three kinds of American hops," and it had a clean crisp flavor with a slight bite to it. Tony's Celestial Gold was a golden beer, similar to a lager, with a "slight hint of hops and a light malty taste," while Rob's Pious Monk Dunkel is a dark lager, first brewed in Germany about 150 years ago, with a mellow body and "a clean roasty aroma that finishes crisp and clean." Of course the boys grabbed a small sip and both decided that the pale ale was their favorite as well.

We were also very pleased with the food that we had decided on as well. The wings had a nice Buffalo "bite, but were not so hot that they couldn't be enjoyed, while the pierogies were soft and cheesy and had a nice rich flavor, thanks to the onions, butter and sour cream, but everyone's favorite were the wild boar quesadillas. I think we were all expecting something a bit more "gamey," but it was nothing like what we thought it would be. The tortilla was warm and crisp, but not overdone and just a bit flaky, while the meat was sweet and savory and had a bit of a smoky flavor, but not too overpowering. The cheese and the onions mixed nicely with the wild boar and added a distinct flavor, which was enough to let you know it wasn't beef, but not so much that it took over any of the other tastes and there was no gamey flavor that is sometimes experienced from a wild animal. It was the first thing gone from any of the three plates.

After finishing our snacks, we headed back to the van and started the quick trip to the ballpark. The ride itself lasted about twenty minutes, but that was only because of the late afternoon traffic. We didn't need to get into the park when the gates opened, as we had taken the tour and all our pictures the day before, which would allow us to tailgate with some locals and show them how it was done, Jersey Style. We couldn't have been more unprepared for what came next.

We pulled into the lot, parked, grabbed the cooler and the boys' baseball gloves and proceeded to set up shop and look around. Ryan was the first one to notice that we weren't the "coolest" kids on the block.

"Um, guys?" he said, laughing. "If this is showing them how to do it, I wouldn't be so proud."
"What are you laughing at?" Tony asked.
"Look there," Nick said, laughing as well.

I looked to my right and my jaw hit the floor. Only we could have pulled into the lot, right in the middle of a tailgate-bachelor party. There were tables, chairs, two grills, many parking lot games (bean bag toss, ladder ball, wiffle-ball and a miniature, movable, badminton net), as well as a table full of hard alcohol and a pick-up truck with three full-sized kegs in its bed.

"Kinda makes our cooler like wimpy, doesn't it?" Ryan laughed and threw the ball back to Nick.
"Awwwwww shaddup, you," I said, making a face and walking over to watch a ladder-ball game.

After watching for a bit a young man came up to me and asked me who I was rooting for, as he saw New Jersey license plates on the van. I told him we were rooting for the Pirates and explained what we were doing, where we had come from and said that we always wanted to root for the home team and mingle with their fans to experience the flavor of the city we were in. Right away he called his father over, relayed our story and soon I was surrounded by a throng of Pirates fans, in various stages of inebriation.

The Groom, Best Man, Father of the Groom,
Tony, Ry, Nick, Rob and I
Pretty soon Rob, Tony, Ryan and Nick came over, were introduced and welcomed into the tailgate as well. We were told that there was no way we could come all the way from New Jersey, park in the middle of their party, root for the Pirates and not be part of the festivities. The boys were asked what they wanted to eat and the best man went to work at the grill cooking burgers and corn-on-the-cob and we were handed plastic cups and told to help empty the kegs. We tried to explain that we had a cooler full of beers, but were told to put the cooler away because they would be insulted if we didn't join them in eating and drinking for the wedding party. Of course we didn't want to offend, so we spent the rest of the afternoon laughing, drinking, eating, playing games and meeting various members of the wedding party, and other honored guests. The boys both ate every time something else was given to them, which was often, and our hosts weren't shy about making sure our cups were full either.

After about two hours we thanked our newfound friends for their generous hospitality and explained we had to go inside to walk around the ballpark and get the game day vibe, as well as the traditional Pittsburgh ballpark food. They made sure to tell us that they expected us back after the game to celebrate a Bucs win with some more food and drink. Once again we were amazed by a group of strangers who took us in as their own, and made us feel like we had come to the game with them. These people were sharing a special day with one of their own, but decided that we had to be there to share it with them, and it was all because of baseball. I smiled to myself as we walked to the ballpark, ready to cheer for the "Bucs".

Starting Line-Up:

Victor Siclari
Robert Zoch
Tony D'Angelo
Nick D'Angelo
Jim Kulhawy
Ryan Kulhawy

When we got to the front gate we were in for another surprise. Once again a game we were attending was a give-away night. We had received shirts and hats in Cincinnati, bobble-heads in Cleveland and Toledo, cooler bags in Detroit and now shirts in Pittsburgh. The only place that was not a give-away game was Columbus, but we had done pretty damn well everywhere else. Nicky put his shirt on right away, but Ryan had me carry his as he was afraid he was going to spill food and drink on it, as it turned out he was right to have made that choice.

We were joined inside by Tony's cousin, Victor, who lives in the Pittsburgh area and is a die-hard fan. Tony had called Victor and asked if he wanted to join us for the game and of course he said yes, so we added yet another to our "Baseball Band of Brothers." Immediately upon entering the park Ryan let us know what his immediate thought was.

"Psssst, pulled pork with pierogies on a pretzel bun."
"Do you ever stop eating?" Nick wanted to know.
"I've been waiting for this since yesterday, when they told us about it on the tour," Ryan shot back.
"You know the drill," I told him. "Pictures first, food second."
"But we took pictures yesterday," he whined.
"Yes, but we need the group shot behind home plate," I reminded him.
"Fine," he said, skulking away, unhappy about having to wait.

Led by Ryan's quick pace, we made a beeline for the home plate area. There was no denying the kid was anxious for his sandwich; I had never seen him in such a hurry to take some pictures before, but he was in good spirits despite having to wait.

After taking a few pictures, I turned around to make sure we had everyone accounted for and noticed Ryan had stayed behind and was talking to an usher. I saw the gentleman pointing out toward the city, beyond the center field wall, with Ryan listening intently and gesturing himself when it was his turn to talk.

"He's just like you," Nick said. "He'll talk to anyone."
"I like that about him, but I prefer he does it when we're around," I said.
"He's like a mayor," Tony said. "Always looking to meet the next person."
"He has my attitude," I replied with a smile. "Strangers are just friends we haven't met yet."

I told the group to head back to the Familee Bar-B-Q and I would catch up or meet them there when I had Ryan corralled. I slowly walked down to where he was talking with the usher and quietly waited for them to finish their conversation.

"Are you this young man's father?" the usher asked me.
"Yes, sir," I replied. "I hope he hasn't been bothering you.
"Not at all, I was thrilled to talk to him. He reminds me of my grandson."
"That's nice to hear, thank you." I replied.
"He tells me you guys are visiting every major league ballpark, and quite a few minor league ones as well," he said, with a hint of awe in his voice.
"Yes, sir," I told him. "It was his idea and we're having a blast doing it together."
"That's something I think I'm going to mention to my son and maybe he, my grandson and I could do it as well."
"I think that would be great," I told him. "Nothing better than families brought together by a love of baseball."
"Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, young man," he said. "I hope you guys have a fun adventure and keep studying that baseball history, you've got a real love of the game there."
"I will, sir," Ryan said. "Thanks for talking to me. GO BUCS"

The gentleman smiled and waved as we walked away. I put my arm around my son's shoulder and thought how proud I was. As I had seen before, he was becoming more sure of himself in social situations, and was able to hold an adult conversation without feeling self-conscious.

"What started that conversation?" I asked him.
"He saw I wasn't wearing my Pirates shirt from the give-away and wanted to make sure I got one."
"What did you tell him?" I wanted to know.
"I said you had it, I said we were here from New Jersey, we were Yankees' fans, but that we were rooting for the Pirates. Then we started talking about what we were doing here, so I told him about our trip and everything we've seen and done and then we started talking about baseball history."
"You know, you're a good kid," I told him. "I'm proud of who you're becoming."
"Thanks, can we get something to eat now? I'm starving," he said, changing the subject quickly.
"C'mon, race you," I said, not wanting to embarrass him more than I already may have.
Together we bolted up the stairs, took a right and weaved in and out of human traffic on our way to get our sandwich.

PNC Park is no different than any other we have visited when it comes to food. There are stands for hot dogs, soda, peanuts, Cracker Jack, popcorn and all other traditional baseball foods, but we are not in search of the traditional food; we look for the local cuisine that is indicative to each ballpark and PNC Park is filled with great choices.

If it's a meal you are looking for there are many different choices for the hungry fan. For those who are interested in grilled foods there are "The Federal Street Grille" and "General Robinson's Grill", which specialized in Angus burgers, brats and all other kids of  meats. If barbeque is your thing, you'll want to visit "Manny's Bar-B-Q," or "Familee Bar-B-Q," for delicious sandwiches or platters of pork, beef or chicken. "Primanti Bros." has a stand where you can get certain versions of their famous sandwiches, or you can try "Just4U," which offers healthier (Gluten free and vegetarian) sandwiches. A Pittsburgh favorite, "Quaker Steak and Lube," will serve you up their famous wings, or chicken parts, in a bucket to feast on and if you are looking for ethnic cuisine; "Nakama" has you covered for Asian (Sushi, hibachi sashimi, hand rolled egg rolls and a variety of side dishes), and "Papa Dukes" will tantalize your taste buds with Greek foods, such as Gyros, souvlaki and other old world dishes. Finally, for your little one, "Bucaroos" is a kids concession stand that will have your child's favorite comfort food.

After grabbing your meal you'll need something to wash it down with, and there are a plethora of choices there as well. "Allegheny City Beverage," "Beers of the Burgh," "North Shore Refreshment Company" and the "Rivertowne Brewing Hall of Fame Club" are all excellent places for you to grab a small, craft or local, brewed beer, glass of wine, or mixed drink.

If dessert is more of what you are looking for, you are in luck here as well. There is a "Dippin' Dots Ice Cream of The Future," a "JD's Kettle Corn" (original, caramel and cheese flavors are available), a "Soft Serve Express" (ice cream) and a "Rita's," for homemade Italian Ice (another Pennsylvania treat).

This time around we had already pre-determined what we were having, or should I say Ryan had pre-determined what we were going to have. Either way, it was OK with me because I knew I wasn't going to get much of it and, truth be told, I was still pretty full from the burgers, dogs and sausages we had been given outside.

The hungry little wolf pup had won our footrace back to the group, but I do have to say that being smaller it was easier for him to bob and weave through all the pedestrian traffic than it was for me. Either way he ran to the stand, ordered exactly what he had been dreaming of for the last 24 hours and grabbed a seat with the rest of the group, while I grabbed a local beer, Allegheny Pale Ale, from Penn Brewing Co.

By the time I had gotten back to the table I was expecting the sandwich to be half gone, but I was presently surprised. Ryan had unwrapped his delicacy, but was staring a hole through it, waiting for me.

"Why didn't you start?" I asked him.
"I was waiting to share it with you?" he replied in a voice I knew was hiding something.
"Wanna try again?"
"I knew you wanted some, but I also knew once I started I wouldn't have stopped," he admitted sheepishly.
"Either way, thank you for thinking of me," I rolled my eyes and laughed.
"Time to eat," Ryan proclaimed and dug in.

Pulled Pork and Pierogies
on a Pretzel Roll
Ryan Digs In
He did save half of the sandwich for me and let me tell you, it was
amazing. The pork was warm, but not hot and it had been mixed with just the right amount of barbecue sauce. The two pierogies were over-stuffed with cheese and had a slight hint of the onion that they were cooked with and the pretzel bun was chewy, yet firm at the same time. The first taste was pure heaven as the "bite" from the sauce mixed nicely with the richness of the cheese and onions and the slight salty taste of the roll. I had seen people putting mustard on their sandwich, but I think that would have overwhelmed the different subtle hints that made it so special to begin with.

I took two bites and passed what was left back to Ryan. He looked perplexed.

"You don't want anymore?"
"Nah, you've been looking forward to this, you enjoy the rest," I told him.

I didn't have to tell him twice. Without putting up any semblance of a fight he downed what was left in two large bites, before proclaiming it worth the wait and starting to eye my beer.

"Not a chance," I told him.
"Aw, c'mon. I've had sips before," he pleaded.
"Nope, this one's all mine," I reiterated.
"Harumph," he half joked, pouting.

I had grabbed one for Rob as well, Tony had already been given one by Victor, so we stood to the side, looked out on the field and toasted to the last game of our adventure. This beer was Penn Brewing Company's first international pale ale and the label has a picture of the river, with the city skyline in the background, which is what drew me to it in the first place. This is an amber ale that has a hoppy smell and a sweet finish, with a bit of an after-taste. It was very good and we decided that it was definitely worth another round, but first we needed to get to our seats for the start of the game.

The Game:

First Pitch

The View From Our Seats
The first thing we noticed when we got to our seats was the spectacular view of the Roberto Clemente Bridge, over the left-center- field wall. We were early, and the park was partially full, so you could still see the fans walking over the bridge in the distance. I quickly snapped a picture, then settled down to wait for the game to begin. Everything I had heard about this park was true; it was beautiful, the scenic views were spectacular and it was very fan friendly, but I still was waiting to see how the fans would react to their team. It had been a long time since Pittsburgh had a team over .500 this late in the season and I was curious how manic the place would get.

The minute the Pirates took the field a roar went up that I am sure was audible at the site of Forbes Field. The black and gold clad fans yelled, cheered, screamed, waved flags and towels to ensure the home team understood they were completely behind them. The ballpark, which just a few minutes before had a normal decibel level, suddenly took on a playoff atmosphere, even though it was only late July and the playoffs were not for another two-and-a-half-months. Needless to say, we were quite impressed.

If we thought it was loud when the Pirates took the field, the place simply erupted when Charlie Morton threw a first pitch strike past Eric Young to start the game. We had been hoping to see either A.J. Burnett or Gerrit Cole, but Morton would suffice as long as the Bucs won. Young would eventually lead-off the game with a single, but after Daniel Murphy flied out to center he would be erased trying to steal second. David Wright would end the inning with another fly-ball out, this one to left, which brought the Pirates to bat and the crowd to another level of insanity.

After Starling Marte led off the bottom of the inning with a ground-out to short, Jose Tabata reached on an infield single. The crowd quickly let out a roar that would have made a wild animal proud, but they quickly became subdued when Andrew McCutchen flied out for the second out of the inning.

If I thought the crowd was loud when McCutchen stepped to the plate, I was blown out of my seat when Pedro Alvarez homered over the center-field wall to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead. It was almost painful to be in that ballpark, but looking around and seeing all the yelling, smiling, high-fiving, hugging, fans celebrating, the noise was actually drowned out. They were all so excited they almost didn't seem to notice when Russell Martin ended the inning with a strikeout.

The Mets could only manage three base-runners through the fifth inning; a walk to Ike Davis in the second (which was erased on a double play), a two-out David Wright double in the fourth and a two-out Anthony Recker single in the fifth. The Pirates were actually worse because no one reached base off starter Jeremy Heffner, in the same time frame. No walks, no hits, no errors, no hit-by-pitch, nothing. This, however, did nothing to diminish the excitement of the fans, as they still had a 2-0 lead heading into the sixth.

The top of the sixth started the same way; Jeremy Hefner grounded out to second before Eric Young singled and Daniel Murphy grounded out, moving Young to third. With two outs, David Wright stepped to the plate and hit a soft liner to right, that just fell in front of Jose Tabata, plating a run and cutting the lead in half. The fans were not thrilled, but they still had the lead and screamed even louder, imploring the Pirates to get the run back in the bottom of the inning. It almost worked, but a Starling Marte double was wasted when the next two hitters failed to bring him in.

Even though the Pirates held the lead, a nervous tension had filled the ballpark. The home team had done nothing offensively since the bottom of the first  and you could see fans actually sitting on the edge of their seat each time the Mets were at bat. No one was leaving for food, a drink, the bathroom, or anything. Even Ryan hadn't asked for anything to eat, which was almost unheard of at this point of the game.

After getting Marlon Byrd to line out to center, Morton got into trouble by getting behind Kirk Nieuwenhuis, 2-0. He then tried to come in with a quick fastball, inside, which proved to be a mistake when the Mets' center-fielder drove the offering over the right-center-field fence, tying the game at two. After an initial moment of silence, the crowd let out what can only be described as a frustrated groan. The inning ended when Omar Quintanilla struck out, but the damage was done.

The Pirates did nothing in the bottom of the seventh, going down 1-2-3, and the Mets fared no better in the eighth, after Mark Melancon replaced Morton on the mound.

The Mets followed suit in the bottom of the eighth, replacing Heffner with David Aardsma. The Pirates, however, couldn't do anything against the new pitcher and the results were the same for the Bucs as they were in the top of the inning for the Mets, down 1-2-3. The Mets would again return the favor in the top of the ninth, when they failed to score on new pitcher Jason Grilli. So after 8 1/2 innings the score was tied, 2-2 and neither team had done anything offensively. That was about to change.

Starling Marte led off the bottom of the ninth with a double to left field. The crowd, like a shark, now sensed blood in the water and exploded to its collective feet in an effort to will the winning run across the plate. Jose Tabata laid down a sacrifice bunt, which moved Marte to third with one out and sent the crowd closer to losing its collective mind more than any time before. I was not a fan of this move and apparently neither was Ryan.

"That was stupid," I said, needing to get right next to me so I could hear.
"I think so too, but what's your take?" I asked.
"There's no one out, a man on second and Tabata was hitting over .300. Why take the bat out of his hand?"
"Well," I started, ready to play devil's advocate. "This would allow McCutchen to bring him home on a long fly ball."
"Yeah, but there is no need to pitch to McCutchen now," Ryan said moments before the Mets intentionally walked McCutchen. "Now they've set up a double play to end the inning."

The Mets then changed pitchers, bringing in Scott Rice to pitch to Pedro Alvaez, who struck out on five pitches for the second out. Ryan just shook his head.

Rice was apparently there just for Alvarez, because the Mets again changed pitchers, bringing in Greg Burke to face Russell Martin. During Martin's at-bat McCutchen stole second and then Burke lost Martin, loading the bases with two outs. The crowd was now whipped into a frenzy as the Mets once again changed pitchers, bringing in Josh Edgin, while the Pirates sent up Gabby Sanchez to hit for Garrett Jones. Edgin won the battle as he got Sanchez to ground to first, ending the threat and wasting the lead-off double. The crowd was not happy.

The top of the tenth was a complete role reversal for the two teams as the Pirates started out with-you guessed it-a pitching change. Tony Watson replaced Grilli and after getting the first batter to line out he gave up a soft single to Juan Lagares. After getting a force out, Watson gave up a single to put runners on first and second and was promptly replaced with new pitcher Bryan Morris, who ended the inning by getting David Wright to line out to center.

The bottom of the inning saw the Pirates put two runners on, thanks to a single and a walk, but they were once again not able to capitalize and we went to the eleventh, still tied at two.

The Pirates once again made a pitching change, sending in Vin Mazzaro to replace Bryan Morris, who had been replaced by pinch hitter Josh Harrison the previous inning. The Mets could do nothing with Mazzaro, who set them down in order and brought the Pirates back to bat with yet another chance to fashion a walk-off win.

The pitching carousel continued, as the Mets brought in Gonzalez Germen, who walked McCutchen on five pitches, to start the inning. The crowd began to stir, which became a cheer of nervous anticipation as McCutchen stole second. It died down briefly when Alvarez struck out, but returned twice as loud when Martin was intentionally walked to put runners on first and second. Gabby Sanchez then continued the roller coaster ride by striking out swinging and sending the fans back into a state of nervous anticipation for Jordy Mercer.

Mercer, who was batting in the .280s, took the first pitch from German for a strike. The crowd let out a groan, as they had seen this play before. The next offering from the Mets' reliever was called a ball, evening the count at 1-1. The next pitch was supposed to be a breaking ball, only it didn't break and Mercer grounded it up the middle, through the infield, into center and brought home the winning run. The Pirates rushed from the dugout to mob him, while the fans let out a roar of happiness, excitement and pent up frustration, all mixed together.

"Pretty good game, eh?" I said, turning to look at Ryan.

He was busy hugging the young lady sitting next to us and exchanging high fives with (what I suppose was) her boyfriend. I laughed and jumped into their pile, to be joined by Nick, Tony, Rob and Victor a few moments later. We had seen a great game, with some rabid fans, in a fantastic ballpark, which ended in an extra-innings-walk-off-win. It doesn't get much better than that.

Final Score
Pirates 3, Mets 2
Mazzoro (W) 5-2
Germen (L) 0-1

Post Game Wrap-Up:

Waiving The Jolly Roger
We decided to wait for the crowd to thin out before attempting to make our way to the parking lot, to have a celebratory beer and meet Pam, who had been working an event next door at the local concert venue, when the boys spotted a man waving a giant Pirates flag. It turns out that this gentleman made it a habit to bring this flag to every home game and make sure "The Jolly Roger" was hoisted after every win. It was tradition and something of a local custom as he seemed to be known by many of the people heading to the exit. Ryan and Nick stopped and said something, then I saw the man smile and hand the flag over to Ryan, who waved it and then passed it to Nick, who took his turn. I had the boys stand together snap a quick picture and we all thanked the man and headed out.

"What was that about?" I asked the boys.
"We told him we liked the flag and Ryan said it was out first game here," Nick told me.
"So he asked if we've wanted to waive it and we said yes," Ryan continued.
"Well with all the rooting you did, you earned it," Tony told them, as we headed outside and into the lot.

Once outside, we rejoined the bachelor party and were immediately handed celebratory beers and dogs. Pam had told us, earlier, she would drive the van back to her house, so we graciously accepted the beers, downed them and refilled.

"No hot dogs, thank you, I'm not hungry," Ryan said when he was handed a dog.

We all looked at him in disbelief.

"Nah, just kidding. Can I have a burger too?" He asked, laughing.
"I knew that wasn't for real," Tony said.
"He never stops eating," Nick marveled.
"Youth is wasted on kids," Rob said, shaking his head.

We went back to celebrating the win, and John's upcoming marriage, for the next hour, until Pam joined us for a soda and the ride home. We said goodbye to Victor, hopped in the car, told her about the game and took the twenty-minute ride home with her at the wheel.

Once back at Pam's, the boys cleaned up and went in the TV room to watch the MLB Network and fall asleep. Tony, Rob and I grabbed the last six beers and three cigars and settled in on the front porch. After relaxing and reminiscing over the last eight days, we went back in the house, turned off the porch light and climbed into our beds. There was a long drive ahead of us the next day.

Day 9, Saturday, July 13: The Long and Winding Road:

Saturday morning came way too soon for all of us. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, our eight-day adventure was over. We had done all our laundry the night before, another account of Pam's hospitality, and packed the bags before bed, so we grabbed a subdued breakfast, packed the car, thanked our amazing hostess and headed back out onto the road. This time, however, there wasn't another city to get to,  another ballgame to attend or another neighborhood to explore. We were headed home, like ballplayers at the end of a long season, and even though we were all looking forward to sleeping in our own beds, no one was in a hurry to do so.

"This sucks," Ryan said, saying what everyone was thinking.
"Is there any games we could hit on the way home?" Nick wondered.
"Really? You guys want one more game?" Tony asked them.
"Yeah," they both said, in unison.
"Why do you ask questions you already know the answer to?" Ryan added.

So for the next hour Tony and Rob looked at all the minor league possibilities in the area while the boys crossed their fingers in anticipation. Unfortunately it was not to be, no one had a home game and even when we extended our circle we found we couldn't make it work.

After the initial letdown, we started to discuss the trip, all the amazing things we saw and did and the people we encountered along the way.

We voted Cincinnati and Detroit as tied for having the best "out of ballpark food," because we couldn't decide what we liked more; The Montgomery Inn Boathouse, or Slow's Bar-B-Q.

Best non-baseball-related visit was easy: The Motown Museum blew away anything else, including the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

From there it got a little tougher; best ballpark was an amazingly close vote, but Detroit's Comerica Park won out over Pittsburgh. We all agreed PNC Park was an amazing place and a fantastic atmosphere, but Detroit had the perfect blending of old-school tradition and history with modern amenities.

When it came to best ballpark food, we decided to let Ryan tell us what he thought was the tastiest. After all, he almost ate more than all of us combined, was always hungry and was continually in search of the next great meal to watch a game with. He enjoyed the non-typical Skyline chili on the dogs in Cincinnati, found the Winter's sausage in Detroit quite tasty and had nothing but good things to say about the Cleveland Dog. But, bite for bite, his best ballpark food on this round went to the pulled pork and pierogi sandwich, on a pretzel bun, in Pittsburgh.

Our favorite city wasn't even up for debate; Pittsburgh won, hands down. The city was clean, easy to navigate through, had an amazing array of things to do, places to go and the people were friendly and helpful any time we needed a question answered. Boston has always been one of my favorite cities in the country and Pittsburgh held a lot of the same charm and personality. I could easily see returning for another round of exploring, perhaps as a future family vacation.

By this time we had reached Harrisburg and it was time to part ways with Rob. He was traveling back to Virginia, while we headed north, to New Jersey. After saying our goodbyes we got back on the road for the final march home. The boys fell asleep for a bit, while Tony and I talked about the fact that we had some pretty understanding wives. Risa allowed her husband and son to take this trip despite the fact it fell on her wedding anniversary, while Nicole had no issues with the fact that we were away on her birthday. We decided that something special was in order for the two of them, from the four of us, so once we got home we stopped at the spa and picked up a gift certificate for each of them to use at their convenience. After all, they encouraged us to take this adventure and we wanted to show our appreciation.

We dropped Nick and Tony off at their house, completing the circle of Ramsey to Cincinnati, to Columbus, to Canton, to Cleveland, to Toledo, to Detroit, to Pittsburgh, back to Ramsey. 1200 miles, 9 days, 7 cities, 7 ballgames (4 MLB, three minor league), and 1 day off made for some pretty amazing memories. We had visited some fantastic cities, seen some great baseball, viewed some interesting sights, eaten some delicious local foods and met and been hosted by some tremendous people, whom we could all now call friends.

"Where are we going next year?" Ryan asked.
"You haven't even gotten home yet," Tony said, laughing.
"Never too early to start planning," Ryan said, looking at me.
"I want to go to Wrigley soon," Nick informed us.
"Chicago it is," Ryan announced. "I'll start looking on the Internet tomorrow for baseball history."
"Well, that'll keep you busy, but tomorrow we're headed to New York for the All star Game Fan Fest, remember?" I reminded him.
"Oh yeah," he said. "I forgot. What do you think they'll have to eat there?" he asked.
"Get in the car," I said, gently slapping him on the back of the head. "It's time to go home."

I pulled the van out of Tony's street and drove the ten minutes across town. All I wanted was to get home, put the stuff away, take a shower and lie down; tomorrow was an off day for the rest of them, but Ryan and I were heading to the M.L.B. All Star Fan Fest, in New York City, as a final wrap-up to our tour. We were going to have to get up early and pick up my dad before heading in, so it was time to rest and relax. Tomorrow was going to be one more busy day.

Next Stop:
July 14, 2013
New York, New York
Jacob Javits Center
M.L.B All Star Fan Fest