It all started in the summer of 1960, the summer just before my eighth birthday. It was a good time to be introduced to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
I had uncles, aunts, and cousins in Canton and Pittsburgh and my parents started pawning me off for a few weeks every summer. For 10 days or so I’d be in Canton playing ball with my male cousins and watching Indians games on TV with Uncle Herb. For another 10 days or so I’d be in Pittsburgh irritating three older female cousins and watching the Pirates with Uncle Charlie. But it was way better than TV.
My uncle was a Lutheran minister and back then Pittsburgh clergymen got free tickets to Pirates games. Some nights his parishioners would come through with season tickets and we’d improve our lie from the distant right-field upper deck to the box seats near the dugout at old Forbes Field, a battleship of a stadium.
I remember riding in Charlie’s old VW bug, through the tunnels, over the bridges, out to the university, where my uncle would park in a small lot next to a big hospital a couple blocks from the ballpark and flip the visor so his “CLERGY” pass showed.
I said he was a preacher, not a saint.
They were the Pirates of a budding superstar named Roberto Clemente, a young Bill Mazeroski, both now in the Hall of Fame, and a shortstop, Dick Groat, who probably should be too. Dr. Strangeglove, Dick Stuart, misplayed first base and cranked home runs.
The starting pitchers were Friend, Law, Mizell, and Haddix, and Elroy Face was the original closer. My favorite player was a stocky old catcher named Forrest Harrill (Smoky) Burgess.
How could he not be? I was hooked.
A few months later my dad let me skip school — I believe we both called in sick — to watch Game 7 of the World Series on TV and when Maz drove that ball over the left-field wall in the bottom of the ninth, wow … the greatest walk-off ever.
I was in college in 1971 and one of my first dates with the girl who became my wife was Game 3 of the World Series in then-new Three Rivers Stadium. Steve Blass pitched a gem, Bob Robertson hit a three-run homer, and the Buccos won.
There was a lousy call at one point and what Sue remembers most is the first time she ever heard a minister curse. It wasn’t my first rodeo.
The ’79 World Series was Stargell and Sister Sledge and Teke, Kent Tekulve, and another win over the Baltimore Orioles. Three years later, Beth, our youngest, was born and she became my sports nut. In time, volleyball would become her game, but baseball was her first love and the Pirates became her passion by paternal osmosis, I guess.
All Beth wanted for her eighth birthday was to attend her first game.
And, so, 30 years after I made my initial visit she made hers. It was 1990. It was a good time to be introduced to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Buccos of Bonds, Van Slyke, Bonilla and pitchers like Doug Drabek, John Smiley, and Bob Walk won 95, 98, and 96 games from 1990-92. But in the seventh game of the 1992 NLCS, with the good guys one out from the World Series, Francisco Cabrera of the Braves swung and Sid Bream slid and everything changed.
The Pirates descended into two decades of darkness; an unparalleled 20 consecutive losing seasons. Bad management, bad decisions, bad hires, bad trades, bad drafts, bad contracts, bad … well, you name it, it was bad.
The only good thing that happened to Pittsburgh baseball was PNC Park opening in 2001. About 2.5 million fans came out that year. The team lost 100 games and then raised ticket prices for ’02. Sigh.
Nonetheless, one young lady stuck with them. Beth went to Pennsylvania for college, stayed there to teach and coach, drove a couple hours to Pittsburgh for more games than she could count, even bought tickets for the old man now and then, and went to PNC Park on one of her first dates with the guy she would marry. All that was missing was Uncle Charlie.
Back to ’92. The night of Game 7 against the Braves — a school night, not that major league baseball cared or cares — Beth was watching the game in bed, holding onto her big black-n-gold foam finger, and when she dozed off with a 2-0 lead the finger fell to the floor.
The poor kid blamed herself. I think she still does.
On Monday night, at 11:04 p.m., a 31-year-old Beth Mahfood posted on her Facebook page: “I have been waiting 21 years to say this… The Pittsburgh Pirates have made the playoffs!”
I’m happy for all Pirates fans, but for one in particular.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.