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Starkey: North Shore slice of baseball heaven

| Tuesday, July 30, 2013, 11:15 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates fans and players celebrate after Alex Presley drove in the winning run during the 11th inning against the Cardinals on Tuesday, July 30, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett receives a standing ovation from fans after retiring the Cardinals in the seventh inning Tuesday, July 30, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes receives a standing ovation from fans after turning a double play on the Cardinals during the 10th inning Tuesday, July 30, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Fans wait for the gates to open before the Pirates' doubleheader against the Cardinals on Tuesday, July 30, 2013, along General Robinson Street outside PNC Park.

Baseball paradise.

I heard somebody describe PNC Park that way Tuesday. Who could argue?

Outside the park on a sky-blue, 76-degree afternoon, the North Shore bustled like Pittsburgh's version of Wrigleyville, only with a winning team to root for.

Bars filled. Traffic slowed. Outdoor musicians played. Trade rumors flew.

“Baseball the way it was meant to be,” said Kevin Williams, an accountant from Irwin and one of many, no doubt, who cut work early.

How times have changed. Fans lined the Clemente Bridge not to contemplate a jump but to reach the ballpark in time for the 4:08 p.m. start of an old-school doubleheader between the Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, teams separated by a half-game atop the National League Central.

Inside, the place was turbo-charged — and that was just in manager Clint Hurdle's office. As I was listening to the pregame radio show, Hurdle's media briefing was interrupted by his phone belting out the Allman Brothers' “Midnight Rider.”

“Let me turn this off,” Hurdle said. “It's my (56th) birthday. I've been getting a lot of calls.”

Allman Brothers ring tone?

“Fifty-six, I'm still bringing it, boy,” Hurdle said.

Thirty thousand-plus were bringing it, too. And they weren't here for bobbleheads, pierogi races or fireworks. Just high-quality, deeply intense baseball, the nail-biting kind of which pennant races are made.

They went nuts when Andrew McCutchen made a diving catch off Carlos Beltran in the first inning and doubled up Matt Holliday at first.

They clapped rhythmically whenever A.J. Burnett got two strikes on a batter and roared with delight when Burnett cussed out home-plate umpire Eric Cooper after a blown call.

They exploded when Clint Barmes backhanded a Holliday smash to start a game-saving double play in the ninth then again in the 11th when Alex Presley drove in the winning run on a fortuitous grounder that bounced off pitcher Kevin Siegrist. The Pirates were in first place.

“Even in (the clubhouse), you could hear them into every pitch,” Burnett said later.

This ballpark has always been beautiful, of course, but it has lived a somewhat lonely existence, nothing like its creators imagined.

Remember what then-governor Tom Ridge said at the groundbreaking?

“You will see the new stars of tomorrow right here at PNC Park.”

Yeah, well, tomorrow took a long time. But now look: PNC Park was Cinderella all dressed up for the ball last night, just as it had been the night before.

It has never looked so good.

By 3 p.m., long lines had formed around the park. By 5, it was packed from the standing-room-only rotundas in left field to the mini enclave far into foul territory in right, just above the “Budweiser Bowtie” sign.

Near the Willie Stargell statue, Karen Seibert's eyes welled. She remembered when baseball was king in Pittsburgh. Born in 1946 near Connellsville, she and her parents would listen to Bob Prince call games.

Seibert traveled from Seminole, Fla., with her husband for the series. She usually attends one per year. She hadn't felt a vibe like this in decades.

“When I was growing up, no matter what else was going on in our lives, it was always, ‘What are the Pirates doing tonight?' ” Seibert said. “I was back in Connellsville today, and it's like that again. I have goose bumps just being here. This is the way it used to be.”

Nobody has to tell Hurdle that. He is keenly aware of the town's rich baseball history.

“We're making every effort to make it a great baseball town again,” he said.

One last person I spotted outside the ballpark: ex-Penguins winger Matt Cooke, enjoying his last week in Pittsburgh. The movers arrive Saturday. He's off to Minnesota.

Cooke was with his 9-year-old son, Jackson, who was dressed in a Neil Walker jersey. The Walkers and Cookes are neighbors, which means Jackson gets to play a game of backyard catch with Neil every once in a while.

Cooke smiled as he told that story. His son was eager to get into the game. Cooke nodded toward him and said, “This is his sport.”

Seems like it's everybody's sport at the moment.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.e_SNbS

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