Pirates return for Opening Day at PNC Park

Bob Cohn
| Sunday, March 31, 2013, 11:32 p.m.

Every team in every sport has its first game of the season. But only baseball embraces the mystique and tradition of Opening Day.

“It's looked at through a different lens from other sports,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “A timeless tradition. For me, it's sports' answer to Christmas Day. You're getting a package, all wrapped up in a bow, and trying to figure out what's inside.”

The Pirates will peel the wrapping off their 2013 season on Monday afternoon in PNC Park against the Chicago Cubs with temperatures in the low 40s and rain forecast for the franchise's 133rd Opening Day. As a player and manager, Hurdle has experienced several, although not quite so many as that.

His first Opening Day was in 1978. A 21-year-old phenom, Hurdle started at first base for the Kansas City Royals in cold, cavernous Cleveland Stadium against the Indians. He went 0-for-4 as the Royals lost, 8-5. They would go on to win 92 games and the American League West.

But what immediately came to Hurdle's mind was the size of the crowd. Attendance was listed at 52,433. It seemed like 70,000.

“It was the biggest crowd I ever thought I was gonna play in front of,” Hurdle said. “Just a lot of emotion. I'd been up the year before (for nine games), but this was Opening Day, something I dreamed about since when I played Wiffle ball in the backyard.”

To anyone involved, it never gets old. A.J. Burnett, scheduled to start on the mound as reward for winning 16 games for the Pirates in 2012, is a 36-year-old veteran beginning his 15th big-league season. But he sounded much like Hurdle.

“You always get a special kick on Opening Day, no matter how many you go through,” Burnett said. “You look forward to it like a birthday party when you're a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.”

For the Pirates, opening with a win would suffice. The franchise is saddled with 20 consecutive losing seasons. Many of its beleaguered fans are casting a wary eye, especially in light of second-half collapses during the past two seasons.

In 2007, Andy Chomos led a group called Fans for Change in a protest outside PNC Park. He said he is older now and less militant; he even likes some of the Pirates front-office moves. He described his approach to this season as “measured, guarded, cautious.”

“I'm a guy who was so passionate about the Pirates, it's almost like a fighter who swung with everything he had for a cause,” said Chomos, 48, vice president of finance for Omnyx, a medical device company a block from the ballpark. “I've fought. I've argued. ... I'm still passionate about it, but I just don't make that emotional investment anymore.”

Still, he plans to attend the game. It is, after all, Opening Day.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or 412-320-7810. Staff writer Rob Biertempfel contributed to this report.

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