Pirates fans, celebrities poised for 'Buctober' baseball on North Shore
Six months ago to the day, the Pirates opened their season under a gray sky and occasional snowflakes. Appropriate weather, considering that Pirates manager Clint Hurdle compared Opening Day to Christmas morning.
“You're getting a box, all wrapped up in a bow, and trying to figure out what's inside,” he said that day.
What was inside turned out to be more than most Pirates fans ever dreamed: The end of an embarrassing 20-season losing streak. A September of meaningful ball games. An MVP candidate in Andrew McCutchen. Even a wild card playoff game, tonight, against the Cincinnati Reds.
Stick with the Trib throughout the evening as we bring you the atmosphere and excitement in and around PNC Park as the Pirates play their first postseason game in 21 years.
Hundreds of Pirates fans without tickets flocked to the North Shore if only to feel the electricity of a long-awaited playoff game.
They could not see the action on the field, but they could feel the excitement inside. For them, that was enough.
“The atmosphere you get here, there's nothing better,” said John Gromley, 44, of Penn Run, Indiana County, who camped out on the Roberto Clemente Bridge with scores of other fans.
“I said, let's go down and hang out for this,” he said. “You can put the radio on and look at the (outside of the) park and it's like you're in there.”
Lonnie Williford, 47, of Beaver Falls watched the game on bar televisions on Federal Street.
“I just wanted to be down here for this,” he said. “I had to get as close as I could. I waited 21 years for this. It's unbelievable. I'm probably having a better time out here than I would have inside. It's 70 degrees on Oct. 1. Incredible.”
Give the fans an assist on that one.
Seconds after a frenzied sellout crowd started chanting starting pitcher Johnny Cueto's name, the Reds ace dropped the ball on the mound.
The crowd erupted. The chant grew stronger.
Then Russell Martin hit the Pirates' second home run of the second inning, and the noise level skyrocketed.
Beer vendor Dusty West shook his head.
“No use in trying to sell beer now,” he said. “They can't hear me!”
The Pirates called for a blackout. The fans certainly responded.
The black-clad masses that swarmed Federal Street and the Roberto Clemente Bridge hours before game time almost completely canvassed PNC Park as the first pitch drew near. Everyone got the memo.
And Reds fans took notice.
“I've never seen an atmosphere like this,” said Justin Waples, 32, a Columbus firefighter who attended the game with Columbus native Nick Lantz, 33.
“We've seen maybe 20 Reds fans,” Waples said. “Kudos to Pittsburgh. It's definitely a blackout. These fans are crazy.”
The chant of “Let's go Bucs” greeted ushers as they approached the gates to open PNC Park at 6 p.m. Fans holding standing-room-only tickets sprinted up the stairs in packs, jockeying for position.
Among the first through the gates was Jason Gerle, 34, of Ambridge and his 9-year-old son, J.T.
“He has a pretty good grasp of how long it's been,” Gerle said, his arm around J.T.'s shoulder. “He understands I was just a little older than he is he last time the Pirates were in the playoffs.
“It's fantastic. Especially with the Steelers struggling now. ... This is just fantastic.”
Arlene Remma smiled wistfully, admitting that tonight's Pirates game is bittersweet.
A season ticket holder, she said she is thrilled to see her Pirates finally make it to the playoffs. But she wished her longtime boyfriend — “Herky” Diulus, a former Pirates vendor who started when the club played at Forbes Field in Oakland — was alive to see the game.
“Because of his health, he never got to work here,” Remma said. “I brought him a few times, but he was in a wheelchair. I wish he had seen this happen.”
Charlie Petredis, 54, of Wexford was so certain he'd never see a playoff game here, he vowed to dress head-to-toe in a Pirates costume if the team ever made it. Three hours before the first pitch, he was walking down Federal Street waving a Jolly Roger in full pirate garb.
“First time, I've never done this before,” he said as fans posed for photos with him. “But I feel great.”
Dan Betts' Cincinnati Reds jersey and ball cap drew plenty of jeers as he mingled with the sea of Pirates fans amassing outside PNC Park on Tuesday.
But it didn't seem to bother the die-hard baseball fan in the least.
“I've been to a lot of road games, so I'm pretty used to being hassled by hometown fans,” said Betts, 24, of Dayton, Ohio. “You get used to it.”
While it is easy enough for Betts to shake off being an outsider in Buccos territory, he hasn't been able to shake off the sinking feeling he has about tonight's playoff game.
“We're coming off a five-game losing streak to end the season, including a sweep by the Pirates,” said Betts. “So I'm definitely a little nervous.”
Despite the rough ending to their season, Tyler Canterbury of Parkersburg, W.Va., was upbeat about his team's prospects for a chance to advance in the playoffs.
“We've got our best pitcher going out there,” said Canterbury, 21, a life-long Reds fan. “He's been injured this year, but I feel comfortable that he's going to pitch well and win this for us.”
Bobby Faloon started vending for the Pirates 46 years ago at Forbes Field. Until Tuesday, he believed he would never again see playoff baseball here.
“I just turned 60. I don't know how many years I have left. My body is breaking down,” Faloon said moments before he started selling beer inside PNC Park. “It's emotional for me. Everywhere I go in the city, it's nothing but joy. And I'll be honest with you, I almost gave up. Never in a hundred years did I think we'd see this.”
Barb Fletcher knew getting a parking spot near PNC Park on Tuesday so she could pick up some players' autographs for her collection would be tricky.
So she showed up at the players' entrance to the stadium by 7 a.m.
“I've got a bat from the All-Star Game I'm hoping to get signed,” said Fletcher of Homer City. “I want to get my autographs early so I can get inside and just enjoy the game.”
Fans eager to see the Pirates compete in the team's first postseason game since 1992 began congregating on the North Shore around noon in advance of the 8 p.m. start against the Cincinnati Reds.
The victor of tonight's winner-take-all wild card game will play a best-of five series against the National League Central Division-winning St. Louis Cardinals.
“We don't have tickets, but we'll try to buy some if we can,” said John Fitzgerald, 49, of Shaler, as he moored his 19-foot-long ski boat along the Allegheny River outside PNC Park. “Even if we can't get in, I wanted to be out here so we can take in all the excitement,” said Fitzgerald, his sons John Jr., 9, and Brendin, 6, in tow.
John Jr. offered a prediction for the outcome of tonight's game.
“I think the Bucs will be behind a few runs in the beginning, but they will win,” he said.
Fan momentum began early in the day on social media sites such as Twitter, with a nearly non-stop stream of people wishing the team good luck and encouraging fan attending the game to participate in a “blackout” by wearing black Pirates gear to complement the players' black uniform tops.
A number of Pirates players, including A.J. Burnett, Jordy Mercer and Tony Sanchez, took to Twitter to bolster participation in the blackout.
Seth Meyers of “Saturday Night Live,” whose father is a Pittsburgh native, sent out the tweet: “Happy Buctober, everybody!” shortly before noon on Tuesday.
Another former Pittsburgher, actor Michael Keaton, has been chronicling his lifelong love affair with the Pirates and the excitement of seeing them in the playoffs for the first time in two decades in a series of dispatches for ESPN.com.
Former Fox Sports and ESPN personality Rebecca Grant also showed her penchant for the Pirates with tweets of encouragement for the team, as did Penguins' hockey great Mario Lemieux.
Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or firstname.lastname@example.org.