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Pittsburgh guys

| Sunday, Aug. 20, 2006

Bobby Del Greco was just a 16-year-old kid when he was scooped from Pittsburgh's Hill District by the Pittsburgh Pirates and sent to Kansas to play minor league baseball. He started with the Pirates in 1955 and went on to play with the Yankees, Cubs, Athletics, Phillies and Cardinals.

In those days, he was a baseball prodigy -- so natural in the outfield that he must have been born and raised there. And in a town that always took extra pride in seeing one of its own make good, Bobby was much loved and famous. Ask your dad and grandpap if they ever saw Bobby play and their eyes will light up.

Bobby's early success could have swelled his head. Instead, he quietly plied his trade as long as he could, from his rookie year to his last out. If there was such a thing as a blue-collar baseball player, he was it.

When it was over, Bobby spurned well-paying job offers in Philadelphia and Kansas City. He felt the pull of the 'Burgh, where he went on to raise five sons and three daughters with his wife Catherine and took a real job driving a Pittsburgh Press delivery truck.

In every way, Bobby has always been a "Pittsburgh guy." For decades, with no fanfare, he pitched Pirates batting practice with many young fans not knowing they were watching a hometown hero.

These days, Bobby sometimes gets autograph requests in the mail with an enclosed $10 check. He always signs the autograph and mails it back -- along with the check.

The Bobby Del Greco model is still important in this simple little town that has no tolerance for pretense or phony airs. Lose the common touch and you will lose your reputation. And if you are a politician, you just might lose an election.

So, who is the "Pittsburgh guy" in the current race for U.S. Senate• Even though Republican Sen. Rick Santorum is from Pittsburgh and Democrat state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. is from Scranton, the answer is not all that clear.

Pittsburgh and Scranton share a common soul. Immigrant laborers and industrial barons shaped both towns. One had mines and the other had mills. But residents of either town feel perfectly comfortable in the other.

And Santorum, the hometown candidate here, has some work to do to hold his own. More than anything, he must overcome the impression that he likes a little pomp in his public service.

Years ago, while successfully running for the U.S. House, Santorum hammered the incumbent for living near D.C. and maintaining a nominal residence in Pittsburgh. Now Santorum finds himself on the receiving end of that accusation.

But instead of admitting that he had it wrong years ago -- Pittsburghers are quick to forgive -- he has tried to justify it by distinguishing congressmen from senators. And the locals are having a hard time with that.

In 2005, after earlier confusion, the senator appeared for jury duty in Allegheny County. Politicians from John McCain to Sophie Masloff have treated a jury summons as a gift from the gods of politics. Instead, Santorum said, "If people think this is a good use of their United States senator's time ... ."

Most recently, Santorum was part of a dust-up over interlopers crowding onto private Senate elevators. And when a politician grouses about the loss of exclusivity, it sends all the wrong messages.

But Santorum gets it now. Every one of his television ads is a masterpiece of "Pittsburgh guy"-ism.

Thanks to polka parties and kitchen table chats, this race will continue to tighten.

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