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Pirates

Views of Opening Day at PNC Park

| Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Pierogi Race

The truth is, each of the four pierogis who spend their spring and summer racing around Pittsburgh and down the right-field foul territory at PNC Park have worked equally hard during the off-seaon in an attempt to clean up their act.

Together they traveled to Milwaukee to rehabilitate the kind of injuries that build up over the course of an 81-race season.

But upon their return, one of them apparently wasn't clean. They suspect an illegal rubbing element.

And Cheese Chester is burnt to a crisp over this.

"I want Saul tested for shortening," Chester shouted for his puffing pierogi mates to hear not long after Sauerkraut Saul convincingly won the opening race of this baseball season.

And before Saul could eek out a defense, another potato-packed "friend" had declared the result of this race illegitimate.

"Test him! Test him! He's on the stuff!" Oliver opined. "He's not that much faster than us."

As they walked the long PNC Park hallway leading to their mysterious resting spot, the once-playful pierogis were in a state of disarray.

Saul: "I have no comment."

Chester: "Of course you have no comment -- you're a pierogi."

Oliver: "And pierogis deserve an even playing field."

Scandal is a topping worst served cold.

Playground

Garrett Green needs to chill.

In a few hours he'll need all the energy he's expending pretending to play baseball with his uncle inside the children's playground near the right-field exit at PNC Park.

In a few hours, Green, four days shy of his 6th birthday, has to play baseball for real -- at a Pinto League practice in Mt. Lebanon.

"He'll be fine for practice," predicted Ray Jenkins, the fast fading uncle from Squirrel Hill. "Garrett's been planning this trip to the playground since he found out he was going to Opening Day."

And with that, Green fires a soft baseball into the lower left calf of Frank Cherico of Bloomfield.

Green's next pitch lands just below Cherico's ribs.

Some friend that Jenkins -- inviting Cherico from his seats in Peanut Heaven for a quick visit with uncle and nephew.

"Kid has an arm," Cherico said to Jenkins.

Thump!

Pitch No. 3 finds a spot on Cherico's upper left thigh.

"Hey kid, slow it down!" Cherico shouted to Green.

Cherico wouldn't have minded had his kids -- now grown, waiting for dad in Peanut Heaven -- displayed such Ben Sheets-like power.

Lucky for Cherico, young Green never throws a third pitch.

"Why don't you play the field, OK?" Jenkins suggested to his nephew before pausing, smiling and proclaiming of Green, "Yeah, he'll be fine for practice."

Left Field

The rule-breaking stuff first: Loran Sekely, Kraig Riley, Sean Stubenbort and Evan Kuntz collective cut classes at Gateway High School to catch their beloved Buccos.

Also, they never did make it to the seats they purchased.

And they don't care who knows.

"Somewhere in Section 331," said Sekely of the intended seats. "But we figured that we were here, so why not sit in the bleachers?"

Why not?

See, the left-field bleachers at PNC Park is The Place for real Pirates fans -- the kind who, you know, skip out on any and all responsibilities that conflict with showing on Opening Day.

If nothing else, Riley figures his dad will respect son's decision to disobey the law. That he did so and scored better seats...

"Hold on, that's him calling me right now," interrupted Riley.

"Dad• Yeah, in the bleachers. ... Oh, that. Yeah, I won a trip to Boston."

Oh, that.

Turns out that Riley "won" the annual trivia game the Pirates play with one special fan during each home game.

Seems fair.

The friends insist Riley is the greatest Pirates fan of this fantastic four.

Thing is, Riley didn't actually answer the question correctly -- so his trip to Boston for a series between the Pirates and world champion Red Sox is as corrupt as his class-cutting and seat-stealing.

"No it isn't," defended Riley after hanging up on dear dad.

"The question was, 'Who is the only Pirate to hit a grand slam on Opening Day?' I picked 'C' because 'Roberto Clemente' seemed too obvious."

Obvious was dead-on.

"But they gave me the option of picking from the treasure chest. Every year on Opening Day the treasure chest is always a better option. And now I'm going to Boston!"

Manny

For the record, 300-plus hamburgers is about 200 too many.

"For real," deadpanned Kelvin Wheeler as he helped clean the mess that becomes of Manny Sanguillen's center-field Bar-B-Q stand after "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" is played over the PNC Park loudspeakers.

Wheeler is a student at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. He'll spend the next six months working side-by-side with fellow chefs and, of course, a certain famous Pirates catcher.

But if he never grills another burger in his life, he'll thank a high power.

"I don't know a lot about Pittsburgh," admitted Wheeler, who hopes to one day make a living prepping fine food in his native Detroit. "But I've never seen people who like burgers this much.

"Three hundred! Unbelievable."

His first day on the job, Wheeler didn't get to see much of Sanguillen -- at least, not before the good-natured Pirates' legend was headed for home, a bag of goodies hanging from each hand.

"Effective communication -- that's the key to food-service industry," Wheeler proclaimed, as Sanguillen stopped to sign autographs and pose for pictures with admiring fans.

"And with Manny, you know everything is OK if he's smiling."

And...

"He smiled a lot at me today," Wheeler said, smiling a smile of his own. "Guess that means I did good."

Program vendors

Raymond Brazell has spent the past 34 Pirates home openers selling something or other to eternally hopeful Pittsburghers.

He spent yesterday pushing programs, pencils and scorecards.

And like each of the prior 11 opening days, Brazell would have rather been moving beer.

"This is like the pasture," said the Blawnox-born Brazell of his position behind a merchandise booth just beyond the homeplate turnstiles inside PNC Park.

"I made more money selling beer."

Of course, when Brazell was exchanging his adult beverage of choice for customer coin, beer didn't cost as much as a program ($5) and scorecard ($1) set back fans yesterday.

"But the pencils are free!" Brazell pointed out quickly. "And we could charge for them. People are always trying to get pencils -- sometimes they don't even buy nothing."

Savage miniature pencil theft aside, Randy Gettens of Ross Township would likely have paid anything for the programs and scorecards he purchased for his sons, Jacob and Adam, prior to the start of the Pirates' game against the Milwaukee Brewers.

Jacob Gettens is 8, his brother Adam 6, and yesterday's opener was their first.

"I've been waiting to teach them how to keep score," Randy Gettens said.

Yesterday's opener was Randy Gettens' 15th.

"But it feels like my first."

Grounds crew

Two outs in the bottom of the third inning. A group of 11 men stand in collective silence inside a tunnel underneath PNC Park's sun-drenched playing surface.

Weapons in hand, they are ready to, uh, rake... and drag.

For the grounds crew employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, this is when Opening Day gets interesting.

Kind of.

After the third and sixth innings, Pirates field maintenance manager Steve Peeler's crew of 11 ground guards rush onto the field of play and flatten out the infield dirt as best they can in under two minutes.

And not once into Peeler's second year on the job have these guys made this act even remotely interesting.

Not once.

Sigh.

"They're too good," Peeler admitted. "They've trained me not to worry."

Not that Peeler doesn't have other worrisome matters on his mind.

For starters, there's the PNC Park sod -- new, a four-way blend of bluegrass from Magic Carpet Turf Farms in Michigan. Peeler (and crew) laid it down on Nov. 1, 2004, and he's spent much of the time since then praying that no outfielder dives for a falling baseball during the Pirates first two home games.

Not even the Pirate most likely to sacrifice his body for a ball.

"I don't want to see any pieces of this stuff come out of the ground," Peeler acknowledged. "Next homestand, Jason Bay can dive as often as he likes. But these first two games, I want him staying on his feet."

So basically, the Pirates field maintenance manager and their field manager desire the same actions of Bay these days.

"Yeah," Peeler joked. "Let's get Jason and the grass totally healthy before he starts tearing up the turf."

Club Level Seats

PNC Park is home to 2,900 Club seats. Score a ticket for one of them and you can live a life of luxury for at least nine innings.

In this case, luxury is available air-conditioned cover from the sun, a bartender who will serve I.C. Light in actual glass bottles, shaved ice with fresh fruit puree topping and comfy leather chairs pointed in the direction of wall-hanging flat-screen televisions.

Throw in the flare of a few dozen memorabilia bits and what's not to love?

A pair of Doc Ellis' spikes, Paul Waner's fielding glove and the Pittsburgh Athletic Company's 1919 certificate of membership for the National League's newest baseball club -- exclusive items like these, plus carpeting, really complete the ballpark experience.

"It's all nice, real nice," says Philip Bujakowski of the North Side. "But I don't come to a ballgame for all of this."

Still, as the first inning of the Pirates' game against the Milwaukee Brewers nears its end, Bujakowski sits at the bar, orders a round of three that totals $14.25, and chats up Roxanne Squillante of Bridgeville and Andy Fox of Cranberry, while keeping an eye on the TV.

"Don't get the wrong idea," Bujakowski proclaims. "I'm going outside as soon as we're done."

Promises, promises...

"No, really," Bujakowski continues. "Last year, (the weather on Opening Day) was miserable. I wasn't going through that again. I said, 'Get the Club seats and this way you can come inside if it starts snowing.' "

But it isn't snowing.

"And look," Bujakowski says, finishing off his drink before heading for his sunny seats. "I'm off."

That he is.

But he'll be back.

Carpeting goes a long way.

Scoreboard Control Room

Inside the scoreboard control room at PNC Park, the hum of exhaust fans cut through the silent chaos that fills the room.

Computer screens with more random information than any right-thinking fan could imagine are stacked two-high. Hard drives are clustered like rush-hour traffic.

Men and women communicate through microphones connected to headsets, forming phrases from words that make sense only to them.

Muppets have overtaken the file cabinet that divides the room.

And the leader of this madness is chewing on a cigar.

"I know I said this 20 minutes ago, but we've got bloopers at the end of the inning," said Eric Wolff as the seventh inning draws to a close.

Wolff is leader, officially the Pirates manager of in-game entertainment and unofficially the only guy allowed to smoke inside baseball's best ballpark.

"There's a special dance for the bloopers."

"Who?" asked a woman wearing oversized Elmo slippers. She has a name, but the constant crush of craziness that comes with turning Pirates games into an Oscars-like production doesn't allow her to provide the important information.

"Special!" answered Wolff.

Rich Banaszak, who is responsible for at least five tasks over the nine innings, has worked his gig for 19 years.

He wouldn't expect to understand the insanity.

"That's not true," said Banaszak, a proud Pittsburgher. "I think anybody would get that it's crazy putting this show together...

"But I'm not sure even we get our kind of humor."

"Special!" screamed Wolff in a mocking tone.

"See?" posed Banaszak.

Roberto Clemente Bridge

The Jolly Roger had sprung one too many leaks by the time Reggie Howze began playing that familiar tune on his saxophone from his perch on the Clemente Bridge.

The words -- how do they go?

"Here we go Steelers, here we go!"

Enough!

Sure, the Pirates had lost to the Milwaukee Brewers.

Still, this is Baseball Season.

This is Opening Day.

And on the Opening Day of Baseball Season, Arthur Smith of Point Breeze goes to the ballyard.

"It's tradition," argued Smith, who argues for a living as an attorney for a Pittsburgh firm. "It's baseball. There's nothing like it.

"What else makes you feel like a little kid?"

Smith's daughter, Bryna, isn't so little anymore.

She's 26, living on her own in Shady Side and banking coin through Southwestern Human Services.

"Love it," said Bryna Smith of her job. "But when my client cancelled, I loved it even more. I called Dad and said, 'Hey, I'm available...'"

So to PNC Park they went -- like they'll continue to do.

Maybe.

Ever the lawyer, Arthur Smith has a message for Major League Baseball.

"I love this game, but if it were up to me I would boycott baseball games until a salary cap is in place," he warned, citing the Pirates' 12 consecutive losing seasons as evidence that small market teams can't compete.

However...

"I'm only talking to hear myself talk," admitted Arthur Smith.

"I can't stay away. It's baseball, it's Opening Day -- I love it!"

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