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Bucco Brigade brings fun to all

| Sunday, May 4, 2003

The night air at PNC Park is filled with electricity.

Bases are loaded, there are two outs, and the score is tied.

The Pirates' Reggie Sanders steps to the plate, and members of the Bucco Brigade swing into action.

New Brigade member Kellan Thompson, 20, of New Kensington lifts his arms to rev up the fans. He begins cheering loudly, "Reggie! Reggie!"

The crowd follows his lead, clapping in time to their own cheers as they exhort Sanders to rise to the occasion. The echoes of "Reggie! Reggie!" resound through one of the most beautiful settings in baseball. Then, it's on to "Let's go Bucs! Let's go Bucs!"

About now, Thompson, a 2001 graduate of Valley High School, has to be thinking something like "This has got to be one of the best summer jobs I've ever had."

He's looking forward to a season full of similar experiences, as is fellow new Brigade member Sara Rodites, 18, of New Kensington, a graduating senior at Valley High School.

The Bucco Brigade is the baseball team's pre- and in-game entertainment troupe, responsible for creating an additional entertainment value for fans from the time they walk off Clemente Bridge onto Federal Street in front of PNC Park, and continuing inside the park during breaks in the game.

From making balloons for kids, to launching T-shirts and hot dogs, to dancing on the dugouts and assisting in promotions, including the popular pierogie race, they sometimes cover more bases than the athletes.

"I hadn't known anything about the Brigade until my best friend went on the Pirates' Web site (www.pittsburghpirates.com) and said, 'There is this job where you fling hot dogs and T-shirts into the crowd.' It looked like the coolest job for me. I'm a huge Pirates fan. One time I dressed up like a Pirate at a game," Thompson says.

So far, he hasn't been disappointed.

"I knew it would be fun. I knew it would be exciting and I'd be able to have a good time. I didn't realize it was this professional, where certain things have to get done, the prepping for a game," he says.

Rodites, this year's youngest Brigade member, also heard about the job from a friend. "I thought this would be a really great opportunity. I'm into performing arts. I thought this would be a nice job along those lines. I needed a summer job anyway." She's glad she signed on.

Rodites, a former Valley cheerleader, is a member of the drama club and show choir in high school and plans to study musical theater when she goes to college in the fall. She has done six New Kensington Civic Theatre shows, as well as a production at the Casino in Vandergrift. She hopes for a career on the stage.

Thompson, a sophomore communications major at Penn State, McKeesport Campus, wants to go into broadcast journalism.

Both believe they will be able to practice their communication skills in a lot of interesting ways with the Brigade.

"I hope maybe this will be a stepping stone and that I will be able to show people I can work with a crowd," Thompson says, "and that I know how to improvise when I'm out there. Cameras don't make me nervous."

Fans are the real stars of this show

Brigade members work hard but have a lot of fun doing what they are doing, says Lori Reda, a Pirates promotions assistant who oversees the unit. "They enjoy the experience and interacting with fans."

The Brigade has 10 members and one alternate. The minimum age is 18. There is no upper age limit. The oldest member is 38.

Six people work each game, with four involved in in-game activities. They rotate duties. One is in charge of the "K Club," which involves sitting in box seats along the third-base line and hanging a "K" on a special score board each time a Pirates pitcher strikes out an opponent.

The job of another member is to attend to the "Home Run Wall" in right field. Each time a Pirate hits a home run, a Brigade member climbs a step ladder to change the tally on the homer scoreboard.

They are expected to arrive two hours before the first pitch to begin game prep. That includes rolling T-shirts and wrapping the hot dogs for launching.

Fans receive a coupon for a free hot dog with the launched dog. The launched dog, although real, is not meant to be consumed.

They also go over the pierogie race scenario for that game. Rick Orienza, director of promotions and advertising for the Pirates, says the enthusiastic manner in which the racing Pierogies have been embraced has surprised him.

"It's just kind of silly and fun. People enjoy the escapism of it. It's so ridiculous, four food products racing around the field," he says, laughing. "People have kind of been swept up in the personalities and the competition," he says.

Children and adults look forward to the fifth-inning competition, Reda says. "It's great. It's just so much fun. Everyone seems to get really excited when the race comes up. It's fun to add that element, and people cheer for the story lines," she says.

Before a recent game, Thompson found himself trying to converse with one of the costumed pierogies about what they would be doing in that day's race.

"It's funny. They don't talk to you. They are very professional. You realize you are sitting there talking to a giant pierogie," he says, laughing.

On the wings of a victory

It was pigeons, not pierogies, on Rodites' mind during her first day on the job. She drew "K Club" as her initial assignment and had a lot of fun with it, although it may have been a bit lonely. The boxed seats had not been sold for that night, so she was the only one without wings in the section. "I was sitting with the pigeons," she says, laughing.

She also has greeted fans on Federal Street. "One child wanted us to make a giraffe balloon, and it ended up looking like a long-neck dog," she says, laughing.

Rodites wants to work as many games as she can and experience all of the Brigade jobs. "And I'm looking forward to going down there and making other people have a blast," she says.

She appreciates the opportunity to hone her people skills while earning money. She hopes she will be able to use that training in other facets of her life, including schooling and her career.

"It's just a nice job for her, right up her alley," says her mom, Cookie Rodites. "She has been a performer for quite some time. This is an excellent job for someone who enjoys the public. It's just right in line with her career."

Thompson's mom, the Rev. Teralyn Thompson-Bossio, isn't surprised that the Pirates selected Kellan. "He can work anywhere. He has such a great personality. We are excited he is working for the Pirates," she says. "The Pirates are fortunate to have someone like him. He really loves kids. He mentored last year for our 'kids at-risk' program."

She also applauds the baseball team for its fan-friendly approach with the Bucco Brigade. "I'm really happy they have become so family-oriented. It's another plus factor for Pittsburgh. It's such a great city to live in, clean and fun."

Keeping that entertainment G-rated is a vital part of being in the Brigade, Rodites says. "We practice what is called 'controlled craziness.' We like to see the crowd get into it. We're taught how to control it and keep it at a very family level."

Thompson: "We are cheerleaders, in a sense. We have to know when it's a good time to get the crowd animated. It's more like timing than cheering constantly."

Dugout dance floor

He's had a blast dancing on top of the dugout. "That's a lot of fun. Thank goodness my mom gave me rhythm," he says, laughing.

He credits his outgoing nature, in part, to her. "As an evangelist, she knows how to talk to a crowd and get a crowd going," he explains.

During one game, he was participating in the hot-dog launch, and his crew forgot to load a dog. "We got the crowd real pumped up and we just shot them an empty cup," he recalls. The Brigade was greeted with good natured booing.

Although Thompson can put a T-shirt into the upper deck, he says the Pirate Parrot has a "way more powerful" gun for launchings than Brigade members. "He's got seniority," he explains. "He's the man."

"Everyone's your friend whenever you pull that T-shirt out of your jacket," he quips.

Thompson finds working the between-inning "Mystery Box" promotion "hilarious." In it, a fan is asked to answer a trivia question for a prize, then decide whether he wants to bypass the first prize that is offered for what is in the box. "We know what the prize in the box is, but it's a code of secrecy. We know when there is some Count Chocula underwear in there," he says, laughing again.

Thompson played varsity basketball for three years at Valley. He did not have any performance experience in high school, but earned a reputation as a solid, charismatic, crowd motivator. "My friends made me that way. We just always have been silly. We try being silly to the limit," he says.

He brought a wig to his Brigade audition.

He acknowledges that he probably would have made a good mascot at Valley, "But I couldn't fit the costume." And probably the only reason he wasn't in the choir was the small technicality that "I can't sing a lick."

He prides himself in winning over people who are shy. "I can go up to someone and bring out the best in them," he says.

That's the spirit the Pirates are looking for, Reda says.

"We want people who are outgoing and not afraid to be in front of people and who are excited about what they are doing," she says.

On their field of play, the Bucco Brigade, with their two new Valley additions, just could be leading the league.

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