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April 2, 2010

Opening Day

Joe Charlebois

On Thursday, April 10, 1980, a 13-year-old boy and his girlfriend were dropped off at a PAT bus stop on Middle Road by their parents. The stop was just 11 miles from their destination – the 10-year-old concrete coliseum called Three Rivers Stadium, the home of the presiding World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. Hope for another Championship started that day.


The bus schedule was unfamiliar to the pair, but they had done enough research looking at the bus schedule to determine how to get downtown. As this was the boy’s first trip on a PAT bus, he was nervous.  He had been downtown before, but never on his own. If he had any consolation, it was in the fact that he had his girlfriend with him, and he was sure that she had some anxieties, too.


Upon reaching their stop in downtown Pittsburgh, the two got off the bus on Liberty Road. They were overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Liberty Road, which at the time was the center for a majority of the vice activity in Pittsburgh. The two had to navigate their way past adult themed video houses and shuttered storefronts to the business district and then to the bridge that would carry them over the Allegheny River.


As they headed further toward the bridge, they encountered the normal bustle of activity from the business community as well as thousands of black and gold clad fans. They joined the other fans converging into a solid stream of human traffic.


As the two crossed the bridge, they noticed the pageantry that would await them. Three Rivers Stadium was festooned with banners and signs that proclaimed the World Champions were back.


The stadium was not new to the two; they had seen the Pirates play before. However, making the trip to see the World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates on opening day on their own was new. Missing part of a school day wasn’t all that unusual at that time since most Opening Day games were held in the afternoon. It was not unusual for many offices to close early either. Numerous schools in the surrounding townships felt the “baseball flu” as it took its toll on the attendance registry every year.


Nowadays, most Opening Day games are held at night. It makes sense economically, fewer people are willing to take off work or allow their children to miss any class time. I don’t blame that line of thinking, either. It was just a different time with different expectations.


Downtown Pittsburgh – through its Renaissance II program – changed, too. The area of Liberty Avenue, which was a blight on the city, has been replaced with a cultural district that is the rival of any city the size of Pittsburgh. The bridge that the two walked over is now named after Pirate great and humanitarian Roberto Clemente, and the cylindrical concrete stadium was torn down in favor of an open and awe-inspiring one called PNC Park. Unlike the sterile multi-purpose Three Rivers Stadium, this one is a much friendlier baseball park that shows off the renewed city’s downtown skyline.


Now that spring is here and the major league baseball season is soon to be underway, my boyhood team, the Pirates, will start what hopes to be a better season than they’ve experienced since I left town some 17 years ago (coincidentally the last time they’ve had a winning season). Here’s hoping that this year the Pirates will experience their own renaissance and rebound into winners. Whether they do or not is yet to be seen, however optimism of Opening Day when no one team is ahead of another brings hope to all attendees that they are witness to the beginning of a dream season.


As I think back to that day in 1980, I can’t help but wonder if there is another pair of young teenagers making their way to a ballpark to experience the thrill of opening day this year.


Even though I can name the starters of that team, I’ll be honest; I don’t remember the game that much. It was the experience, the memories surrounding Opening Day – the trip, the sights and sounds will be etched in my memory forever.


“Beat ‘em Bucs!”


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