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April 15, 2016

Opening Day

Joe Charlebois

As the local Little League teams had their opening day ceremonies at Staley Field and the Frederick Keys opened their season, the Major Leagues are well under way as well. I’ve either participated in or attended many an Opening Day, but looking back, there is one that I’ll always see from a different perspective.


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. There they waited in anticipation with tickets in hand.  The stop was just 11 miles from their destination – the 10-year-old concrete coliseum called Three Rivers Stadium, the home of the reigning 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 it to determine how to get downtown. As this was the boy’s first trip on a Pittsburgh Transit 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 Avenue. They were overwhelmed by the sights and sounds, 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.


Numerous schools in the surrounding townships felt the “baseball flu,” as it took its toll on the attendance register every year. It was not unusual for many of the downtown offices to close a bit early for the “Businessman’s Lunch.”


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 that hosted both the Pirates and Steelers was torn down in favor of an open and awe-inspiring one called PNC Park. Unlike the multi-purpose Three Rivers Stadium, this one is a much more fan-friendly baseball park that shows off the renewed city’s downtown skyline.


Now that spring is here and the major league baseball season is underway, my boyhood team, the Pirates, will start what promises to be another great season. After three straight division titles in the early 90s, the Pirates set a record in futility.  They set a professional sports record of 20 consecutive losing seasons. They have been to the playoffs the last three years as a wild card team, but hold the second best record in all of baseball over the same three years.


Here’s hoping that this year the Pirates will experience their own renaissance and turn their new found success into a division title and more. Whether they do or not is yet to be seen; however optimism of Opening Day, when no 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 was another pair of young teenagers that made their way to a ballpark to experience the thrill of opening day this year.


Even though I can name most of 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 that will be etched in my memory forever.


This could be the year – “Beat ‘em Bucs!”




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