by Willie Steele
I honestly can’t remember my first baseball game. And I’m nowhere close to being able to estimate how many games at various levels I’ve been to in my life. But I know this: being a Pittsburgh sports fan in the late 1970s was about as close to Heaven as you can get in this world.
My family lived in a small town north of Pittsburgh in a time when it seemed the Steelers won every Super Bowl and the Pirates were always in the postseason. And kids weren’t the only ones who were caught up with the Steelers/Pirates fever in those days. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Cramer, had us make construction paper Terrible Towels in class during the fall of 1979 and used as many Pirates references as she could teaching us that year. In more than 20 years of teaching college, I have yet to match the level of cool she brought to the classroom. But I also remember talking Pirates baseball with her at recess and trying to convince my classmates that Willie Stargell was my dad. After all, he played for the Pirates, and I loved the Pirates. His name was Willie, and so was mine. Heck, we even had the same three initials in our names.
In the spring of 1981, my Dad had agreed to take a new job in Ohio, meaning that I’d be leaving the only place I could really remember much of, all my friends, and most tragic of all, my Pittsburgh Pirates.
I’d been to some games at Three Rivers Stadium with Cub Scout groups and when we’d win tickets for reading contests at the library, but I have only vague memories of these games (one was against the Mets, maybe?) and no recollection of specific plays. But April 9, 1981 changed that.
Knowing that we’d be moving when the calendar turned to May, we started to get a bit anxious and sad, knowing that things wouldn’t be the same and we wouldn’t be close to Pittsburgh any more.
I have no idea how my parents scored tickets for that game, but I suspect it had something to do with the wants of your kids trumping the needs of yourself. They were upper-level seats, and it was a chilly day with drizzle coming down off and on, but that was just the first of many times I’d be reminded of one of life’s greatest lessons: a bad day at the ballpark beats a good day anywhere else. While the rest of my friends were in school, I was looking down on the field, waiting for the game to start.
In January, just three months earlier, the Iranian hostage crisis had ended after 444 days of captivity. In the pre-game ceremony, one of the hostages threw out the ceremonial first pitch and was given a lifetime pass from Major League Baseball to attend any games he wanted. My oldest brother and I thought, “Man, how lucky is THAT guy!” Clearly, we weren’t aware of what it meant to be held hostage, but we did recognize the value of the lifetime pass, for sure.
As happy as I was to be at the first game of the season, not knowing it would be my last game there for several more years, I was bummed that Willie Stargell wasn’t in the starting lineup. It didn’t matter that his bum knees and aging body had slowed him down and diminished his productivity, it was THE Willie Stargell, “Pops”, who had led the team to a World Series title two seasons before. To this day, I still don’t like Jason Thompson for taking Stargell’s place at first base that day. When you’re a kid, you don’t realize that time eventually catches up with your heroes, and there is always someone else ready to step in and take over. But I didn’t have to like it.
It didn’t matter when the Pirates scored four runs in the first inning off Steve Rogers and were winning 5-3 by the third inning. The Expos had three future Hall-of-Famers (Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, and Gary Carter), and in the top of the ninth inning, Kent Tekulve (has there ever been a weirder looking delivery from a guy who looked more like your dentist than a major league pitcher?), gave up the go ahead run.
But in the bottom of the ninth, the PA announcer let us know that Stargell would pinch hit for Dale Berra. 39 years later, I remain convinced the clouds parted and sunbeams lit the field, though I’ve been told that’s not exactly how it happened. But when you are 8-years-old, your heroes can do no wrong, your parents will always be around, and the world is filled with possibility.
Unfortunately, the 41-year-old former All-Star didn’t provide the Roy Hobbs moment I’d have liked to have seen that day. In fact, it was one of only 38 games he’d play that year before retiring after the next season, three years later than he probably should have. I didn’t know it then, but watching him come to the plate was the last time I’d see my favorite player in person on the field.
With one out Stargell grounded out to second. It didn’t matter that Lee Lacy was on deck, I knew if Pops couldn’t win it for Pittsburgh, it wasn’t going to happen. Except for the grounder instead of a strikeout, I felt like the people of Mudville must have felt when Mighty Casey did (or, rather, didn’t do) his thing.
Though I know they must have been ready to leave, with three tired boys in tow, Mom and Dad let us walk around the stadium, picking up souvenirs and a program along the way. Waiting outside the clubhouse, hoping the get a glimpse of the players as they left, I leaned against a car thinking about the game.
Suddenly, a shadow crossed over me and a voice said, “Get off the man’s car.” I looked up and saw Willie Stargell, looking tired, staring at me. John Updike once wrote of Ted Williams refusing to answer a curtain call to the Fenway fans, “Gods do not answer letters.” Updike may be right, but I do know this: security will tell you to get off gods cars after they have grounded out in the ninth inning on opening day.
I’ve lost count of how many baseball games I’ve been to over the years. But when Pirates radio broadcaster Lanny Frattare retired several years back, he sold off his scorecards from all the games he’d done in 33 years. My oldest brother bought the one from the Pirates vs. Expos, opening day at Three Rivers Stadium, April 9, 1981 that you see as the featured image of this story.
From time to time, I pull it out and read through each inning. And suddenly, I’m eight-years-old, my Dad is still alive, my family has skipped school and work to go to the game, and there is still hope that Stargell comes through in the bottom of the ninth.
Willie Steele is an English professor at Lipscomb University, the author of Going the Distance: The Life and Works of W.P. Kinsella, and is the editor of NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture.
Larry Fattara’s Scorecard from April 9, 1981 – Pirates Opening Day
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