Rush to judgment for Pirates fans?

A home opener that leaves the crowd stuck between love and heartbreak

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Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Kurt Beschorner, of Greenfield, waves his "left field loonies" towel as he cheers on the Pirates in the home opener.
Click photo for larger image.

Long before the Pirates tried yesterday to spiritedly prove him wrong, Joe DiMaggio, asked about Opening Day, described his love for the occasion by saying, "You think something wonderful is going to happen."

It solidified into a baseball commandment, as decades passed and hope bloomed every spring: Even the poorest teams enjoyed the purity of Opening Day, the poetry of a fresh roster and a fresh start. And so yesterday, that poetry disintegrating, the Pirates christened another season in PNC Park with an 8-3 loss to the Dodgers -- and by the end, Pittsburgh's Opening Day only meant opening a wound.

Even in the Pirates' 13 previous losing seasons, they counted on the goodwill and optimism that regenerated every offseason. This year, though, six losses in Pittsburgh's first seven games -- all on the road -- largely disabused fans of the notion that anything, well, wonderful awaited. An announced 39,129 spectators turned out yesterday afternoon at PNC Park to watch a 1-6 ballclub become 1-7. Four military planes flew over the stadium, actor Michael Keaton tossed the ceremonial first pitch and a former "American Idol" contestant sang the national anthem, but this game, once it began -- and quickly unraveled -- inspired groans about the same old Bucs.

Two batters into the afternoon, the Pirates trailed 2-0. At the end of the second inning, they trailed 5-0, and boos flew from every angle of the stadium. Fans booed again in the fifth, when starting pitcher Zach Duke allowed two more runs, and again at the end of the sixth, when the Pirates stranded runners at second and third base.

Despite blue skies and a temperature in the 60s, baseball's Opening Day in Pittsburgh produced an unsettling sentiment -- halfway between "Here we go again" and "Here we go, Steelers." Mr. Keaton, for one, said he fears his hometown baseball team "will take advantage of the goodwill of the people who continue to show up. For my money, that's disrespectful."

Even before the game, fans interviewed while tailgating -- booze preceding boos -- chuckled about their rooting fate. They were stuck between love and disgust. They talked about baseball the way most people talk about Powerball tickets. They no longer expected a payoff for their support.

"I drove in from Harrisburg," said Rege Ryan, 25, sipping a Busch in a full parking lot two hours before the first pitch. He had met up with several college buddies from Youngstown State University -- a trip made worthwhile by shared jokes, a relished off day from work and a smoking grill of chicken. "Still," Mr. Ryan said, referencing the sad-sack baseball, "we're basically Tampa Bay without the sun."

Fans, at least those sticking to the rites of optimism, needed some creativity this season. "We're on a winning streak!" Dawn Weitzel, of South Park, said hours before that streak ended at one. Asked whether his expectations for the baseball season had changed since spring training, Joe Ober, of Ross, painted the prior week as a blessing: "Well," he said, "they have won a game."

"It all depends on how diehard you are," said Mark D'Angelo, 41, of Whitehall, whose Pirates tattoo on his arm testified to his status. "If you don't have hope, you don't have anything. I'm still sticking with what I said from the beginning -- five games over .500. Of course, I've been saying that for the last three years."

When the game started, however, reality interrupted. Mr. Duke, hailed as the most capable link in the team's starting pitching rotation, allowed seven runs in only five innings. Entering the sixth inning, Pittsburgh trailed by seven, and manager Jim Tracy replaced Mr. Duke with maligned reliever Ryan Vogelsong, who pitches mostly in blowouts. When a stadium official announced the attendance -- the second-largest in PNC Park's history -- much of that crowd was positioned on the Clemente Bridge, heading posthaste to Downtown parking lots.

"What I would ask," Mr. Tracy said later, asked about fans' frustrations, "is that we don't render this situation at 1-7 done."

After the game, players filtered into the clubhouse, saying more of the same. They just needed to get some consistency, some timely hits, some capable pitching. They didn't want to panic. "There's still a lot of baseball left," Jason Bay said, those words meant to be encouraging, not foreboding.

Pittsburgh had entered the season counting on an improved team. During the winter, the team had acquired a new third baseman, Joe Randa; a new first baseman, Sean Casey; and a power-hitting outfielder, Jeromy Burnitz. It had hired a new manager. Its several young talents had benefited from another year of experience. The team had the puzzle pieces.

But Pirates puzzles, recent tradition dictates, look best when still in the box.

"At some point," Mr. Keaton said before tossing the opening pitch, "you either have to write the check or do something and not assume, well, we're OK and, ultimately, the franchise is valuable, anyway, like Donald Sterling did with the [National Basketball Association's] Los Angeles Clippers. ... I think fans have been gracious. And maybe not vocal enough. Maybe not vociferous enough with their displeasure. That's my opinion."

Still, baseball owes part of its odd tradition to the plagues it can force upon fans. Boston Red Sox followers, until 2004, waited 86 years between World Series titles. Not since 1908 have the Chicago Cubs won a World Series. The Pirates haven't enjoyed a winning season since 1992 -- the longest such streak in baseball. And Pittsburgh fans, meanwhile, have learned the pattern that comes with it: waiting for results, and laughing at the folly of it.

"Hope springs eternal, I guess," said John Kroboth, leaving the lower concourse yesterday.

"For the eternal optimist it does," his buddy, Chris Desiderio, responded.

"1974," Mr. Kroboth said on cue. That was the year Pittsburgh lost six to start the season, he explained, and then finished first in the National League East.

"Well," Mr. Desiderio said, "the difference was they hadn't had 13 consecutive losing seasons."

"Hey!" Mr. Kroboth said finally. "Quit raining on my parade."

Chico Harlan can be reached at or 412-263-1227. Dejan Kovacevic contributed to this report.


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