Back to the Bronx? No big deal

Most Pirates shrug off second visit to Yankee Stadium in three years

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WASHINGTON -- Save, perhaps, a handful of octogenarians who might still mutter at the mention of Bill Mazeroski's name, there cannot be many folks in New York who care much that the Pirates are about to visit Yankee Stadium.

And really, if one thinks about it, the Pirates probably should not care much, either.

For one, they have a 26-34 record, stunningly close to the Yankees' 27-31, this despite a $150 million disparity in payroll.

For another, the gosh-wow factor seems low: Seven of these Pirates were part of the group that two years ago made the franchise's first visit since 1960. Shawn Chacon was pitching for the Yankees and Xavier Nady playing for the rival Mets at this time a year ago. And two of the Yankees' scheduled starters in this series, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, are pitchers they have been facing for years in Houston.

No big deal, right?

Well ...

"Aw, I'm pretty excited about it," center fielder Chris Duffy said.

He grew up just across the state line in Connecticut, a devoted Yankees fan. Each year, he would ask his parents to take him to Yankee Stadium for his birthday, but the birthday, as he remembered it, always seemed to fall on the opening day of Little League.

"I never got to go," Duffy said. "So, it'll be kind of neat that, first time I'm there, I'll still be a player."

Even for reliever Josh Sharpless, who grew up in Beaver County a devoted Pirates fan, it will be a treasured experience.

"It's going to be really cool," he said. "I've always been big on the history of baseball and ... to walk into Yankee Stadium, see the plaques out in Monument Park, I'm really excited about it."

Overall, though, the no-big-deal attitude seems prevalent, even among the first-timers.

"There's a lot of history there, but it's not like I'm going to go stand on the mound and think, 'Oh, wow, it's Yankee Stadium,' " said Tom Gorzelanny, the starter tonight. "I'll look at it, I'll probably think it's cool, and I'll go to work."

That aspect of it might not be so easy, as the 2005 Pirates can attest.

Some might remember that those Pirates went to the Bronx under similar circumstances, with a record that was one game better than the Yankees and riding a bit of a crest after having reached .500 -- 30-30 -- the previous weekend at home.

And then ...

The Yankees took all three games by a combined score of 22-6. In the second of those, first base umpire Tony Randazzo incorrectly ruled a runner safe on what would have been a game-ending double play, and Jason Giambi homered in the 10th inning to win it for New York. And, most painful, the Pirates went on to lose two of three in Boston and never saw .500 again.

"Things didn't exactly go our way," shortstop Jack Wilson said.

Those who were in the cramped visitors' clubhouse for that series will recall an unprecedented tension, too.

"I think it was a tough adjustment for some guys," left fielder Jason Bay said. "Even the guys who play their 10 times a year will tell you it's a little different than just a regular, old regular-season game. There is some kind of awe that goes into walking out on that field. And even once you're playing, it's got an intense, almost playoff-type atmosphere with every out. It was something that a lot of us weren't used to."

He paused.

"But you know, if you think about our records being similar and a lot of us having been there ... with the way our season has gone, it would be really nice for our confidence to go up there and win. Those are the kind of series that can have a lasting effect and help you in the standings."

The series is no less important to New York from that perspective.

The Yankees, devastated by injuries to their pitchers and distracted by everything from the Giambi/steroids mess to Alex Rodriguez being photographed with strange women to the jeopardized jobs of general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Torre, are double-digits behind the first-place Red Sox in the American League East Division.

Even so, they have followed a five-game losing streak by winning six of eight, including three in a row against the White Sox in Chicago.

As shortstop Derek Jeter put it the other day in Chicago, "There is a lot of fight."

Nady knows the circus well. It is not much different than what he experience with the Mets, especially when they would travel across town for their many interleague meetings.

"It's a lot of fun to play in New York, and it's a lot of fun at that stadium," he said. "If you're not up for that game or that atmosphere, you've got something wrong with you."

Jim Tracy will be somewhat new to the place. He will be managing at Yankee Stadium for the first time, although he has visited previously.

Two years ago, Lloyd McClendon ordered his players to the ballpark two hours early to get the sightseeing out of the way early, but Tracy has no such rigid plan. His approach is that the Pirates, partly because they have stayed close against quality teams of late, partly because of their familiarity with Pettitte and Clemens, have no reason to be awed.

"Let's go there, play three games and win one more than we lose," Tracy said. "That's the way I'd like to see us approach it. I don't think we have anything to be afraid of. That's for darned sure."

Next year, Pirates vs. Yankees is sure to be a far bigger event, if Major League Baseball, as officials expect, sends the Yankees to Pittsburgh for the first time since 3:36 p.m. Oct. 13, 1960.

"Anywhere the Yankees go, it's an event," reliever Salomon Torres said. "Coming to our city, for Pirates fans, especially for those who are old enough to remember 1960, it would be a great thing. You'll see people taking their kids and grandkids, telling them stories, telling them about why they love baseball."


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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