One of baseball's time-honored traditions is the seventh inning stretch and the singing of "Take me out to the ballgame." But last night at PNC Park, some paying customers left their seats innings earlier, a disgruntled way of saying, "Take me out of the ballgame."
With yet another losing season nearly halfway through, a group called Fans For Change encouraged patrons to leave their seats -- an intentional walk -- to show public displeasure with Pirates management.
An estimated 1,000 fans answered the call. Several hundred left after the second inning when the Pirates scored six runs, but the majority made for the concourses after the third inning as planned. Most of the 26,959 in attendance stayed in their seats. Some of them chanted "Let's Go Bucs" and booed the gesture.
Still, organizers considered the night a victory for calling out the organization on its operations.
"It's more than symbolism. This is the wake-up call. This sends a message," said Andy Chomos, who led the exit after organizing the grass roots protest on the Internet last month. "I'm ticked off. We want to see meaningful baseball in August and September again."
Participants were asked to wear green, as in the color of money, to encourage management to spend its dollars on a better product. A few wore bags over their heads. One popular T-shirt -- selling for $5 -- carried the message "I Support The Third Inning Walkout." One of those walking out wrote on his shirt that Kevin McClatchy should be paying him to attend games.
Prior to the game, several hundred supporters of Fans For Change rallied outside Hi-Tops on Federal Street. Police were on hand to shoo the crowd back onto the sidewalk after it spilled into the street. A bobblehead doll was smashed in the street as a way of telling management that real baseball fans were tired of giveaways and want to see quality baseball again.
Among the speakers was Dock Ellis, a onetime Pirates pitcher who was an unabashed counter-culture figure back in the '60s.
"I've sort of been embarrassed to be called a Pirate over the last 15 years, and that hurts," he said. "You have to give the fans something. They deserve something. Let's hope that management takes notice."
Bob Nutting, the chairman of the Pirates, issued a statement Friday admitting this year's record has been a disappointment while acknowledging the passion of the fans who organized last night's gesture.
"Frankly, we all share in the frustration," said Mr. Nutting.
He appeared on the FSN telecast last night to repeat that the organization has not lost faith. Still, Mr. Nutting could not have imagined that when he stepped into the spotlight in January as the primary face of the Pirates that his picture would have appeared on phony money being circulated as part of last night's protest.
"What he said isn't good enough," said Mr. Chomos, a father of three and a lifelong baseball fan. "If the Nuttings are allowed to continue to run PNC as an amusement park, we've all lost."
Those on the field and in the dugout were focused on the game rather than what went on in the stands. But putting up six runs in the second inning perhaps softened some of the frustration everyone shares.
"We might have changed a couple of people's minds about leaving because we were swinging the bats so well," said Jack Wilson, the longest tenured Pirate on the roster. "Fans have every right to be upset with 14 years of losing. I've been here for six of them. I put some of the blame on myself. But it was a nice feeling knowing there were more people behind our backs, supporting us."
One of the quirks of the evening was that the protest fell on a night when bobblehead dolls of Bob Walk were given out. Now a broadcaster with the Pirates, he was a pitcher with the team when it last won a division title.
Two fans -- Brock Masters, 22, of Kittanning and Robby Bell, 21, of Penn Hills -- who held a banner aloft from the left field rotunda said they were escorted out by security in the bottom of the third. The bedsheet read: "Worst MLB Owners."
"We just wanted to express our opinion," Mr. Masters said, holding the banner aloft on Federal Street outside the ballpark. "Management doesn't want to accept the truth about how terrible things are. We won't pay to go to any more games."
Protesters Brieann McGavitt, 22, and Matt Klima, 22, of California, Pa., both wore T-shirts bearing likenesses of Bob Nutting, Kevin McClatchy and general manager Dave Littlefield above the words: "Axis Of Evil."
As another season walks on by, the Pirates are 35-45 following the 7-2 win last night over the Washington Nationals, a franchise that relocated from Montreal when fans stopped going to games and no stadium deal could be reached.
The losing record comes on the heels of 14 seasons of failing to win more games than they lose. The record for most losing seasons by one franchise belongs to the Philadelphia Phillies, who went 16 seasons between 1933 and 1948 without finishing above .500. The last team to have 15 straight losing seasons was the Philadelphia/Kansas City A's between 1953 and 1967.
One Shaler couple did not take part in the walkout because they refused to buy tickets. But they attended the pre-game rally.
"I'm fed up because they don't spend money the way they should," said June Coleman. "We pay the taxes that built this ballpark and don't have anything to show for it. I'm not going to any more games until something changes. Where's all the money going?'
"I'm bobbleheaded to death," said her husband, Ernie. "I don't want anymore giveaways. I want a winning team."John Heller, Post-Gazette
Fans head up the stairs after the third inning of the Pirates game last night at PNC Park. Disgruntled fans, many of them wearing green, walked out in protest of the team's management.
Click photo for larger image.
Robert Dvorchak can be reached at email@example.com or at 412-263-1959.