Couple will cherish love and sunburn they got on Opening Day
Ben Samson and Betsy Smith, formerly of Squirrel Hill and Allderdice High School, in Alexandria, Va.
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The Pirates' 2005 home opener was a treat for Ben Samson and Betsy Smith, a respite that allowed the two Allderdice High School seniors to skip school and enjoy a nice day at the ballpark.
Today's home opener at PNC Park marks an anniversary of sorts for the couple as their July wedding day grows near. Mr. Samson and Ms. Smith, formerly of Squirrel Hill, met as a result of that game six years ago thanks to Oliver Perez, a gutsy move in a ceramics class and the absence of sunscreen.
"We've told that story many times," Ms. Smith said by phone from Alexandria, Va., where they now live. "We like telling it."
Mr. Samson's father, Philip, took Ben to see the game on April 4, 2005, against the Milwaukee Brewers. They saw a Pirates lineup featuring Jason Bay, Benito Santiago and Jack Wilson, and current Pirates first baseman Lyle Overbay batted third for the Brewers.
The attraction for Mr. Samson, now 23, was Mr. Perez, the Pirates' opening day starting pitcher, who the previous season had recorded more strikeouts than innings pitched and had a 2.98 earned run average at age 22. So Mr. Samson spent the 57-degree, cloudless day staring at the pitcher's mound and allowed the sun to torch half of his face.
In ceramics class the next day, Mr. Samson saw that the sun had scorched the exact same asymmetrical burn onto the face of a girl he'd never spoken to.
"I know where you were yesterday," Mr. Samson said to Ms. Smith.
Ms. Smith's father usually attended opening day with her brother, Andy, but he was off at college, so she went in his place.
"I was embarrassed all day, kind of hiding my face," Ms. Smith, now 24, said. "I have fair skin and I burn really easily so it was pretty bad.
"I looked up, kind of surprised, and there Ben was. It was funny. ... He invited me to come sit at his table, and here we are."
But they almost weren't here, because they didn't plan on staying together. They became close and started dating, figuring they would enjoy themselves during the summer before college. They both liked art: Ms. Smith went on to minor in art history and Mr. Samson would major in architecture, so they visited the Andy Warhol Museum on their first date.
Mr. Samson attended the University of Maryland and Ms. Smith majored in English at Barnard College in New York City. Though they had planned to separate when they left for school, they decided against it.
"We thought, 'OK, we'll see how this goes and when it stops being good we can reassess,' and it just never really stopped being good," Ms. Smith said. "We really fell in love. So we made it work."
After graduation in May 2009, they returned to Pittsburgh and worked to save money for a trip overseas. Mr. Samson worked for Pittsburgh architect Harry Levine, Ms. Smith for the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children and at the Rodef Shalom Family Center.
In March 2010, they traveled for four months, visiting France, Switzerland, Israel and England. They rented an apartment in Paris for a month and participated in World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, where they volunteered their manual labor in return for room and board. Ms. Smith studied French all through school and speaks it fluently; Mr. Samson studied Spanish. Allderdice, they said, arranges schedules according to the language the students study, which is why she and Mr. Samson never had a class together until senior year.
They returned to Pittsburgh and the Warhol Museum last July, where Mr. Samson proposed to Ms. Smith in the silver cloud room.
"I was really surprised," she said. "Looking back on it, I really shouldn't have been. I even asked Ben, 'What's that in your pocket?' "
It was her ring.
"My heart was racing," Mr. Samson said. "She was sick at the time, thank goodness, so she was kind of out of it."
Once she had the ring?
"She cleared up immediately."
Mr. Samson now studies graduate-level architecture at Virginia Tech's Washington D.C.-Alexandria campus and Ms. Smith works for Gryphon House, a publishing company. Mr. Samson wants to work in large-scale urban architecture, and will complete his thesis project, a public transportation system for Pittsburgh, next May. Ms. Smith said she will probably go back to school and would like to work in the communications field.
They will get married at the Pittsburgh Westin, with a Warhol-themed cake and programs and an old-fashioned photo booth like the one at the museum.
The Pirates lost the '05 home opener, 9-2; for the season, they lost 95 games and finished last in the National League Central. Mr. Perez missed two months after breaking his toe kicking a laundry cart, and the Pirates traded him the following year.
Mr. Samson and Ms. Smith, though, keep cheering from afar, as they will today.
"We're always hopeful, we always root for them," Ms. Smith said.
Regardless of the teams' success, the idea of opening day, of peeling the wrapping off a fresh new season, brought them together.
That, and an unmistakable cherry-red sunburn.
First Published April 7, 2011 12:00 am