Thursday, July 9, 2009

Day 5 Baseball Trip - Mets vs. Pirates

So Thursday morning, we left Cambridge, Ohio for Pittsburgh for the Mets vs. the Pirates. I have a long history with Pittsburgh. Most of my family comes from Etna and Glenshaw, towns that are suburbs of Pittsburgh. My family moved from Western Pennsylvania to Hicksville, New York in the mid 60's shortly before I was born. My mom, my older brother and my older sister were all born in Western Pennsylvania. My Aunt Syl, my Uncle Elmer and my cousin Ron and his family all are in Glenshaw.

I remember the house my grandparents lived in Etna. I remember my grandfather as a man of few words, who loved his Iron City beer and his Pirates. My grandmother was a great cook and we spent several summers and Thanksgivings at their house. Often time seemed endless there. My Uncle Bobby used to work for the post office and on our last visit to the house (or I think my last visit), we brought our family dog, Gemgem, a cockerpoo. My dog never liked any males outside of my brother and me and that dog hated Uncle Bobby. Of course, Uncle Bobby egged on our dog by calling it a "sissy dog". It was good comedy.

Sadly, my Uncle Bobby died in his sleep one morning and my grandmother and my mom were crushed. It sort of was the beginning of the end in that household in Etna. My grandmother would die only a few years later of cancer. She died right as my first semester of college started. I wanted to go to the funeral but my mom didn't want me to fall behind with school work. I ended up being the first person in my family to go to college full time over four years and at the time, she didn't want to jeopardize that. To this day, I always regret not going to my grandmother's funeral. My grandfather would die a short time later. He was lost without my grandmother. Over a period of four years, my grandparents house in Etna was vacant.

Over the years, my aunt and uncle (pictured above with my mom who is on the left) would travel from Pittsburgh to see us on Long Island, most recently a few years ago. Until last summer, the last time I was in Pittsburgh was for my cousin Ron's wedding. Then last summer, as part of a trip I planned out that basically went over Pennsylvania, we took my mom with us to Pittsburgh to see Syl and Elmer. During that time, I got tickets for a Pirates game. My son Matthew, Uncle Elmer and I went to the Astros-Pirates game. To the left is a picture of Uncle Elmer holding Matthew in front of the Honus Wagner statute in front of PNC. We had a really good time for five innings until Matt decided he missed mommy and wanted to go back to Uncle Elmer's house where they were waiting for us. But not before he had that soft pretzel he so wanted.

So now I was back one year later to see the Pirates take on the Mets. It certainly wasn't the first time I saw the Pirates take on the Mets live. I told you I had a long history with Pittsburgh. Well that's because also my first live baseball game ever was in September 21, 1973 on a Friday night when the Mets beat the Pirates at Shea Stadium 10-2 to take over first place in the NL East from the Pirates. Somehow my dad got great field level seats and my brother, the ten year older Yankee fan, my dad, the lifelong Pirate fan and me got to watch Tom Seaver and the amazing Mets dominate the Pirate Lumber Company (as they were known as at the time). I got hooked on the Mets that night and 36 years later here I am, back at a Mets- Pirates game.

The game was delayed due to a rain delay. During the delay, the Pirates, being old school, showed the famous Abbott and Costello "Who's on First?" routine, which to this day still makes people laugh (and it did during the rain delay). As we hung out during the rain delay, it was apparent a lot of Mets fans made the eight hour trip to Pittsburgh, despite the Mets well documented struggles. I think that's part of the charm of the Mets. They're the franchise that has to share New York with the team that's won the most championships in sports, the Yankees. The Yankees were the established team, while the Mets were the expansion franchise the league felt it owed New York after the Dodgers and the Giants both left for California a few years prior. Many of those Dodgers and Giants fans, like my father in law, became Mets fans. One such fan, Fred Wilpon, later became the owner of the Mets.

The Mets started with the 62 Mets, the worst team in the history of baseball and perhaps one of the most loved. Then seven years later, you had the 69 Mets, the team with little hitting but a whole ton of pitching, defense and heart that knocked off the mighty Orioles. Then there was the 73 Mets, the team I grew up on. Won their division with a 82-80 record, knocked off the Big Red Machine in the NLCS and nearly knocked off the A's dynasty in the World Series. Of course, everyone knows about the 86 Mets. Over the 47 years of the franchise, there has been two World Championships, two NL pennants, seven years of playoffs and a whole lot of bad, often slapstick baseball, bad trades and draft picks, and a whole lot of heartbreak. The last part is especially true in that the last two years where the Mets had a significant lead in the NL East, only to implode the last few weeks of the season.

Our seats were along the first base line, field level about 15 rows up. as you can tell from the David Wright picture here and the previous picture as well. $28 a piece through the Pirates online ticket site. Incredible! So finally they got the game started after the rain delay. Funny thing was that they didn't play long, another rain shower hit and again another rain delay. To torture the Mets fans, the Pirates played a September 1992 Mets vs. Pirates game. The Pirates had already clinched the National League East and the Mets were past their elite team of the mid to late 80's form and were now the team of Eric Hillman, Jeff McKnight, and Daryl Boston. So naturally, the Pirates smoked the Mets early on in this replayed game. The Mets wouldn't start recovering from this until they traded for Mike Piazza.

Due to injuries to Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and J.J. Putz, to name a few, the 2009 Mets at the moment look a lot like the 1992 Mets. The Mets had just came off getting swept by the Yankees, then lost two of three to the Milwaukee Brewers. They only won the last game of the Brewers series because Mike Pelfrey and the bullpen combined on a 1-0 shutout. They couldn't hit, couldn't field, and the pitching was spotty at best. The rain delay subsided but the Pirates came out and played liked the 1992 Pirates.

The 2009 Pirates jumped on the Mets early scoring five runs in two plus innings. This came as no surprise to Mets fans as it was due in large part to horrible pitching by the Mets starter, Tim Redding. Redding soon after this game was sent to the bullpen (thank God!). By the way, there are very few teams who have a more mediocre staff after their ace then the Mets. It's Johan Santana and four days of pray for rain! Considering the payroll the Mets have, this is a major embarrassment. And if that wasn't enough, having your own Sportscenter Top Ten list of mishaps is just icing on a very messy cake.

So with the Mets facing a 5-0 deficit in the fourth with the Pirates 2008 ace Paul Maholm on the mound, things looked bleak for the Flushing Faithful. Then a funny thing happened at PNC Park. The Mets found an offense. They rallied to score eight runs over the next three innings; two in the fourth, four in the fifth, and two on the sixth. The last two came on a rocket shot of a home run to right center by Fernando Tatis who for one day found his 2008 opposite field hitting stroke and not the pulled ground ball double play machine he has been this year (he leads the Mets by hitting into eleven double plays). The Mets would have fifteen hits on the day, which for them is a week's worth of hits. Tatis and Ryan Church would each have three hits for the Mets.

But the Pirates would rally. First in the seventh, the left hand hitting rookie Garrett Jones, who had a monster day at the plate, had a terrific at bat vs. Mets lefthander Pedro Feliciano. He fouled off several two strike nasty sliders from Feliciano, then worked the count to 3-2 before depositing a Feliciano fastball over the right center field fence to cut the Mets lead to 8-6 (the picture to the left is of Jones rounding the bases after the home run). Jones had three hits on the day and strangely was only a single away from the cycle. The Pirates then had second and third with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, but Sean Green struck out Jack Wilson and the Mets escaped to the ninth still up two. The Mets were only three outs away from getting back to .500.

So after a scoreless top of the ninth, the Pirates came up against NL All-Star closer Francisco Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth, Rodriguez had only blown two save opportunities going into the game (and one of those was the now infamous Mets-Yankees game with Luis Castillo dropping the popup for the sure third out of the game). So, down two runs, things looked bleak for the Pirates. But Freddy Sanchez.hit a grounder in the hole and beat the throw by the weak armed Alex Cora at first. Adam LaRoche came up as the tying run. Rodriguez fell behind 2-0, then came in with a fastball. As fast it came in, it went faster going out. LaRoche sent the ball deep over the right center field fence and the game was tied at eight.

Then Rodriguez decided to make things even more interesting. In his bid for a cycle, Garrett Jones hit a rocket grounder to Luis Castillo, who snagged it and threw to first for one out. Andy LaRoche had the only weak at bat of the inning and popped out. Then Robinson Diaz singled and Ramon Vasquez followed with a single to put runners on first and third. Rodriguez worked the count to 3-2 on pinch hitter Brandon Moss. Then Moss hit a rocket line drive to the right side, only to see it caught by Luis Castillo. The game went to the tenth tied at eight.

In the bottom of the eighth, Matt Capps got the first two outs. Then Capps accidentally drilled Fernando Tatis in the back with a 94 mph fastball. Tatis crumpled to his knees. It was his second hit by pitch of the game. After a visit from the trainer and manager Jerry Manuel, Tatis limped to first base. Tatis would get his revenge by stealing second base from Capps. Then Ryan Church smacked a single to centerfield. Talented Pirates centerfielder Andrew McCutchen had an excellent chance to throw out Tatis at home, but he airmailed the throw way over home plate and the Mets went up 9-8. Rodriguez then had a 1-2-3 tenth inning to pick up the win, despite blowing the save. The Mets left with a wild 9-8 victory.

It was time to leave Pittsburgh and head to Greencastle Pennsylvania for our overnight stay at another Comfort Inn before going to Washington D.C tomorrow. We didn't have time in either of our trips to Pittsburgh to see my Uncle Elmer and Aunt Syl. I hope to make up for that soon. My little sister had visited them in September of last year and traveled to the house that my grandparents had lived in. She told me now that it was basically a crack den. When I saw the familiar exit on the highway for Etna on Thursday, I had no interest in going. I made my peace with my old memories of my grandparents by visiting their gravesite last July.

Just driving away from the ballpark and Tieff noting to me how high we were on the highway. I looked down below to see the suburbs of Pittsburgh, a view I have seen many times. Then I remembered all the visits, the endless Thanksgiving day where time stood still. The summers hanging out on what seem to be my grandparents' huge porch (actually it was huge). Remembering the time my little sister ran off and got lost in the woods by the creek we used to hang out in. The times watching the Pirates games on KDKA with my grandfather on his old TV as Bob Prince was announcing the action. The trips to Dairy Queen, still my favorite place to go for ice cream. And finally Uncle Bobby coming back from work making fun of my dog. "Sissy Dog!"

I didn't need to see a broken down house to remind me of all that. Just seeing the familiar hills, the valley and the city skyline brought that all back. This will always be my second home.

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