I grew up in a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania, roughly 30 minutes from the great city of Pittsburgh. It was an area that lived and breathed on two things: steel and sports. Some of the earliest memories of my childhood revolve around sitting on the porch with my grandfather listening to afternoon Pirates games on his small box radio, while he told stories of his favorite all-time ballplayer, Joe Dimaggio. His love affair with the “Yankee Clipper” was based on one simple criteria – he was the best, and he was Italian. Between my grandfather and my father, who was a certified card-carrying Pirates fanatic, I came to appreciate the game of baseball at a very early age. I vaguely recall the first live game that my dad took me to at Three Rivers Stadium, I was still too young to appreciate the game but I loved being there. Of course, 30 years later I also understand the significance of what it meant to him.
By the time I was in elementary school, baseball had replaced Star Wars and Transformers as the number one priority in my life. Like most kids who grew up in the 1980’s, I collected baseball cards. In the era before cable television and the internet gave the entire country access to every team at a moments notice, those cards were the conductor that connected me to the game that I loved. Every new pack offered a chance to meet some new heroes – not to mention chew another stick of that awesome Topps bubblegum. Through the camera lens of the photographers that created the images on those cards, I was able to visualize such far-away places as Oakland, Milwaukee, and Yankee Stadium. The backyard of our modest house on Buchanan Avenue became Three Rivers Stadium every summer night, as I recreated the photos on those cards and became Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs, Kirk Gibson, or my all time favorite “non Pirate” Kirby Puckett. Baseball was my outlet, a place of solace for a kid who was as awkward as the day was long.
The Pittsburgh Pirates were my team, and unfortunately for me and the other young “yinzers” who were just beginning our lives as Pittsburgh sports fans, they were horrible. Those teams of the mid 1980’s weren’t “lovable losers” like the other perennial National League doormats over in the Windy City, the Pirates were simply losers. I can remember many times sitting in Three Rivers Stadium in those early years and being able to actually count the fans in each section. A franchise that had as recently as 1979 owned the baseball world had been decimated by bad management and a series of drug scandals, issues that I didn’t fully understand or care about. Regardless of the losses that piled up each summer, or the steady roster turnover of mediocre journeymen players who slid through Pittsburgh as quickly as possible on their way to either retirement or another team, the Pirates were MY team. When the game would come on the radio – or TV, a real treat – I would hunker down and watch those Buccos battle their National League foes. Especially disliked by this young fan were the New York Mets, a collection of players who seemed to be superhuman. They had superstars all over the field, and a pitching staff that simply owned the Pirates for what seemed like a solid decade. The Pirates would play hard against the Mets every game, only to lose in the end each time. It was a rivalry that hadn’t yet reached its nexus, but would eventually help mold the Pirates back into a formidable bunch a few years later.
The Pirates sported a roster that combined veteran players – a term that I use to be nice – with young, unproven rookies and bottom of the barrel types such as Benny Distefano and “Rambo” Mike Diaz. While the Pirates did have a few decent players mixed in, such as Second Baseman Johnny Ray – a guy who could have started for just about any team in his prime – the talented were few and far between. Some young players seemed to have promise too, such as First Baseman Sid Bream and Pitcher John Smiley. Pirates fans had only just recently heard of Barry Bonds, a skinny rookie who had been tearing it up in Triple A before getting the call to Pittsburgh. The one shining star on those Pirates teams was my favorite player – a fine example of hard work, fortitude, and doing it all with a smile on his face – Catcher Tony Pena. Pena wasn’t a true superstar in the mold of a Mattingly or Puckett, but to Pirates fans he was OUR superstar. He was the most requested Pirates player for all charity events, autograph signings, and by far the player who got the best ovation when he strolled across the hard Three Rivers Stadium carpet to the plate for his at-bats. To a young baseball fan looking for a hero in the Steel City, Tony Pena was everything.
Spending time watching or listening to baseball usually meant doing it with my dad. My father worked very long days in the city, a career that came with a brutal commute as a sentence. Despite all of that, he always made time to watch games with me, practice throwing the ball around, or take me to the game when finances would dictate. This is probably a story that most fans can relate to, since a love of baseball is usually something as genetic as red hair or freckles. Dads have been teaching appreciation of the game to their sons and daughters since Babe Ruth was turning baseball into “Americas Pastime”. It is a pure sport that requires the players to have more than just athletic ability. Integrity, teamwork, and a strong mental understanding of the nuances of the game are essential parts of any baseball experience. With all of those traits firmly implanted in me by my father at an early age, I set off to conquer the local baseball scene as a player. In my backyard, I was Tony Pena….or Rickey Henderson…..or Roger Clemens. I was unstoppable against the neighborhood kids, my little sister, and anyone else who dared step into “Snedden Stadium” to challenge me to a game of whiffle ball. I figured that I would have no problem translating my love and passion for the game into a starring role on the field. Little did I know that fielding a batted ball is HARD, and hitting is damn near impossible. I would continue to play baseball my entire life, but my dreams of someday becoming the starting centerfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates died that summer in the overgrown little league fields of Beaver County, Pennsylvania. It gave me a much deeper appreciation for the game, and for my favorite player. Tony Pena made caching and throwing out runners seem almost……easy. He made the All Star team in 1986, joining all of the other stars who made up by baseball card collection on the field. Little did I know that I would soon be searching for a new hero, as the business end of baseball was about to rob me of a piece of my childhood…….
NEXT TIME ON “Growing Up Buccos” – Tony Pena is traded. The new era of Buccos baseball begins.