We were surprised by the sellout crowd. The first tipoff was that almost all the spaces were taken by 6:15 in the lot on Stanwix across from Max & Erma's. The next was the large number of Tigers fans on Ft. Duquesne Blvd. and the Clemente Bridge on the way into the stadium.
Our usher told us that there was an unusually large walk-up crowd last night. We know that the fans aren't motivated by the competitiveness of the team. Could it really have been the bobbleheads that were given away last night, a triumverate of Duke, Doumit, and Duffy? Really, who would want that thing? One of the problems with the need to get these giveaway items made in advance in China or wherever is that doing so doesn't allow for late-stage contingencies, such as when one of member of the triumverate rips his hamstring or another fails to perform and disqualifies himself from competition for a month (the bobbling head taking on an unintended irony in this case
Speaking of Tigers fans and bobbleheads, we were with my stepson and his friend from New York, and as we were filing in, I told them to hang on to their bobbleheads even if they didn't want them because they could be sold on eBay. A Tigers fan standing near us overheard us and said, "You mean Pirates stuff is actually worth money?" Had I not been with my family, I might have gotten chesty with him, but I managed to control myself. My irritation was built on a similar experience I had at Thursday's game, when a White Sox fan in the seat directly behind mine spent the entire game loudly cheering on his White Sox heros and insulting the Pirates ("Hey Castillo, you stink!"), not seeing any reason to behave any differently than if he were sitting at U.S. Cellular Field.
Would a Browns fan ever dare to act like this at Heinz Field? No--because their team is competitive, Steelers fans have something that most Pirates fans don't have: passion. It was more of the same during the early innings of last night's terrific ballgame--Tigers fans starting "Let's Go Tigers" chants and strutting through the stadium with an aura befitting the fans of a first-place team playing the worst team in baseball.
The Pirates in general were lucky in the early innings, with lots of their hits coming on bleeders through the infield. Gorzelanny was okay. The rader hit 97 a few times in the early innings, and he escaped serious trouble by striking out the side in the second. His control was a little off, probably due to jitters, but he put in a credible five innings.
Bay and Jack Wilson are both in horrendous slumps. The worst moment in the game was when Leyland chose to walk Casey in the fifth and load the bases for Bay, who promptly struck out. Bay will be all right; like many great run producers, he is streaky, and his streakiness is magnified by the scarcity of other run producers in the lineup who might mitigate the effect of his bad streaks on wins and losses. Wilson, on the other hand, is reverting to what he always has been, a poor offensive player who doesn't get on base. On a team whose first baseman has three home runs and whose third baseman has five, a defensive specialist at shortstop or center field who contributes little to the offense is an unaffordable luxury, and batting him second in the lineup is madness. It was also madness to extend his contract unnecessarily before making a sober assessment of just what sort of an offensive player he is likely to be for the next three years.
The at-bat of the game, and for me, maybe the most entertaining at-bat of the season, was the battle between Marcus Thames and Matt Capps in the top of the seventh. Despite the final score, this was a taught nail-biter until our breakthrough--or rather, the Tigers breakdown--in the bottom of the seventh. But everything hinged on Thames vs. Capps. The Tigers had men on second and third with two out after another lucky break for the Pirates when Carlos Guillen's double went into the seats, preventing I-Rod from scoring from first (maybe things are starting to turn
). After going 2-2 on Thames, Capps threw strike after strike as Thames kept fouling them off, 11 pitches in all, never allowing himself to lose the advantage by going 3-2, and finally retiring him on a long fly to center.
Whatever else has happened this year, we've found two players: Freddy Sanchez and Matt Capps.
When the Tigers coughed the game up in the seventh, I was able to successfully start a "Let's go Tigers" chant in our section immediately following the third error, and the appearance of the stands in the eighth--much more like what you normally see when you scan the stadium--was evidence of just how many Tigers fans had contributed to this sellout, and just how many had left with their tiger tails firmly tucked between their legs.
The Pirates fans who were there, on the other hand, had a ball. It really is a great stadium and yes, it's fun to be there even when the team plays poorly. This may be the reason that the fan base continues to support the team and to be remarkably forgiving despite the egregious mismanagement of recent years.
Pirates fans deserve better than what these owners are giving them. Maybe in my lifetime, they will be rewarded with a decent ballclub on the field, and maybe then, fans of opposing teams will think twice before openly disrespecting them.