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My view from the second deck: First trip to PNC Park following COVID

Baseball is back and for that we are grateful.

As we’ve come to find out over the last year, many of us probably took going to baseball games for granted. Although I almost always enjoyed my time at the ballpark, there was the too familiar sensation of, “All right, baseball’s back, what game(s) are we going to this year?” Once April rolled around, I knew I’d be attending somebody’s game somewhere; that thought became second-nature and, at that point, therefore became just something I did.

Then, in 2020, that got taken away.

As is often the case with life, it can be challenging to understand what you have until it’s gone. With the world bracing for the unknown – and growing impact – of a pandemic, sports’ leagues across the globe shuttered their doors. For the first time in my life, I was without baseball. I’m not old enough to have been alive for the 1994 strike, and when I think of world-changing, catastrophic global events, I think of World War II – not anything in the present day.

But there I was, muddling around, twiddling my thumbs on my couch, looking for something to pass the time – an unknown amount of time. Like many others, I didn’t go back to school or work for the longest time. I didn’t go to restaurants or sporting events. I seldom left my house, save for the one-off, short-lived outdoors trip.

In many ways I was fortunate. While so many were dealing with legitimate, life-altering fissures in their lives, my time was mostly spent lamenting the fact that NCAA basketball had cancelled its tournament – a tournament in which my alma mater, East Tennessee State University, had a realistic opportunity to win a first-round game.

It also quickly became apparent that baseball wasn’t going to start its season on time, if at all, as two weeks turned into three and four; as weeks turned into months. I turned to the fine San Diego Studios production, MLB The Show, to receive my baseball fix.

Once baseball returned, so did my excitement. When the Pirates played their first game in 2020, sans fans, against the St. Louis Cardinals, I sat dutifully on my couch and scored the affair – a Pirates’ loss – longing for the days when patrons could return to the stands.

I languished as the season wore on, game after game of Bucco losses. The novelty of 2020’s situation quickly wore thin and I was left coasting along to the finish line with the Pirates, looking for storylines all the while.

That season – a 19-41 campaign – ended not with a bang, but a whimper. The Sunday, September 27, matchup in Cleveland ended with a three-hour time of game, the Pirates’ dropping their final contest 8-6 in front of nobody at Progressive Field. The COVID season was over.

Once the COVID season ended, it was just a matter of time before baseball returned in earnest. I attended my last Pirates’ game on July 20, 2019. The Philadelphia Phillies were in town and the Pirates were six games under .500.

According to the box score, there were 38,380 fans on hand to witness the game, which lasted just south of three hours. The date may sound familiar and you might recall why so many folks had turned up to that evening’s game. We were there to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1979 champion Pittsburgh Pirates. During an event worth remembering, Joe Musgrove threw six solid innings and Starling Marte collected a pair of doubles in a Pirates 5-1 win.

When I exited the stadium that night, I of course had no idea of the impending baseball stoppage. I made the trek back to my hotel and prepared to leave the next morning. I wouldn’t see another baseball game in person for 675 days.

Since I’ve become old enough, I haven’t gone more than 365 days between baseball outings, and I’ve made the trek to Pittsburgh from Tennessee at least once per year for a tick over the last half-decade. When it became evident that fans were going to be making their way through the entrance gates in 2021, I waited eagerly to purchase tickets to the first game I’d be able to go to.

That game, as it turned out, was May 25 against the Chicago Cubs. My wife, a teacher, normally makes the trip north with me, but she was busy shaping young minds. For that reason, I enlisted the help of my two best mates, one of whom is a Red Sox fan, the other who lacks any kind of formal interest, but is down for the journey nonetheless.

Early on a Tuesday morning, we embarked northward, destined for the City of Steel. Seeing as how I was the guide to two people who had never been to PNC Park, much less the city of Pittsburgh, I felt compelled to make the journey, destination, and return as magnificent as possible. Fortunately for me, the city itself – as well as PNC Park – does most of the talking.

Thanks to traffic, a detour, and a couple of stops, our six-and-a-half hour trip was more like seven-and-a-half-hours. Although we were staying in Cranberry, I re-routed slightly east to ensure my friends could enter the city through the Fort Pitt Tunnel because, as Willie Stargell once said, “…we came through the tunnel, and the city opened up its arms and I felt at home”.

An hour or so after we checked into the hotel, we returned to our car to head into the city. I was equal parts nervous and excited; the latter because I always am, the former because I was hoping the two of them would take to the city like I did. Coming from the north, we parked on the north shore, about a block or two away from the stadium.

As the lines gathered outside, my excitement grew. After all, it had been well over a year since I attended a baseball game. Once the gates opened, we were quickly ushered in. Entering at the left field gate closest to the Roberto Clemente Bridge, we stood on the inside momentarily, while I was struck by just how few people were there. I knew this would be the case for two reasons: 1) Pod seating was still in effect; 2) The Pirates weren’t very good. Still, it seemed there was seldom another fan around, with no waiting at concessions and tons of room in the team store.

Eventually, we made our way up the staircase then round the rotunda until we reached the 300-section, and dutifully made our way into section 327, row C. After purchasing a can of Iron City and buying wings and fries from Quaker Steak, I settled into my seat with about half-an-hour to go before first pitch.

With only a family in front of us, I began to think that COVID-era games might be one the best viewing options: sightlines aren’t obscured by other folks, obnoxious behaviors are kept to a minimum, and there’s plenty of room to spread out.

Once I finished eating, and while the videoboard and audio boomed around me, making announcements, playing videos and music, I pulled out my scorecard – my first live scorecard in what felt like ages – and checked the lineups on MLB’s app, penning in each starter that day.

Prior to first pitch, a moment of silence was held for the late Rennie Stennett, a solemn reminder of the fleeting existence we experience, and a nod to a decade-long Pittsburgh Pirate. By virtue of my affinity for the sport, as well as my line of work, baseball and existentialism often coexist in my purview, the two intertwined for the inexorable journey through time.

Once the game started, I felt at home – relaxed and easy, like I was visiting a friend. Living far enough away from the area that it takes some serious consideration to make a trip feasible, simply being there is often enough for me – even when the team’s bad. My day isn’t soured if they lose, although a losing game could be a boring one.

“Tough to beat these views,” my friend said from beside me. I concurred. The old joke about the Pirates having an excellent ballpark but terrible ownership has been repeated ad nauseam, and though I agree to an extent, it’s hard to feel too badly about my situation being a Pirates’ fan when I’m seated with the downtown skyline breathing over top of me and the Allegheny flowing at PNC’s feet.

I sat from high above the playing field, as the quietness around me laid the audio backdrop for a warm, somewhat humid night. Baseball is unique in this way: In no other sport can unimpeachable quietness envelop patrons.

I sat, watching Adam Frazier take his cuts, Bryan Reynolds trying to find his way in a tough game for him, and as Cody Ponce pitched fairly solidly. I also lamented the fact that Ke’Bryan Hayes was just beginning his rehab assignment in the minor leagues. I briefly gave thought to what once was, when the Pirates had something to play for.

But as the game wound down to its conclusion, as Frazier grounded a ball to short – ultimately stranding Cole Tucker at third, cementing a 4-3 loss – I was happy to have been there. I suspect that part of me will always be happy to just be there, regardless of the outcome, even though at times I find myself longing for past Bucs’ squads.

While an exquisite stadium and a long history won’t cure the troubles plaguing the fanbase surrounding a lack of winning, I am often reminded that this game, no matter its faults – Pittsburgh-centric or otherwise – has served as an excellent respite for me for many years, and will likely continue to do so long after this crop of players depart, long after the next window of contention slams shut, and probably up until the day that I, too, depart. For that, I couldn’t be more thankful.