“The Freak Show” as they affectionately came to be known thanks to Pirates long time announcer, Greg Brown, have been the inspiration for a few segments on AT&T Sports Net (as well as the past incarnations of the same network), promotions at PNC Park and multiple articles over the past 20 plus years. Our own Gary Morgan even wrote about them at the previous publication we “worked” at together. They hold a very special place in Pittsburgh Pirates folklore, as well as in the hearts of many Pirates Fans that had the opportunity to see them play first hand. They were a ragtag bunch of baseball players with no expectations placed on them, mostly due to $9 million dollar payroll that was invested in their creation. The 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates hold a special place in my fandom not only for what went only inside the friendly confines of Three Rivers Stadium, but also for what was going on in the life of a young man from Apollo, Pennsylvania.
As the 1997 season started I was finishing up my senior year at Apollo-Ridge High School, with plans to been college at Mercyhurst in the fall. I had a part time job at McDonald’s, spent most of my time at one of the local restaurants (Patrick’s Pub or the Mosey Inn) with my friends, midnight bowling at Lee’s Lanes on a Saturday Night or at the Country Club on Sunday’s. During the previous summer mine and my friend’s parents had also started to let us venture the hour long drive to Three River’s Stadium to let us what Our Buccos play, mostly because they pretty much knew when they could expect us to get home; even though we often tried to push the limits by stopping at Smartie Arties in Holiday Park for some wings on the way back from the game. This summer would be no different, except for the fact that we may have attempted to force our parents expectations even further beyond their boundaries due to a sense freedom on the horizon as we all looked forward to the future.
Along with the new sense of freedom we had instilled in ourselves, the Pirates were also going through some changes of their own. Gone was the Pirates Manager of 10 years, Jim Leyland. In his place stood a familiar face in the form of Pirates former 3rd Base Coach Gene Lamont, who himself had returned to the team from the a stint as the Chicago White Sox Manager during the previous year. Kevin McClatchy started to become a more familiar name to a Pirates Fans, after having purchased the team during the previous off-season in February of 1996. After his first full season as owner of the team, he took it upon himself to slash the team’s payroll from an already near league low of $21 Million in 1996 to the ridiculously low, previously mentioned, $9 Million payroll in 1997.
Some familiar faces remained, like Outfielder Al Martin and Pitchers Esteban Loaiza and Jon Lieber remainder and one returned; 1st Baseman Kevin Young after a year with the Kansas City Royals. The rest of the team was made up of cheap veterans and many young faces; including a 23 year old Jason Kendall and a September call-up 3 of the previous 4 years, Tony Womack. No one could have predicted what the season would hold for this team, not even the players in the Pirates clubhouse. I, myself, was just happy to have the freedom to go to see a ballgame as an “adult” and and was so wrapped in the social calendar of a recent high school graduate that it was probably about a month or so into the season before I even realized what was going on.
The first game I attended that year was a 10 inning thriller against the Marlins on Sunday in May. Midre Cummings brought the raucous crowd to their feet with a two run home run in the bottom of the 9th to take the game to extra innings, only to have our hopes dashed in the top of the tenth as the Marlins scored two runs. You know who scored the go ahead run? Marlins third baseman, Bobby Bonilla. It would be almost two full months before would attend another game because of work and graduation parties, but I still kept up with the team through radio broadcasts, my subscription to the Sporting News and games whenever they were broadcast.
My next game was a pretty infamous one; you guessed it, the 10-0 loss to the Houston Astros on Friday July 11th. The next day was one for the history and record books but unfortunately I had to work that night and didn’t even find out what had happened until later on the next day when I went to my Grandparents house and picked up the sports section of the Valley News Dispatch. The Pittsburgh Pirates Pitchers, Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon, had combined for 10 inning no-hitter, the 8th of its kind and tied for the longest combined no-hitter in history. That day I watched the game on television with my Grandparents and the Buccos won again, giving them a 1 game lead in the NL Central over the Astros.
Toward the beginning and especially in the middle of August many of my friends began to head of to college, leaving only a few of us at home, waiting for it to be our turn. On Wednesday August 20th I went to my last game with one of my high school friends before he left for school that weekend. The Pirates won 7-3 over the Padres and moved back to .500 at 63-63. Honestly I don’t remember much more about the game other than the fact that Jason Schmidt almost went the distance. I was more focused on the “end of an era” and the trip to Smartie Artie’s on the way home.
Over the next two weeks I went to four games by myself, including a rare Monday double header against the Dodgers; the second game ended in a walk off home run by Mark Smith in the bottom of the 9th, right after Joe Randa has tied the game with a two run home run the batter before. I wish I would have made that my last game, it would have been a great way to physically walk away from that season and into life as a college freshman. Unfortunately I went to a disappointing 7-3 loss to the Indians a little over a week later and only three days before I left home.
The day that I arrived on the campus at Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA, the Pirates moved within 2.5 games of the Houston Astros. It was the closest they would get to the NL Central Title for the rest of the season. However, it was a sense of pride amongst all of us from the Pittsburgh area as our team was relevant with so many other baseball fans from different areas. And even though we finished 5 games back and 4 games under .500 some three weeks later, it brought me closer to some of the people I met, gave me a little bit of normalcy during a time of such change and attached me to my “hometown” when I was away from home for the first time in my life. I am eternally grateful to the boys from “The Freak Show”, my 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates.