If I randomly polled Pittsburgh Pirates fans in my general age group as to the pinnacle of their fandom, the vast majority of them would more than likely recall the magical night of the Pirates Wild Card/“Blackout” Game versus the Reds on October 1, 2013. Believe me that is definitely up there and I can’t really disagree with anyone that would give this as their because fandom is a very personal journey, but for me there were a few moments during the previous year that hold a more special place in heart and are forever etched in my memory.
During the 2011 season the Pirates gave fans more hope than they had experienced in years. Up until back to back heartbreaking losses in Atlanta in late July, they were in middle of playoff hunt and in a dead heat with the Brewers and the Cardinals for the Division Title. After an epic second half collapse they finished 18 games under .500 and 24 games out of 1st Place. However, they brought life back into the city and had many of us looking forward to what would come next. I for one couldn’t wait and neither could my soon to be 5 year old daughter Grace, who had become the constant by my side as we watched game after game together.
As the 2012 season began the Pirates got off to a slow start, which just extended the disappointment felt by many at the end of the preceding year. As the season progressed they fought and clawed their way to a 25-25 record through the first 50 games. During the weekend prior to this my Mom and Dad gave me an early Birthday/Father’s Day present of 4 tickets to the Pirates game on Sunday June 10th, which would be the first one I would attend that season.
It was an extremely hot afternoon (88 Degrees) when the game began; luckily we had seats in 316 section with the Press Box blocking out the sun the majority of the time. Gracie had the number 22 for McCutchen on the back of her shirt, a last minute purchase at the local Kmart; immediately cementing him as her favorite player for life. Much to her delight, and mine, McCutchen put the Pirates on the board with a double in the bottom of the 1st; bringing in Alex Presley. He then blasted a home run to left field, with Neil Walker standing on 2nd in the bottom of the 3rd. Gracie kept on telling me that she hit a home run because she matched McCutchen. We spent the rest of the game talking about the rules of baseball, why the fielders shifted on certain at bats and why Neil Walker was my favorite player, not Andrew McCutchen. As the game ended the Pirates held on for a 3-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals and moved into a tie for 1st place in the process.
The next game that we would attend that season was a fairly monumental one for my family as four generations, from my 84 year old Grandma Caramellino to my 13 month old son Carter, went to the game together for the first time ever. As the Pirates hosted the Miami Marlins, my family and I packed into PNC Park to see our team win its third game in a row and to 12 games over .500. As the game went on Carter began to get fussy and my Grandma was starting to get tired, so slowly we began to trickle out to our cars. Gracie and I held on to the final out because she wanted to see the celebration fireworks and wanted to make sure the Pirates held on for the win. This time it was my favorite player, Walker, that played the role of hero with the go ahead home run in the bottom of the 5th.
As summer went on Pirates fever reached its peak. Walking through the streets in Koppel, PA, I could hear the sounds of the game coming out of radios from people’s porches and through open windows as the volume was turned up a little too loud. Sitting down at the bar inside Buster’s Place or McDowell’s Inn, patrons were actually paying attention as the Pirates played, rather than treating it as background noise. On July 31st we were all locked to the television screen as A.J. Burnett took a no-hitter into the bottom of the 8th against the Cubs, which is the closest I have come to watching a no-no from start to finish in my life, either on tv or in person. Me and my friend who were were watching the game together did speak a word from at least the 5th inning on. After the game I called my Grandma Caramellino and the first thing she said to me was how much she couldn’t stand Pedro Alvarez for not being patient at the plate. She was a big fan of Billy Beane as you can imagine.
The rest of the season is somewhat of a blur of win streaks and longer losing streaks (7 games at the beginning of September). That year the Pirates had three players with over 25 homer runs (McCutchen 31, Alvarez 30 and Garrett “G.I.” Jones), three pitchers with over 10 Wins (Burnett 16, James McDonald 12 and Kevin Correia 12) and a team ERA of 3.86. Unfortunately they dropped below .500 for the 20th Season in a row after being as many as 16 games over on August 6th, finishing 4 games under and 18 games out of 1st Place. It was disheartening to say the least.
Of the many letdowns that occurred during the 2012 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, there were also so many bright spots; especially considering my own personal fandom journey as a life long supporter of the Pirates, who was now passing along my passion to my daughter, Gracie. Over the previous year and even more so during the 2012 season as she became my side-kick in watching every pitch and discussing the intricacies that exist in each and every game. That summer she fell love with baseball just as I had when I was right around her age. 2012 was also one of last years I was able to have meaningful conversations with my Grandma Caramellino about the game she had introduced me to and that had been a part of building the unbreakable bond between us.