Thursday, July 11, 2013

I see hope

When I got home tonight, I noticed that the Pirates and Athletics were still in a rain delay. It was nearly 10 p.m., the rain had let up, the tarp was off the field. ROOT had finished running its rain delay programming, and it was clear the game was going to start shortly. 

That's when I had a thought. Why not go to this game?

I hadn't been to a game in a couple of weeks, the Bucs had lost four straight, and I kinda wanted to see the A's anyway.

Late start? Week night? Fuck it. How often do you have the chance to do something that's both incredibly fun and innocuously irresponsible?

I texted Nils with the idea, and minutes later, as the Pirates were taking the field, we were on the Parkway, headed toward the North Shore. The parking lot attendants had all gone home, and all the lot gates were up. Free, stadium-side parking? Validation number one.

The home plate ticket windows were all closed, and the ticket vending machines they usually keep outside of the main gate had already been moved inside, so we walked toward the left field gate where, bingo, there were open ticket windows.

Before we could even step up to purchase two of the cheapest seats available, a guy walked by offering free tickets to whomever wanted them. We jumped on it.

He handed me seven tickets for section 112, row Q. Good seats. There were still other people around looking for tickets, so Nils and I took two of the seven and gave away the remaining five. Things are going well.

Within a span of 20 minutes -- less than it took for the Pirates and A's to play a full inning of baseball -- we'd made the decision to go to the game, driven from the East End down to the ballpark, parked, gotten tickets and found our seats.

The great thing about being at a weeknight ballgame that's been delayed for three hours is that by the time it starts, there's no question that everyone who's stuck around genuinely wants to be there. They want to see baseball. There aren't large groups, significant others dragged along or people who don't give two shits about the game. Everyone who's there wants to be there.

The paid attendance was 23,474. And after a nearly three-hour rain delay, there were still at least 10,000 people in the ballpark when we got there, which is an incredible rate of retention.

By the end of the fourth inning, the Pirates were up 5-0, having driven Oakland starter Tommy Milone and his two immediate replacements from the game with nothing but a pair of doubles, a walk and eight fortuitously placed singles.

Nils and I each had a beer. It was nearing midnight and the Pirates had a convincing lead. People began to shuffle out. With the damage done, the A's unable to do much off of Francisco Liriano and the Pirates more or less content to sit on a five-run lead, the pace of the game picked up a bit.

We had another beer.

Five innings later, when Jeanmar Gomez ended the game by striking out Nate Freiman around 12:45 a.m. Thursday morning, there were still at least 7,000 people there, and they were loud. 

I've been attending Pirates games my whole life. I know what a crowd of 7,000 people looks like. And until tonight, I thought I knew what a crowd of that size sounded like.

You'd never mistake the noise from the stands for that of a sellout crowd, but the fervor was nothing short of remarkable. 

We write a lot about numbers on this site. We write about the unsustainably high BABIP of Starling Marte and the unsustainably low BABIP and K/BB ratios Jeff Locke has put up. We write about how superhuman the bullpen has been, and how it's going to be impossible for them to sustain this performance in the second half. We write about how abysmal the bench is, and how at least five of the guys on the current big-league roster probably need to be DFA'd. And it's not that any of this is less true now than it was 24 hours ago. 

But to sit there in PNC Park tonight and watch the Pirates effectively dominate a team that's close to their American League equivalent in front of a crowd that waited three hours to see any baseball played left no doubt in my mind: this is a baseball town.

Despite the historically terrible collapses of the previous two seasons, people have continued to turn out in more than respectable numbers to watch the Pirates play. Even after 20 years of ignominy, it doesn't take much to rally the base. They want it. They're hungry for it.

And even if this team misses the playoffs this year (still very much a possibility) or collapses even more spectacularly than it has in either of the last two years (highly unlikely, but still possible), make no mistake -- people here care. And they care with more intense passion and in greater numbers than anyone would have thought possible four or five years ago.

As a fan who's shown up regardless all these years, that's refreshing to see.

For a lot of people, it's easy to walk away from a shitty team, and it's just as easy to come back to a successful one. It is not, however, a trait of bandwagon fans to stick out a three-hour rain delay on a week night and be as loud and involved in a game as tonight's crowd was.

Keep in mind, this team still hasn't won anything. Not for 20 years.

Pittsburgh is dying to see good baseball again. Numbers aside, I hope that these Pirates are finally able to deliver it over the course of a full season.

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