Every Game A Story: You Can't Hit a Baseball into the Same Allegheny Twice

Home, like river water, is always changing. But for Pirates fans, change is good.
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Last month, I was standing in the PNC Park concourse, a few people separating my brother and me from our parents. I was stuck in a crush of people waiting for hot dogs and beer, or trying to get to concession lines from their seats, or vice versa. It was mostly a sea of black and gold, although I counted a couple people wearing their support of that night’s opposing starter, Clayton Kershaw. There was also one family wearing Giants gear, who I assumed had come all the way from the Bay to yell things at Kershaw.

Other than that, though, it was just tens of thousands of Pirates fans. I used to have dreams where I went away to camp and my parents bought a dog in my absence, or that rooms in the house had moved when I returned; this felt sort of like that. I hadn’t been to PNC since July 2013—the last couple weeks before Gerrit Cole beat Yu Darvish in Texas and changed everything—and suddenly there were Cole t-shirts all over Western Pennsylvania. There were Gregory Polanco shirts and stubbornly hopeful Pedro Alvarez shirts. There were just Pirates fans, the same way that there have been Penguins fans for much of my life, or the way that there are just Red Sox fans all around me in western Massachusetts, where I live now.


Two people from my high school class recently got engaged to each other. One of their engagement photos on Facebook featured the two of them in personalized Pirates jerseys, looking up at PNC Park from the Clemente Bridge on a sunny day. I’m not here to cast doubt on their fandom specifically, of course—maybe they would have done the same thing six years ago—but it’s hard to imagine the Pirates as part of an adorable announcement of joyful life news any time before 2013. The snarky jokes would have been too easy. You would not have believed their marriage could last longer than an agonizing Pirates-Cubs game in August, with mediocre hitters facing pitching just bad enough to drag the game out for four hours. (Is that reference outdated now? Does “Pirates-Cubs” now mean the reborn Francisco Liriano staring down Anthony Rizzo in the middle of a true playoff chase?)

Of course, everyone knows what’s happened over the last couple years. That aforementioned game in Texas—the moment when Gerrit Cole stopped being an exciting possibility and became a capital-A Ace, striking out nine over seven shutout innings to beat Yu Darvish—was win No. 82 in 2013, the first such win since 1992. They won a Wild Card game and played a perfectly respectable NLDS against the Cardinals, and suddenly, we were sort of like a normal fanbase, for the first time in two decades.

I’ve watched almost all of this from hundreds of miles away. I went to college in Boston, living in buildings with views of Fenway for my first three years there, and now live about two hours west of the Green Monster. When I planned my trip home this summer, I was thinking about pitching matchups. I picked the Dodgers series back in the spring, thinking about watching Cole pitch against Kershaw. For that kind of naïve hope, I probably should have gotten stuck with a meeting of No. 5 starters, but I caught a little bit of luck. All that week, the Pirates’ announcers were giddy talking about the Friday night Dodgers game.


Kershaw came into town with a 37-inning scoreless streak. His first opponent was Gregory Polanco, a 23-year-old who still looks at times like he grew six inches overnight and has no idea what his arms and legs are doing. In this, his second year in the majors, Polanco had come right up to the edge of losing his starting spot in right field—at least in fans’ eyes, if not Clint Hurdle’s—before catching fire halfway through July. Some guys adopt that businesslike, act-like-you’ve-been-there approach to walk-off hits or go-ahead homers; Andrew McCutchen has spent this year looking almost defiant after he does something game-saving. Polanco, though, still just beams, too young and overwhelmed with his good fortune to pretend it isn’t the coolest thing that’s ever happened to him.

From our seats just to the left of home plate, I saw ten seconds of Kershaw’s scoreless streak. He threw one fastball to Polanco, and the kid crushed it to right center. I leaped out of my seat but couldn’t follow the ball in the air. When the fans in the bleachers started roaring, I lost my voice as quickly as I ever have in my life.

When PNC nearly rocked off its foundations for the Wild Card game in 2013, I was in Boston, watching from a sports bar near Fenway with my brother. I had tried to get tickets, despite the logistical and financial challenges they would present, because I knew there was probably never going to be another Pirates game like that in my lifetime. Of course, several hundred thousand people were thinking the same thing. So my brother and I sat at Remy’s and watched our people chant “CUEEEEEE-TO, CUEEEEEE-TO,” until one of the best pitchers in the league dropped the ball—literally—and gave up a home run to Russell Martin.

I wasn’t there to holler at Johnny Cueto, and I’ll always wish I had been. But sometime in the fourth inning of that Dodgers game, some rambunctious soul started chanting “KERRRR-SHAW, KERRRR-SHAW,” right around the time that Kershaw walked Chris Stewart, the backup catcher, with the bases loaded. Our whole section joined in. I am trying, again, to imagine a stadium full of the Pirates fans I grew up with, giving some opposing starter the business—giving Clayton Kershaw the business, as if we existed on the same planet. At Boston University hockey games, we chanted “safety school” at Harvard fans. For most of my life, Pirates fans trash-talking would have come off as that type of self-mocking, at best.

Of course, Cole wasn’t his sharpest self either. Baseball being baseball, sometimes the incredible pitching matchup winds up a 4-3 game at the end of the sixth inning. Joakim Soria blew the one-run lead Cole handed over, and much to my mother’s dismay, the game slowed down. My mom loves baseball, but her bedtime is earlier than mine, and although she got excited when her new favorite player, Francisco Cervelli, came in to pinch-hit, she was dozing off by the time we headed to extra innings.

In the bottom of the tenth, Jung Ho Kang led off with a walk, and Cervelli followed with a single. Sean Rodriguez laid down an accidentally perfect bunt, jabbing it past a charging Alberto Callaspo so that it turned from a sacrifice into an infield hit to load the bases, and off the bench came Pedro Alvarez.

Alvarez can, and does, hit baseballs into the Allegheny River. That has kept him in the lineup, even as a case of the yips forced him from third base to first base, where he’s still struggled mightily in the field. My family has gone through the same range of emotions on Alvarez as any group of Pirates fans. Sentimentally, part of me has hoped that he’ll figure something out, or at least that he’ll hit 30 homers consistently and the defense somehow won’t kill the Pirates, even though I know he’ll probably be a DH somewhere other than Pittsburgh, sooner rather than later.

My mom read about this super-talented kid from New York City back when he was a prospect and couldn’t wait for him to get to Pittsburgh. Now, she groans and gives up on him anew every time he strikes out on a breaking ball in the dirt with the bases loaded. (She is also, however, the one who texts me bull emojis and exclamation points whenever El Toro goes deep.)

With nobody out, the Dodgers packed five men into the infield, looking for the play at the plate. And then Pedro lined the ball into right field, where none of the five infielders could touch it, and he was still howling with joy when his teammates mobbed him. 5-4, Pirates over Dodgers, final.


Even the near-unwatchable 2010 Pirates felt like home. I took them back to Boston with me, watched the meaningless end of a season on a laptop in my dorm room. Home keeps changing without me, and the longer I stay away, the stranger it gets. The Pirates, actual playoff contenders for the third straight year, win extra-inning jaw-droppers against the Cardinals. A cousin who started preschool the week I started college is now in fourth grade.

To me, all this happens on computer and phone screens, removed from my physical reality, except the handful of days every year into which I try to pack Home. Twelve hours after Pedro walked off right in front of us, I picked up another cousin’s baby for the first time, a sweet-tempered, wide-eyed little guy almost six months old. The night he was born, I was shivering in a hockey rink in Springfield, Massachusetts, waiting for updates from my mom and aunts. Thirty-six hours after handing him back, a mere forty-eight after crossing the Clemente Bridge with the crowd’s roar still in my ears, I was flying back north, grateful for the photos on my phone.

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