MY ANNUAL tour of parks and stadiums took me this summer to the highest and lowest levels of professional baseball. Both environs provided rewarding moments.
While a return trip to Pittsburgh’s beautiful PNC Park reaffirmed my belief that a winning baseball team can energize a city — just as much of a highlight was a Gulf Coast League game in Port Charlotte, Fla., where a “crowd” of 12 watched.
Nearly all my stops were repeat visits, but it is always fun to reacquaint yourself with an old friend.
Since my previous visit, Kannapolis, N.C., had changed its park name to CMC-NorthEast Stadium. Formerly known as Fieldcrest Stadium, it still showcases a Dale Earnhardt race car outside the front gates.
The park also has to be the only one at any level to feature three retired jersey numbers on its outfield fence, none of which recognizes a player for that franchise. No. 3 acknowledges the previous minority ownership by Earnhardt, Inc.; No. 42 honors the contributions of Jackie Robinson to baseball; and No. 50 is recognized around the South Atlantic League for the 50 years of service by former league commissioner John Henry Moss.
Rain resulted in 104 fans — I counted them — for that night’s game. I likely was the only one to purchase a Colossal Dog, a half-pound hot dog for $7, and wash it down with a bottle of Cheerwine, which is headquartered in nearby Salisbury.
All the better stadiums these days feature a specialty food item at the concession stand, particularly in the majors. So, when I visited Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, I expected to find that city’s signature Skyline Chili. It was nowhere to be found.
Makes sense. A nice park, for sure, but Great American Ball Park — like its food fare — is virtually void of any distinguishing characteristics.
Luckily, the game was outstanding. Cincinnati’s four pitchers struck out 17 Pittsburgh batters, yet the Pirates won, 4-0. The strikeout total, I learned later, was the highest total in any of Pittsburgh’s 8,109 victories of nine or fewer innings since 1900. OK, not exactly history but interesting nonetheless.
Surely they do not keep such records in the Gulf Coast League, where 16 teams consist of the youngest and least-experienced players in each organization.
GCL games are played on back fields adjacent to the major-league clubs’ spring training stadiums. There was no admission charge for the game between the Baby Rays and Baby Twins. The concession stand was a couple of soda machines at another field, neither of which were in operation.
The few of us who braved the sun and the heat for a noon game were there for no other reason than to watch baseball, which was played in its purist form. Absolutely no frills, just 60 or so kids with aspirations of some day playing in the majors.
In five or six years, some of those kids will be polished products like those I saw in two games I caught in Pittsburgh. The Pirates won both contests, the first against the Oakland A’s in a game that started at 9:55 p.m. because of a rain delay and concluded to an enthusiastic yet small crowd at 12:48 in the morning. The next was against the Mets.
The contrast of this visit to my previous PNC Park foray was astonishing. Some five years before, my complaint — as it is for most games at Atlanta’s Turner Field — was that most fans did not watch the game. Traffic up and down aisles was constant during action on the field.
Not this time. The Pirates are in a pennant race, and the city is abuzz about their long down-trodden team. Previously, you could purchase T-shirts on the streets that proclaimed Pittsburgh as a “City of Champions ... and the Pirates.” This time, there were T-shirts touting everything from exciting young star Andrew McCutchen to Pittsburgh’s sterling bullpen, which calls itself the “Shark Tank.”
Against the Mets, five Pittsburgh pitchers provided four shutout innings of relief, then waited for McCutchen to score from second base on a single by Jordy Mercer in the bottom of the 11th inning.
The sellout crowd of 39,036 stayed and continued cheering long after McCutchen crossed home. Pittsburgh fans have waited a long time for these kinds of moments. They want to savor all of them in what most assuredly will be the first winning season for the Pirates in 20 years.
There is nothing quite like watching baseball in a city engulfed in pennant fever, unless it is sitting in five rows of aluminum bleachers on a minor-league back field to see some of the game’s future stars.