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Diamonds in the rough

Published: Mon, July 11, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.

"So dreadfully hideous, so intolerably bleak and forlorn that it reduced the whole aspiration of a man to a macabre and depressing joke."

-- H.L. Mencken, on Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH -- As a northeast Ohio native, I don't normally concern myself with Pittsburgh unless something noteworthy occurs, such as a giant meteor falling from the sky and landing directly on Heinz Field, which, if I've done my research correctly, is a large yellow stadium located in Western Pennsylvania, which doesn't concern Youngstown residents since YOUNGSTOWN IS LOCATED IN NORTHEAST OHIO JUST LIKE CLEVELAND SO DON'T GIVE ME THAT GARBAGE ABOUT YOUNGSTOWN BEING HALFWAY BETWEEN BOTH CITIES, OK?

But as a professional journalist, there comes a time when I must leave the comfort of the familiar and venture into the unknown, even if it means running the very real risk of getting paid to take shots at Pittsburgh fans.

Which brings us to today's column.

First, a confession. Although I've spent the better part of the last 20 years making fun of Pittsburgh, I've never actually been there. So, on Saturday night, I packed up my scorebook, picked up my friend Leslie and set out to PNC Park for Saturday's Pirates-Mets game. After a 90-minute drive with 67 toll booths, we arrived in Pittsburgh, paid $10 to park and immediately noticed something.

"It feels hotter here," Leslie said.

"That's because we're closer to hell," I said.

On our way to the stadium, we passed a Pirates fan wearing a Neil Diamond T-shirt, proving once again that people in Pittsburgh are willing to pay good money for third-rate entertainment.

This would be a good time to mention that we got free tickets from the Pirates' media relations manager Dan Hart. As a token of my gratitude, I'd like to note that Hart, unlike most Pittsburgh residents, does not wet the bed.

The ups and downsof PNC Park

And, since I'm in a generous mood, I'll also note that PNC Park is very, very nice. Remember that scene at the beginning of "The Scarlet Letter" where a beautiful rose is growing outside the jail cell? Yes, well, you probably see where I'm going with this.

PNC Park seems smaller than it is, almost like a minor league park. (Insert your own joke about the Pirates here.) The ushers are friendly, the sightlines are nice and they even played a Strokes song ("Last Night") before the game.

On the minus side, a hamburger costs $5, bottled water costs $3, they played a Neil Diamond song ("Sweet Caroline") during the game.

The Pirates and the Mets were wearing throwback uniforms from their Negro League teams and the Pirates gave away free Pittsburgh Crawfords hats to fans for the occasion. This is a good time to remind everyone about certain ironclad rules in life.

1. Never wear the T-shirt of the band you are going to see.

2. Never wear your free hat at that night's game.

3. Never, ever wear a fanny pack.

Leslie, I should mention, was born in Western Pennsylvania and moved to Boardman in sixth grade. In Old Testament times, many Hebrews had to spend their adolescent years in Egyptian bondage before being delivered to the Promised Land. (I'll let you figure out how these two things are connected.)

Leslie was properly warned that I was going to be making fun of anything and everything I saw.

"Like shirtless West Virginia people with tattoos on their backs?" she asked when we passed a couple fans.

I like Leslie.

The price to payfor MLB souvenirs

Like all major league parks, there are overpriced souvenir stands everywhere at PNC. Items include caps, shirts, bobblehead dolls and, I'm sad to say, Rally Monkeys.

Discussion question: What has contributed more to the decline of civilization over the past five years: Rally Monkeys or Thunderstix?

Bonus question: Should people seen with either be shot on sight? (Hint: Yes.)

The Pirates, incidentally, are required by federal law to put either Jason Bay or Jack Wilson's name on 85 percent of all team-related merchandise. As a token of gratitude to their fans, Pirates management has promised to either trade both players in the next five years or offer them lowball free agent contracts that they will reject before signing for more money with an actual major league franchise. (Note: This eliminates Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Milwaukee.)

Here's a quick souvenir rundown:

U"Softee" bowling pin set (with ball): $23.

UPierogi bobblehead doll: $10.

UPierogi beanie baby: $6.

UMaking fun of Pittsburgh and getting paid to do it: priceless.

Pierogi-related items are not as popular outside of Pittsburgh, possibly because pierogi-related items are stupid.

(News break: On the men's room stall, there's also an advertisement for "Freshpair" underwear, an online underwear company.)

Packing them inat PNC Park

The Pirates have struggled with attendance in recent years, but tonight's game is a sellout, probably due to the highly-anticipated pitching matchup of Dave Williams and Kazushi Ishi.

The other major draw was Pirates right fielder Ryan Doumit, who is hitting a robust .206. Doumit's lifelong dream was to play for a major league team. (Again, insert your own Pirates joke here.)

We had good seats for the game. Sitting to the right of us was a middle-aged man with a bad mustache that we nicknamed "Sideburns." Behind us was a couple who spent one half-inning discussing why they don't like pork chops. (Yes, they were wearing their free hats.)

To the left of us was a father and son from the San Francisco area who had spent the past month touring the country, visiting all the major league ballparks. (I'm not making this up.) The father is a teacher. His son just graduated high school and will attend Fresno State in the fall. PNC Park was their 25th game. Their next stop is Detroit for Tuesday's All-Star game.

Their favorite park? Chicago's Wrigley Field.

Least favorite? Tampa Bay's Tropicana Dome.

"Baseball in Florida is just sad," the father said.

Midway through the game, the Pirates showed a video clip of Barry Bonds hitting a clutch home run. Everyone booed except them.

"He's a jerk, but he gets on base, you know?" the son said.

I do. I cheered for Albert Belle.

The game was OK until the seventh when the Pirates scored seven runs to take an 11-3 lead, bringing the crowd into a frenzy. This reminded me of my favorite line from former Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope, "I'm retiring."

Salomon Torres pitched the last two innings for the Pirates, allowing closer Jose Mesa to spend Saturday night toiling in the deepest depths of Hades for blowing Game 7 of the 1997 World Series.

Not that I am still bitter.

Pittsburgh's victory aside, we had a good time. And I promise to return to city as soon as the Pirates challenge for a World Series or Neil Diamond starts making good music.

When that time comes, I'll even say hello to Mesa. Where he's at, he should be easy to recognize.

He'll be the one throwing snowballs.

XJoe Scalzo is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write him at scalzo@vindy.com.


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