Last Saturday, I had a unique opportunity to view my beloved PNC Park — and my beloved Buccos — as never before. One of my co-workers had gotten an invitation to go to a special event for people who bring groups to Pirates’ games. Since she couldn’t care less about the Bucs (blasphemy!), she gave the invitation to me, and I took my good friend Kev (who will be a recurring character in this blog, as the person most generally dragged to Pirates’ games and events with me) to take batting practice in the cages and hang out in the clubhouse at PNC.
The invitation promised the chance for autographs from current Pirates, so when Saturday morning came, I grabbed my 2008 Pirates calendar off the wall and, after putting in a few hours at one of my other jobs, headed for the park.
It was a frigid day, but we found parking right on Mazeroski Way. As we walked around the corner to the 24-hour security entrance, there were icicles dangling from the facade of the park — definitely not a day for baseball! We got to the entrance, which, other than being bedecked with black and gold balloons, looked kind of abandoned. Kev suggested we just go inside, and despite my trepidation, we did just that. Inside, we checked in, and one of the Pirates’ staffers led us to the visitors’ clubhouse.
As we rounded the corner to enter the clubhouse, he pointed some things out. "There’s some food over there," he said, nudging towards the tables of hot dogs, bagels, and fruit salad set up in front of a row of lockers. "Oh, and Paul and Tom will sign things for you if you want." This was said with a gesture across the room, where, reclining on a couch were none other than Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny, two of the Pirates 2008 starting five.
This was all a little too much for me. I hope it won’t sound cocky to say that I’ve met most of the Pirates at least once (I’ve met Jack Wilson, Jason Bay, Zach Duke, and Paul twice, and Ryan Vogelsong, Jose Castillo, Freddy Sanchez, Jonah Bayliss, Matt Capps, Gorzo, John Grabow, Solomon Torres, Don Kelly, Chris Duffy, Nate McLouth, Jose Bautista, and Ronny Paulino once each)…but I still get really nervous when the time comes to see them again, up close and personal, in such an intimate setting. Plus, I had become a real Maholm fan two years ago, when he stepped in and bowled with my team and I at the Bowling with the Bucs fundraiser, when Nate left in the middle and our lane broke. Ours had been one of three lanes he was trying to manage, and I remember the sweat was pouring off of him. It was obvious he was trying to make it a really nice time for us, the fans, and I always appreciated that.
So first we sat, on a couch on the opposite side of the clubhouse, while I gathered my courage and quickly checked my calendar to make sure that Gorzo and Paul each had their own month (they do — Gorzo is May, Paul is July). Then, the time came. There were only about 15 "regular people" there, so it wasn’t hard to walk right up to them. The following exchange transpired.
Me: "Hi, would you guys mind signing this?"
Paul & Gorzo: "Sure."
(While they’re signing, me to Paul): "I know you don’t remember me, but we bowled together two years ago at Bowling with the Bucs."
Paul: "Oh, yeah? I probably got like a 70."
Me: "No, I always remember how impressed I was that you were trying to manage like three lanes at once."
Paul: "You know, I do remember that. Didn’t one of the lanes break or something?"
Me: "So how has the offseason been going? Have you guys been enjoying your time off?
Paul and Gorzo: "Yeah, but we’re anxious to get back in it." (The standard response…what else where they going to say?)
Me: "Were you down in Bradenton last week?" (I knew they were, for mini-camp, but didn’t want to be a stalker.)
Paul: "Yeah. It was great. It was so warm down there, like 85."
Me: "Have you stayed here all winter?"
Gorzo: "I have, yeah."
Paul: "I’ve been in Mississippi." (Where he’s from — I assumed that he’d been down there during the offseason, but again, didn’t want to seem the stalker.)
By this time, we were running out of things to say. I still had questions to ask, but was feeling a little overwhelmed — what do you say to people who are living the dream, people whom you look up to so much, despite the fact that they’re only a few months older than you? Plus, I didn’t want to bother them much. So we took a quick picture — which came out great! — and discussed our mutual excitement for the upcoming season before Kev and I retreated to our corner.
We spent the next hour or so eating food, spying on Paul and Tom (eg. Paul asks the Aramark lady if more hot dogs are coming, she brings some and offers to serve him, he insists on serving himself, then goes back and gets a dog for Gorzo), and just enjoying the fact of being inside a Major League clubhouse. I will say that it was smaller than I expected, and smaller than the Pirates’ clubhouse. I kept thinking of all of the greats and future Hall of Famers who have sat on the couch where we were sitting.
We also got to see John Russell and Frank Coonelly, although both were too busy talking to other fans for us to get a chance to talk to them. Steve Blass came in the room at one point, and Greg Brown introduced himself. Of course, I had just taken a huge bite of bagel at that time, so instead of saying something like, "I love your broadcasts; I listen to you guys all the time," it came out, "czpjifdjuoea."
By that time, batting practice was almost an afterthought, and so when it got to be about fifteen minutes before the event was slated to end — and when the Pirates’ staffers started packing things up — I started to get suspicious that we weren’t going to get our turn. A quick conversation with one of the Pirates’ staffers revealed this to be true; however, eager to please, she took us down to the cages for a private session.
I was terrible! I do well enough on our softball team, but here, I connected with maybe two of the twelve pitches, and I use "connected" in the loosest sense of the word…because the balls (which looked like bloated yellow golf balls) dribbled off the bat. Friendly Pirates Staffer Lady told us the balls were coming about 30-40 miles an hour, but it seemed like they were flying. I had a totally new appreciation for the skills of the Major Leaguers.
We left the park with the obligatory pictures of the Home Plate entrance and with the Honus Wagner statue. Eager to try out the zoom focus on my new digital camera, I tried to capture some of the ice-encased elements of the park. The wind literally blew us back into the car, a harsh reminder that baseball season — though it seems so close — still remains several months away.
Later that day — and for the rest of this week — I’ve been thinking about Paul and Gorzo. I’ve been thinking about what nice guys they are, and how crazy it is that they’re my age. Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing with my life, why it is that they’re down there playing while I’m up in the stands, cheering, paying money to see them. I noticed that there weren’t a lot of twenty-something fans there (the crowd for this event seemed split between little kids and those who remember the Clemente — or even Mazeroski — days, including a woman who will totally be me in 20 years, talking about how she’s planning her wedding at PNC Park, and referring to the Pirates in the first-person plural possessive)…and I wonder if it’s weird for Paul, Gorzo, Matt Capps, and the other ’82 and ’83 babies to have their contemporaries fall all over themselves at their feet.
I wonder how our lives are different — and maybe not "how," so much as "how much." After getting home from the park that day, I did some laundry. I went grocery shopping. I made some chicken tenders for dinner, and watched an old movie on TV with my roommate. And I had to wonder, what did Paul and Gorzo do? Do they cook for themselves? Do they do their own laundry? Do they ever get used to people who have never met you thinking the world of you?
I wondered about how different we were, and then I thought of Paul and Gorzo eating hot dogs, talking on their cell phones, and checking out the promotional schedules scattered around the clubhouse. Mind you, they were probably questioning who would want some of the stuff given away, whereas I memorize the schedule and highlight the giveaways I’m most looking forward to, but I still would like to believe that, at our cores, we’re not so different after all. They seemed like guys I’d like to hang out with. And for one day, I got to.