Most people measure their success by the size of their salary, their house, the sticker price of their car. I never did. For me, it was about where I sat at sporting events.
It was my good fortune to grow up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, when our baseball and football teams won six championships within nine years. The City of Champions moniker shined especially brightly for us, mainly because we Pittsburghers could feel the sneering, loser-face snark of the national sports fan establishment. For them, Pittsburgh sports had been a backwater joke for decades. Many of them actually believed that the city was still perpetually shrouded in smoke and ash, not knowing that one of the nation’s most successful civic improvement projects had cleaned the air by the late 1950s.
And so, our love for our Pirates (baseball) and Steelers (football) vindicated, many of us went to games. Hockey came on strong too, once Mario Lemieux joined the Penguins. I was especially lucky: when I was a young lawyer, my office was a mere five-minute walk from the Civic Arena, where the Penguins played. The stroll to Three Rivers Stadium took longer and involved a bridge, but it was worth it.
In the early days, before my friends and I were making much money, we gathered before baseball games in the parking lot of my friend’s office at General Electric, a few blocks from Three Rivers. We ducked into the men’s room, changed to ballgame duds, and tossed around a Frisbee until it was time to go in — and up. Upstairs, center field, cheapest bleacher tix we could find. Beers and nachos, each its own food group when you’re in your 20s, were our dinner of choice.
Now, upstairs at Three Rivers wasn’t such a bad thing. Yes, strictly speaking, the stadium was of the cement donut school of civic sports architecture. But between the Pirates and Steelers, so many memories hung off the concrete ramparts that we actually loved the place. Here, Roberto Clemente led the Pirates through their 1971 World Series season; Willie Stargell took up the mantle in the 1979 season. Here, Franco Harris caught the Immaculate Reception in 1972, catapulting the Steelers into the playoffs and beginning one of the most impressive eras of dominance in NFL history.
So we happily watched from deep CF as players such as Andy Van Slyke rocketed throws home to catch foolhardy runners who decided to challenge his gun. Every game, I had a nacho-eating contest with a friend — really, the dearest friend of my buddy who provided the parking at GE. This friend-of-friend and I didn’t compete on quantity — no, it was heat. Our contests were all about who could eat the most jalapenos with his nachos. There was a gastric price later, but never high enough to overcome our twisted pride. I loved his sense of humor. (Typical quote of his, regarding the movie The Exorcist: “Why don’t we keep the devil in Regan, so we’ll always know where he is?”)
Half dozen or so of us, legs over the seats in front of us, sprawled out among the cheap seats, we reveled in the summers: the one on the calendar, and the one of our lives.
Not too many years passed before I was working later, hustling up to the Arena just in time to scalp a $35 ticket to watch Lemieux. (And I thought I was getting robbed. Can you imagine?) The other guys didn’t often come for hockey, so they missed sights such as Mario crossing the blue line, dragging Mark Howe with him on one arm and scoring with the other. Even the referee and linesmen watched in amazement, knowing that despite the full-tackle attempt by the Flyers defenseman, Lemieux would likely score and no penalty call would be necessary.
And as the money got better, so did the baseball seats: down on the base line, the field boxes. No time to change; I would sit there in my suit with my tie loosened. Fewer and fewer of the guys came; when they did, though, no one could resist the eternal stupid joke when the guy selling the early edition of the morning paper walked down the aisle about the bottom of the 8th: “Hey! Who wins the game?”
My nacho pal developed a debilitating nerve disease. Our mutual friend who worked at GE is in the midst of a horrid divorce. Recently I was in town for a funeral of one of our friend’s father — yes, that season is starting — and I heard that both Nacho and GE would be there. GE, as a matter of fact, was said to be at Nacho’s house while I was at the visitation, lovingly helping Nacho into a wheelchair so he could come pay his respects. They were late; I couldn’t wait. I had to go.
And driving away in my nice suit in my nice car, I wondered just how prosperous I had become.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr