Cheap Seats, Revalued

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.

Three Rivers Stadium: a concrete donut, but OUR concrete donut

Three Rivers Stadium: a concrete donut, but OUR concrete donut

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.

Pittsburgh's Civic Arena, for years home of the Penguins. My office was three blocks off the lower right corner of this picture.

Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena, for years home of the Penguins. My office was three blocks off the lower right corner of this picture.

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

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One thought on “Cheap Seats, Revalued

  1. Great stuff!

    • I went to Three Rivers Stadium for the 1974 Major League Baseball All-Star Game (July 23, 1974). We sat in the second-to-last row in the right-field corner. The Cleveland Indians’ representative, George Hendrick, played right-field, and we couldn’t see him from our seats! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1974MLBAllStarGameLogo.png). … Went back to Three Rivers a couple other times, and I’ve been to PNC Park once. Much nicer baseball experience!

    • Went to the Civic Arena a few times; saw Wayne Gretzky become the first man to get 80 goals in a season, with an empty-netter on Saturday, Feb. 27, 1982. He ended up with 92 that year.

    • We almost always sat in the bleachers for Indians games at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. For most of my formative years, tickets were $1. When they jacked them to $2, it was an OUTRAGE! … One year Indians’ brass had the brilliant idea to close the bleachers for night games, so we adopted the yellow general-admission seats in the last section of the upper deck in the left-field corner as our “private loge.” … I think it was Section 47, but it might have been 43. … It was WAY out there, and WAY up there! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ClevelandMunicipalStadium1993Outfield.jpg)

    • When the new baseball stadium opened in 1994, we were in a financial position to buy two field-box seats for the season. They were $16 apiece, a $2,592 payout for 81 games — and we lived in Florida at the time!! Friends and family benefited from our largesse, and our investment paid off the next year when the Indians made it to the World Series and we were there for every home game through the playoffs.

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