Tag Archives: Roberto Clemente

Opening Day: The Eternal Call of “PLAY BALL!”

It gets harder and harder, as the years go by, to shore up the rituals that shore up all of us. Thanksgiving is nice, but every year, something is missing, even from the enjoyable editions of that holiday. The electronic erosion of the Christmas season speeds up year by year; add climate change and the acceleration of time as we age, and it’s clear that you can’t go back to Bedford Falls.

PNC Park, Pittsburgh. I have great seats in the There-In-Spirit section.

PNC Park, Pittsburgh. Got great seats in the There-In-Spirit section.

Still, I get giddy on the opening day of every Major League Baseball season. I simply won’t let it decay. I have dug extra French drains and caulked around all the seams of memory. No amount of The Clean, The Clear, or pants worn down over the shoes will diminish today’s opener in my mind to a level below the ones I saw as a kid, when The Great Clemente himself loped out onto the field.

I try to be quiet about it, but fact is, only attitude saves me here. It is the same annoying mindset that young, overzealous sales associates employ to turn car accidents and overflowing toilets into positives instead of the undeniable negatives they are. I am resolute in my determination to keep Opening Day sacred.

Why? Because I deserve it, that’s why. Because its moment is so brief, and in the grand scheme so inconsequential, that it hurts no one for me to sit for a few minutes on a day in April (oh…it’s March…never mind) and draw a line backwards in my mind: McCutchen to Clemente to Mazeroski to Traynor to Wagner and back and back through dead-ball antiquity to the Civil War itself and rounders in England. Because Terence Mann was right, more prescient as a fictional character than legions of real people: They will most definitely come, Ray. For it’s money they have and peace they lack.

Like the God-given aroma of a newborn baby, I cannot get enough grass-clipping-and-horsehide smell into my nose. Can’t be there this year, but I have an archive. Buck O’Neil, the great Kansas City Monarchs first baseman, said it best: You can’t kill it. Throw whatever you want at baseball, and somebody somewhere will be playing as soon as it gets warm. No need for opening new markets in Australia, no worries about salaries and Arizona stealing all the teams for spring training and A-Fraud. Just…the game.

Thank goodness for The Show.

© 2014 Adam Barr

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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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The Best Part Time Job Ever. Period.

Mine? That’s easy. Singing telegram messenger.

Talk about tailor-made for me. This gig involved 1) singing, 2) writing silly poems, 3) driving around western Pennsylvania like a nut, 4) performance and applause, and 5) not one of my other friends had the stones to do it. Folks, this…was the real deal. If I could support a family on it, I’d be doing it today.

As so often happens, an opportunity is never as new as you think it is. There’s always some thread connecting it to your former self. When I was nine or 10, my Mom took me to see The Music Man, produced by Mt. Lebanon High School. The lead role was played by an enthusiastic young man with a marvelous voice named Frank Cappelli. When he hooked the crowd — “Your attention, if you will/I’m Professor Harold Hill/And I’m here to organize a River City Boys’ Band!” — he whipped off his drab sport coat, turned it inside out, and put it on again as a shiny satin bandleader’s jacket.

I was slain. Done. Nabbed. Locked in. I was already a showy kid, but that little episode sealed my zeal to perform. I eat applause like a dog let loose in a butcher shop, and the hunger dated from that moment.

Diff is, I rocked this.

Diff is, I rocked this.

And indeed, when I reached high school, I started on a career of unschooled but earnest performances in plays and musicals of all kinds. I developed a pretty good voice for a teenage kid. So when I heard you could get paid to show up at a party, sing some choice lines to a simple song, get applause and some tips — I thought it was a scam. My parents always warned me that anything that seemed too good to be true probably was. But it was true. And it was the brainchild of….

Frank Cappelli. Frank and his no-nonsense, energetic (and yet quite kind) wife Patty started Horsefeathers BC in 1978. I must have come to them soon after; I don’t recall even how I heard. I just knew that all I had to do was show up at the Cappellis’ charming old house on Pittsburgh’s North Side, pick up my half dozen forms with songs, presentation copies, driving directions and such, and head out in my Mom’s 1978 Cutlass (I had not yet wrecked it).

Oh, and that uniform. The old bellboy/messenger thing; that got the looks. I was instantly the center of attention and the butt of drunken jokes at every party, restaurant, office, wedding reception, maternity ward, golf outing and backyard barbecue that I entered. Of course, my job was to focus the spotlight on the lucky recipient — whose friends and relations had, on the sly, told our office six or seven facts about him or her, enabling us to write a bunch of rhyming in-jokes to the tune of “Bicycle Built for Two” or “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” or some other old standard. (In the years to come, I even helped write some of the songs, which I think has led to my enduring penchant for doggerel poetry and nonsense rhymes.)

And I sang good. Well. Whatever. I had a nice young-guy baritone, and I owed it to them to let it loose, I thought. I could quiet down a whole restaurant, and I loved doing it. When done, I took a bow, and insisted that the recipient take one too. And then I rushed out (sometimes I even kept the car running) and left ’em wanting more.

I remember once delivering a ‘gram to some place like Dravosburg, one of the industrial suburbs near one of the rivers…it was a barbecue, and as I left, a guy followed me out, holding a business card, all smiles: “Hey, call me; I’ll get you a job at the mill. Real money, down J&L [Steel].”

“Oh, um,” I stammered. “Thanks, but, um…bad back.” After all, he was just trying to help.

But give up this gig to chuck sheet metal? Mister, you’re just not gettin’ the message.♦

[Horsefeathers still exists, as far as I can tell, but the Cappellis sold it in 1983 (I worked for the successor owner too). Frank had a successful children’s TV show for awhile, in which he showed off his considerable musical talents. Among other accomplishments, he wrote “Roberto,” a poignant song about the late, great baseball player Roberto Clemente. Check out Frank’s YouTube channel. Patty Cappelli is an eminent real estate agent in Pittsburgh’s South Hills.]

© 2013 Adam Barr

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