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Baseball, family and the Pittsburgh Pirates

Posted Dec 27, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Mar 27, 2013 at 10:23 PM

It’s easy to have warm memories about franchises like the Dodgers (Brooklyn or Los Angeles), Cardinals, Red Sox, Tigers and Yankees. These are teams with winning traditions, Hall of Fame players and signature moments.

It’s far more difficult to write wistfully about a team like the Pittsburgh Pirates, a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 1992 and has finished last in its division nine times since 1993.

In fact, the Pirates’ decline started with a slide — by Sid Bream, who slid home with the winning run in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS and sent the Atlanta Braves to the World Series. The Pirates had entered the bottom of the ninth with a 2-0 lead and gave up three runs, two of them coming on Francisco Cabrera’s two-out single to left field on a 2-1 pitch off Stan Belinda.

The next 18 seasons would have glimmers of hope, but mostly disappointment.

“In a time of life when I let go of a lot of things,” Michael Lowenstein writes, “I never completely let go of the Pittsburgh Pirates.”

Lowenstein’s second book, “The Nineteenth Year: A Sweet Summer with the Pittsburgh Pirates” (Word Association Publishers; paperback, $16.95, 310 pages)  weaves nostalgia with a passionate look at the present.

Lowenstein grew up in the Pittsburgh area, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, and works for a law firm that helped save the Pirates from leaving town. He remembers the Pirates’ run to the 1971 World Series title — when he was 14 years old — with Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Manny Sanguillen leading the way.

In “The Nineteenth Year,” Lowenstein switches back and forth from 2011 to 1971, remembering his connections to the strong Pirate teams of the late 1960s and ‘70s and reconnecting with the 2011 squad. He went to 40 games in 2011 as the Pirates seemed to be on the verge of breaking out of their sub-.500 streak — but it didn’t happen, and for the 19th straight season, the Pirates had a losing record.

But as Lowenstein writes, there was some fight and grit in the 2011 Pirates, even after they went into a swoon during the dog days of the season.

“I would much rather see a team that tried and then collapsed than one that accepted its lot in life,” he writes.

That he watched some games with his parents and children made it even more meaningful.

“This is a book about baseball and family, or about family and baseball,” he writes.

Lowenstein was able to see a good deal of baseball in 1971 when he broke his arm and was unable to attend summer camp. What seemed to be a bad break at the time turned magical when the Pirates powered their way into the World Series and defeated a favored Baltimore Orioles squad after falling behind two games to none.

As the 2011 season progressed, the Pirates stirred memories of past glories. It helped when manager Clint Hurdle invited members of the 1971 squad to visit the locker room and talk to the current players.

Lowenstein brings a vivid memory and in general, good research to his work. There are a few glitches, most notably when Lowenstein refers to the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1918 (it happened after the 1919 season). The other wasn’t even a glitch, but more of a lament — Lowenstein complains that Cabrera, who tore the hearts out of Pirate fans everywhere with his hit in the 1992 NLCS, “had three hits the whole season.” True. But Cabrera appeared in only 12 games during the regular season and batted .300 (3-for-10).  He had just two at-bats in the NLCS and went 1-for-2.

That’s splitting hairs on my part. To a Pirates fan, Cabrera is regarded with the same warmth as Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone receive from Red Sox fans. So I mention the exact statistics but understand Lowenstein’s frustration.

I enjoyed the photographs of some of the ticket stubs Lowenstein kept from the 1971 season. Imagine paying just $10 for a World Series ticket, as Lowenstein did for a terrace reserved seat at Three Rivers Stadium. Or the day before, when he paid $8 for a general admission reserved seat for what was the first night game in World Series history. Or spending $7 for a field box ticket for the Game 4 of the NLCS, the Pirates’ pennant-clinching, 9-5 victory against the San Francisco Giants.

And no book about the Pirates — especially from a lifelong fan — would be complete without a photograph (and mention) of Pittsburgh’s most electrifying baseball moment — Oct. 13, 1960, when Bill Mazeroski ended Game 7 of the World Series against the Yankees with a home run over the left-field wall at Forbes Field.

For older Pirate fans, that might lessen the sting of Bream’s lumbering dash to the plate in 1992. For current Pirate fans, 2011 (and as it turned out, 2012), there was hope for a franchise that could not compete with the richer, bigger-market teams for marquee free agents.

In 2011, the Pirates “brought baseball back to Pittsburgh,” Lowenstein writes. “They did not get all the way there, but they reminded us of what baseball once had been in Pittsburgh and what it could be again.”

“The Nineteenth Year” is a quick and enjoyable read, a revealing diary by a passionate fan who has seen the best and worst of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Reminds the reader of some of an old Tom Petty lyric:

Even the losers, keep a little bit of pride, they get lucky sometimes.”






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