And it was there, in that horrendously boring soup-bowl of a stadium, where I preached my first sermon. I don't recall the date. Must have been 1974 or 75. Dad had purchased three tickets to see the Pirates play the San Francisco Giants. We got to our seats and they were occupied. The usher looked at our tickets, then studied the squatter's tickets. Our tickets were valid. Their tickets were valid. We each had a right to them and they got there first. And then the usher made the foolish mistake of using a phrase my Father simply could not -- would not -- tolerate. "Sorry sir, but you're going to have to..."
Dad was a remarkably patient man when dealing with strangers and people in the service industry. But the phrase "you're going to have to" was just one he would not accept. (I am the same way!) He emphatically informed the usher that he wasn't going to have to do anything. Except maybe speak to someone in charge. And so down to the Pirate offices we went, deep in the bowels of Three Rivers Stadium. There, my father politely but very firmly stated his case. A rain check would not suffice. Whatever potentate Dad dealt with took pity on us and gave us other seats. Better seats. Right on the third base line, within earshot of the Giants' dugout and third base!
As a Pirate fan, I would have preferred first base. But beggars can't be choosers. Besides, I reasoned, the Buccos would have plenty of runners on third for me to cheer on. And cheer, I did. Eight or nine years old, maybe ten, I screamed my melon off the whole game. My poor sister, about 23 or 24 at the time, must have been mortified. Particularly when I informed the Pirate third baseman, Richie Hebner, that my sister was single. Yes, I admit it. I was ready to pimp my sister out for a chance to meet Willie Stargell. (Richie smiled at her, I swear it. But nothing ever came of it.)
Dad might have been embarassed or self-conscious. But I remember, years later, he told me "a stadium is one place where a kid ought to be able to scream at the top of his lungs." I have tried to remember that when I now get annoyed at ball games!
As the game wore on, I noticed something that angered me. Pirate fans -- people with the caps and the jerseys and the big, foam fingers -- were boo'ing certain Pirate players. Richie Zisk and Al Oliver, to be specific. That made no sense to me. If the guy's in a slump, and they both were, wouldn't it be logical to cheer for them all the more? "He's a bum!" "Send him back to the minors!" It was sermon time. And I preached a two-parter at the top of my little lungs.
The first time, (I can't remember which of the two was up. We'll say it was Zisk.) I stood up on my seat, turned around to the fans in our section and gave them what-for. I told them that REAL fans never boo their own team or their own players. TRUE fans cheer even harder when someone's having a hard time. And then, I prophesied. (An eight year old televangelist. Who knew?) "Just you watch", I said. "Just you wait! Zisk is gonna hit a homer." The other fans were amused. But hardly receptive.
Yep. Out of the park.
As Zisk rounded third, I was screaming loud enough to wake the dead and scare away the walking undead. And fans around me were patting me on the back, saying, "Nice call, kid." "Way to go." Meanwhile, a surly-looking older man in a San Francisco Giants uniform stuck his head out of the dugout and looked into the stands.
A couple innings later, it was Al Oliver's turn up. And, as he too was slumping, Al got treated to a chorus of raspberries and catcalls. "The guy's a retread!" "Whiffer!" I went straight into what I call "Moses coming down from Mount Sinai" mode. If had been more familiar with Biblical syntax, I might well have thundered, "You are a stiff-necked and rebellious people!" Instead, I repeated my earlier sermon about loyalty and fandom. This was Pittsburgh, after all. City of champions. Once again, I predicted a round-tripper. And yes, Mr. Oliver delivered a towering homerun. It was one that wound up making the difference in the game. I am certain I have never yelled quite so loudly since.
This time, the fans were buying beers for my Dad. Offering, anyway. They were talking about hoisting me on their shoulders and getting me season tickets. (I thought that was a swell idea. Dad seemed to feel attending school should take precedence.)
And then, that crabby-looking old man from the Giants dugout climbed out of the dugout and scanned the crowd again. He looked, and looked, and finally...he identified me. (It wasn't hard.)
Now, I don't know about you. But I have always wondered if the players on the field can hear the fans. Particularly those of us in the first few rows. You never really know from watching on television. Evidently, they hear quite well. The "old man" was the Giants third base coach. I don't remember his name, sorry to say. But I remember his steely stare. He pointed at me. "Hey kid! Yeah, you! Get over here!!!" I wasn't terrified. I knew my Dad (to say nothing of an army of now-quite-happy Pirate fans) had my back.
Dad gave me the nod and I padded down a couple steps to the rail. The coach handed me a baseball, one that (I was certain!) had just been fouled into the dugout by none other than the great Willie Stargell. He looked at me, smiled broadly, and said, "Here kid. Now SHUT UP. You're killin' us!" He winked at my Dad and went back into the dugout. I still have the ball. (And sorry, but I didn't shut up. Though I am sure you're hardly surprised.)
For years, I remembered the story because it made me smile. A big shot noticed me, a little kid. And he gave me something special. But as I have aged, something else has become real to me about the story. I've been in more than my share of slumps. Like Al Oliver. Or Richie Zisk. Nothing has picked me up more, given me greater strength or helped me back onto the field like those of you who are in my cheering section. Especially those of you who cheer loudest when I am slumping most profoundly.