There hasn't been a whole lot to celebrate over the last 18-plus seasons if you're a Pirates fan--they haven't had a winning record since 1992--but there was one magical season that Bucco fans can look back on with fondness: The 1997 Freak Show.
The Pittsburgh Pirates had just been purchased by Kevin Mcclatchy one year earlier and he immediately trimmed the payroll to a paltry $9 million for the 1997 season. To give you some perspective, Albert Belle, one of the premiere players at the time, made $11 million that year.
Needless to say, 1997 was expected to be a rebuilding year for the Pirates and very little was expected from them. But led by the likes of Joe Randa, Tony Womack, and Keith Osik, the 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates actually stayed near .500 the entire season. They did "freak-like" things like win a game when Tony Womack was hit in the head with a pitch with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th inning, and sweep Albert Belle and the big market Chicago White Sox at Three Rivers Stadium.
And thanks to a pretty weak National League Central divsion, the team actually battled tooth-and-nail with the Houston Astros and were in the pennant race up-until the last weekend of the season. Sure they finished below .500 at 79-83, but a pennant race is a pennant race.
The crown jewel of the 1997 season was the combined 10-inning no-hitter by Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon against the Houston Astros on Saturday, July 12th at Three Rivers Stadium and my brother and I were in attendance to see the historic event.......oh that's right, we missed it.
Growing up in the 80's and 90's, kids like me at the time often took it for granted that we could just show up to Three Rivers Stadium, purchase a ticket, and take in a 9-inning baseball game. 99% of the time this approach worked just fine. Three Rivers Stadium was huge for baseball and very rarely did 58,000 fans show up to watch a game--especially a regular season contest.
My brother Joey and I would go to about 3 or 4 games a season back then and since 1997 was such an exciting and promising season, and the Pirates were battling the Astros for the division, we decided to take in a Pirates/Astros game shortly after the All-Star break.
We found a place to park for $5 at a parking lot near the Humane Society on the North Side. Not bad. When we got to Three Rivers, we were kind of surprised to find so many people in line at the ticket-purchase window. We started to get really excited. Not only were the Pirates in a heated race for the division, but Francisco Cordova was on the mound and despite Houston having formidable sluggers such as Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, Cordova simply owned the Astros at that time.
We figured the people were coming out just to experience the excitement of the pennant race. As it turned out, however, it was a "Fireworks Night" and that was contributing greatly to the large walk-up crowd. We Pittsburghers sure do love our fireworks. There's been a joke for years that if the Pirates had a "Fireworks Night" for every home date, they'd have 81 sell-outs each year. There was a woman at the ticket window taking an awfully long time figuring out what she wanted to buy and an old guy in front of us turned around and said, "Damn women. They would slow down a one-car funeral!" I chuckled a little, but my brother started howling and loudly exclaimed: "Yeah, women shouldn't be allowed at the games!"
By little brother sure does know how to put his foot in his mouth when the ladies are around.
Time to digress:
Fast-foward to two years later. My uncle was living in Cincinnati. In the three years that he lived there, I would drive down to see him and my aunt a few times a year. In mid-April of 1999, the Pirates were in Cincy to play the Reds for a weekend series. My brother and I made plans to drive to Cincinnati to see a game with my uncle at the old Riverfront Stadium. Now, mind you, this was mid-April and the Pirates were just coming off their sixth-straight losing season. Even if they were defending World Champions, it certainly was too early for any crucial matchups. We were just excited about seeing a Pirates road game. Pretty neat. We didnt hide the fact that we were cheering for the Pirates. My brother wore a Rod Woodson Steelers jersey and took some good-natured ribbing from the vendors: "Hey Rod Woodson is here! The Steelers suck! Haha." Not very creative, but certainly not too venomous, either. Anyway, my brother must have had some money on the outcome or something because there was a point late in the game when Pirates shortstop Abraham Nunez booted a potential double-play ball and my brother stood up and screamed, "Nunez, you blankin blank!" I'm sure you can figure out what the blankin four-letter word was, but the blank four-letter word is the word you NEVER say to or around a woman. No, not the one that rhymes with itch. The other word. The word that makes women react to the person who said it in the same way James Harrison reacts to a ball-carrier after a missed-block. We were surrounded by women when he said this and we were the ROAD FANS! I turned to him and said, "If you ever say that again, I will elbow you in the mouth!" Surprisingly, we made it out of Riverfront Stadium alive.
Digression complete, back to the story:
We were in line for a long time and were starting to wonder if we'd even be able to make it in to see the first inning. Well, as it turned out, we wouldn't get in to see any of the innings. An usher came out and announced to the crowd that the game was sold-out. Yes sir, Pittsburghers sure do love their fireworks.
We figured, no big deal, right? We'd just catch another game the following week. We headed back to my car and I told the parking lot attendant that the game was sold-out and asked him if I could get my money back. I don't rememeber if he could control his laughter, but he said, "You parked there, didn't you, buddy?" Yes, Mr. Parking Lot Attendant, I did park there, but for a specific purpose and that purpose went unfullfilled.
I didn't get my money back.
We decided to head back home and just hang out for the evening. The game wasn't on television so my brother, my uncle (the future Cincinnati resident), and I did the kinds of things that guys in their early-to-mid 20's often do when they have too much time on their hands--tossed a football around, talked sports, and tried to put eachother in the figure-four leg-lock--and we were completely oblivious to the events unfolding at Three Rivers Stadium.
A couple of hours later, I decided to turn the radio on just so I could catch the score. I tuned in just in time to hear first baseman Kevin Young record the final out in the top of the 8th inning by catching a pop fly down the first base-line. Pirates play-by-play man Lanny Frattere said the thing he always said when a potenial no-hitter was on the horizon: "Listen to the crowd! One more mile for Francisco Cordova!" I immediately ran and turned the television on because ESPN always interrupts regular programming whenever a no-hitter is in progress. No-hitters are to the World Wide Leader what war-coverage is to CNN. Sure enough, ESPN tapped into Houston's feed just in-time to see Cordova pitch the top of the 9th inning. By this point, my brother and uncle had joined me. I don't know exactly how the top of the 9th inning went, but I'm pretty sure Cordova hit a batter and that batter eventually made his way to 2nd base. However, with two-away, Jeff Bagwell flew out and angrily smashed his bat on the ground. When the right-fielder caught the ball, my uncle pumped his fist and said, "there it is! The no-no!" Everyone went nuts. It was simply glorious. The only problem was the score. It was 0-0 and in-order for the no-hitter to count, the Pirates would have to score in the bottom of the 9th. Major League Baseball changed their rules for a no-hitter years prior and a pitcher could not get credit for a no-hitter--even if he pitched all 9 innings--unless the game ended without his team giving up a hit. For example, the 12-perfect innings that Harvey Haddix pitched in Milwaukee in the late 50's was no-longer officially a perfect game because the Pirates lost the game in the 13th.
Unfortunately, the Pirates didn't score in the bottom of the 9th and the game would go extra-innings. Cordova didn't come out for the 10th inning. Instead, reliever Ricardo Rincon pitched the inning. By this time, my future brother-in-law came over to take my sister out and while he waited for her to finish getting ready, he sat down with us to watch the 10th inning. We were all into it. There hadn't been that kind of intense excitement about the Pirates since the 1992 playoffs.
Just like with the 9th inning, I don't remember how the 10th inning unfolded, but Rincon navigated his way through the inning with the no-hitter still intact. Around this time, my sister was finally done getting ready and was checking herself out in the living room mirror. My brother, Mr. Charmer, looked over at her and said, "Why are you looking at yourself in the mirror? I've seen nicer bodies in an auto-wreck." Pretty corny, but effective. I laughed, my brother laughed, and my future brother-in-law laughed. My sister kind of laughed, but you could tell she was embarrassed and she sheepishly walked into the kitchen. My brother walked over to the threshold of the kitchen and said, "What's wrong?" Out of nowhere, came a flying cookie and smacked my brother right in the nose. BOOM! What a shot. Had my sister been able to see into the future and hear what my brother would someday say at Riverfront Stadium, she might have thrown a whole box of Oreos at him.
We were relieved that Rincon made it through the 10th, but the Pirates needed to score soon because eventually the Astros were going to get a hit and maybe even a run. Fortunately, the Pirates did score in the bottom of the 10th inning on a two-out, three-run homerun by then Pirates hitting prospect, Mark Smith.
It was a no-doubter and my brother and I went nuts. We couldn't believe it. The Pirates pitched a combined 10-inning no-hitter. For some reason we decided to go for a drive just to take in the scene--after all, it really did feel like they clinched a pennant--and got stuck in post-game traffic. I turned the radio on to listen to the post-game show and heard a replay of Lanny's call in the 10th: "Home run! No-hitter! Fireworks! You got it all!" Yes, Pittsburghers sure do love their fireworks.
Interestingly, I actually found a ticket stub from that game a week or so later at the old store I used to work at and I have it displayed on the little memorabilia table I have set up in my apartment.
Even though I didn't get to see it live and in person, It was one of my favorite nights as a sports fan. The only thing I regret was not going to the stadium a little earlier, but you can't predict a no-hitter. Although, we should have known it was a "Fireworks Night."
Yep, we Pittsburghers sure do love our fireworks. That night, we got more than we bargained for.