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Frizzi: Caught in a baseball vortex

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FRIZZI-DUGOUT

When I first moved to Peoria in 1992, the first question I was this:

"Are you a Cardinal fan or a Cub fan?"

Being a huge baseball fan and this being my second stint in the Midwest, I knew that Peoria was smack dab in the middle of the St.Louis - Chicago route. I also knew that the Card-Cub rivalry was as legendary and as intense at the one involving the Hatfields and McCoys.

So, I cleared my throat and smiled, looked the person in the eye and said:

"Neither."

"Oh. You must be a White Sox fan."

"Well, no. I came from Dallas so I like the Texas Rangers."

"I see. You're an American League fan."

"Oh no! I'm a National League fan! I'm originally from Pittsburgh, so I'm a life-long Pirates fan.

"You don't say."

As I say, this was 1992, which coincidentally was the last year the Pirates had a winning season. They had won the National League east Division the last two years but did not make it into the World Series. They were just two outs away from beating Atlanta in the 1992 National League playoffs but former Bucco Sid Bream slid safely home to win the game and the playoffs for the Braves.

Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek became free agents and left Pittsburgh. The Pirates haven't had a winning season since. So, it hasn't been easy being a Pirates fan these past two decades. But it's been even tougher following the Pirates in the "Cardinal-Cub" vortex, especially since the Cards and Cubs were much better than the Buccos.

In fact, when asked the "Card-Cub" question and I replied, "The Pirates", the reply would be:

"I'm sorry."

If it was a Cubs fan, I told them, "I'm not sorry. In my lifetime, I've seen the Pirates win not one, not two, but three World Series. Your grandfather can't even say that!"

If it was a Cardinals fan, I had no answer. Even then, the Cards let the National League in World Championships. They had already had fifteen trophies by the time I moved back to "the vortex". Since then, they've added three more. The Pirates, who played in the first World Series in 1903, had five, a count that still stands.

Being a Pirates fan, I knew and also admired the greatest Cardinal of them all, Stan Musial. "The Man" was also a Western Pennsylvania guy, being from Donora where my Dad worked.

The last two Pirates world championships were 1971 and 1979, which were during my first stint in the Midwest. I was living in Southern Indiana at the time where the closest Major League team was, of course, the Cardinals. So, in the age

before the internet, if I wanted to listen to the Pirates on radio, and I couldn't pick up the 50 kilowatt broadcasting juggernaut known as KDKA in Pittsburgh, I had to listen to Cardinal radio with Jack Buck and Mike Shannon, which I feel fortunate to have done. However, I would have preferred Bob Prince and Nellie King or late in 1979, Milo Hamilton and Lanny Frattare. In '79, that last year that the Pirates won a pennant, I was a student at Indiana State University and would drive around with my college girlfriend in the evenings trying to pick up the games on KDKA. This, despite the price of gas being an astronomical 75 cents a gallon.

Later in Terre Haute, a friend of mine purchased a huge satellite dish. This was when you could pick up the unscrambled transmitted feeds to the TV stations. He'd invite me over, he and his wife would feed me (important for a college student) and then we'd watch...Cardinal games.

When I lived in Dallas and would go back to Indiana, I would time a majority of the trip to occur during a Cardinal game. And I didn't have to rely on KMOX, the power Cardinal flagship. I could drive through and pick up a game on several small town radio stations and not miss a pitch. To this day, the Cardinal radio network stretches across nine, count 'em, nine states.

In order to see my beloved Buccos, I'd have to see them at Busch Memorial Stadium, the round one now known as "Busch II". A high school kid's car might not make it to Pittsburgh but might make it to St.Louis. So, I'd pile into a car load of Cardinal fans. Arguing about who was better, Dave Parker or Bake McBride, we'd zoom along Highway 50, past a barn and a cow and cow and a barn until we saw the Gateway Arch. Along the way, we would stop and eat at the golden arches.

As fate would have it, I married into a family of Cardinal fans. My father-in-law is from the little Missouri hamlet of Warrenton, which is next to a bigger Missouri hamlet of Wright City. If you were to drive west of St. Louis on US 70, you would drive through the family parlor.

My in-laws would load of the family van and drive to Busch-II and sit in the nosebleeds where you might be able to see the numbers on the backs of the players. But they were a middle class family and if you spent more money on tickets, you couldn't afford that red Cardinal megaphone full of popcorn, which Heddy (later my wife), appreciated more than the game.

Then, there are the Cubs, who I had to watch whenever I wanted to see the Pirates. The Cubs, at that time, were on WGN Channel 9, which was and is on nearly every cable outlet. Because of that, I was lucky enough to listen to Jack Brickhouse, who cut his teeth in Peoria radio. On that subject, I was also lucky enough, living in Dallas, to have listened to the late, great Mark Holtz, the voice of the Texas Rangers. Holtz also made his bones in Peoria, having broadcasted Bradley University basketball games. He passed away in 1992. In Holtz's memory, the lake outside the Ballpark in Arlington was named in his honor. Like Jack Buck's "It's a winner" phrase is displayed on the Busch Stadium scoreboard after a Cardinal victory, so is Holtz's "Hello Win Column" displayed after a Ranger win.

I would've liked to have heard the real Harry Carry in the broadcast booth. With the Cubs, he was past his prime to put it mildly. I mean no disrespect to Harry, but h had clearly lost a step or two compared to contemporaries his age such as Bob Uecker, Milo Hamilton, Ernie Harwell and Vin Scully. Cub fans loved him, foibles and all. He was as he said, the guy at the bar talking to other guys at the bar. I remember listening to him and Jimmy Piersall call White Sox games. They were loose, crazy, unorthodox and just fun to listen to. I would've loved to have listened to the real Harry Carry of the Cardinal years but I've listened to recordings of those games, where he was sharp, knowledgeable and took a back seat to no baseball announcer, then and now.

Harry told it straight. And I didn't like it when I would watch a Cubs-Pirates game at Three Rivers Stadium and talk about how lousy the Pirates were (which they were), that there were no fans in the stands (which there weren't) and that there might even be more Cub fans in the stands than Pirate fans. I've been to Wrigley when the Cubs were bad and had no problem moving from seat to seat.

I especially was cringing in 2003 when then Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry "stole" Aramis Ramirez from the Pirates with Kenny Lofton for Bobby Hill and some office supplies. This was because the Pirates were over budget and it was purely a salary dump that annoys Pirates fans to this day. Then I had to listen to it from Cub fans as well as Cub announcers. There even was a black and gold banner in Wrigley's bleachers that said, "Thank You Pittsburgh". The truth hurts.

So, you can imagine my glee when I watched the infamous "Bartman Game" and seeing the look of devastated Cub fans in the Wrigley stands. "Oh well, folks," I chuckled, "wait 'til next year!"

Later, that Thanksgiving Eve, we went out with some friends and half of Peoria to Agatucci's Pizzeria. It's tradition. One of our friends went to her folk's house for Thanksgiving. The next morning, her father died in his sleep.

Heddy and I went to pay our respects. On the table, next to her father's pictures, was his Cubs hat. It certainly would've been nice if he would've been able to see the Cubs in the World Series before he passed.

If I wanted to watch live baseball and not drive two hours and some change north or south, I could go to Pete Vonachen Stadium to watch the Peoria Chiefs. Of course, they were the Low-A affiliates of the Chicago Cubs and played in the Midwest League, which had no Pirate affiliates.

The Chief's ballpark had just been remodeled in 1992 and renamed for Pete Vonachen, a Peoria businessman who was best friends with Harry Caray . Pete had just sold the franchise to a group out of Chicago, who decided to move the Cubs affiliate nearer to Chicago. In order to save the Chiefs, Pete purchased the franchise and became affiliated with the rival Cardinals. This is when the Cards brought up players such as Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. Heddy and I would sit down behind the Chiefs' dugout along the third base line and watch Pujols play third base. To show you how good of a baseball scout I am, I thought Pujols would be a utility player at best. I was more excited when the Pirates, who traded left handed reliever Jason Christiansen to the Cards, received former Chiefs shortstop Jack Wilson.

I was also up to my armpits in Cardinals and Cub fans at the workplace. I'd see them in the halls and we'd talk ball. Mainly, we'd discuss Cards or Cubs ball. Any bar I would go into would be decked out with either Cub or Cards props. It got to the point where I had to build myself a Pirates bar. Heddy worries when I start discussing the Pirates with imaginary patrons.

When the Texas Rangers finally got into the World Series, who would they face? Of course, it's the Cardinals! Here I was, the lone Ranger fan (pardon the pun), surrounded by a sea of Cardinal red. They were in stores, bars, cars and at work. Even the in-laws sported their Cardinal wear. There was no escape. But I wore my Ranger duds proudly.

Heddy and I went to Game Two of the World Series, which was conveniently located in St. Louis. It was better on the wallet to see them at Busch than at Arlington. Needless to say, the home fans welcomed us like the guests we were. The Rangers won the game. Afterwards, a Dallas TV station found me and asked me how the series would end. I said, and I kid you not, "It's going to Game 7, with David Freese batting with two outs in the bottom of the ninth".

OK, so it was Game 6 when St. Louis's own David Freese broke the Rangers (and my) heart. The Rangers were one strike away from winning the World Series. One strike. Not once, but twice! And like local boy Bill Mazeroski won the 1960 World Series for the Pirates, so did local boy Freese with the Cards.

I lost a lot of six-pack bets.

My supervisor brought in snacks and his Game Six ticket. It was the a real ticket, not one that was printed from online. He had seen the game with his Dad. I moved the ticket away from the food and told him to frame it. It was still pristine and would be worth lots of money by the time his kids went to college. My former supervisor was distraught as he had sold his Game Six ticket before the game.

I was wearing a Cardinal shirt and hat that day. As I said, I lost a lot of bets.

Later that January, the son of a friend of mine (from Florissant, north of St. Louis), passed away. He might have been thirty years old. At his service, there was a picture of him with his wife and newborn baby. All three wore Cardinal shirts. He called his mother right after Game Six. He was a nice guy and I'm glad that he was able to see the Cardinals win the World Series before he passed.

This year, the Pirates look as though they'll make the playoffs for the first time since 1992. Of course, in their way, is the Cardinals. They will be neck and neck with the Reds, most likely until the final day of the season. Unless of course, the Bucs slump like they did the last two years. Cubs fans understand. They remember 1969.

When the Pirates played the Cards in St. Louis recently, I got a call from Paul Gordon, editor of "The Peorian" and a Cardinal lifer, even though his Dad was a Cub fan. He wanted to make a "beverage bet" on the outcome. I asked him why he didn't call me when the Pirates took 4 of 5 from the Cards in Pittsburgh.

Paul said that he wanted to wager because he couldn't think of any other way to get the Cards back to winning. He must of heard of my reputation as a jinx (or "mush" if you're familiar with the Robert DiNiro movie, "A Bronx Tale".)

Because I bet on the Buccos, the Cards took three of four from the Pirates and Paul came by to happily collect his winnings.

In the last weekend of August, the Bucs beat the Cards two of three. I cheerfully put in my request. I also casually mentioned that Paul could bring me twice as much guzzling fun when the Pirates win the next series at Busch. And, should it be a sweep, it would have to involve a 12-pack. After all, the third place Reds just took 3 of 4 from the Cards in Cincy. The Redbirds seemed to have been sufficiently plucked! I would get 18 containers in all should the Pirates sweep the series!

I'm still stinging from the Cards' sweep of my Pirates last weekend. To make matters worse, I now owe Paul a six-pack! But, as they say, "If you wanna play, you gotta pay!

Heddy and I went to the last game at Busch II, just as we did at Three Rivers Stadium. We had a lot of memories at both parks. After the Pirates final game in 2000, which the Cubs won 10-9, many of the former Pirates filed out onto the field to rounds of applause. Then, Willie Stargell, the captain of the 1979 "We Are Family" Buccos (and who shared the NL MVP that year with the Card's Keith Hernandez) threw out the last pitch. Stargell, who was very ill, died on the first Opening Day at PNC Park.

It was a very emotional scene. I went back to being a little kid. And as I became emotional, I remember Heddy giving me the damndest look.

Fast forward to the final regular season game at Busch II in 2005. The Reds swept the weekend series but the Cards won the division with 100 games. Former Cards also paraded around the park as did the Budweiser Clydesdales. I imagine that Heddy's mind went back to being a little kid as well, sitting in the nosebleed seats with her family and her red Cardinal megaphone full of popcorn. And as she became emotional, I looked at her and asked, "Now do you get it?"

That Thanksgiving, the Cards held "Fredbird's Garage Sale", where seats, sign, even the one at the spot where Mark McGwire hit his 50th homer, breaking Roger Maris' long standing record. I bought some media guides, passed on a urinal and saw a row of the flags that flew around the top of the stadium. I saw one for Peoria as the Cards also had flown banners for their minor league teams. Then, I saw the Pittsburgh one. I eyeballed the banners at four feet by eight feet. The price tag was higher than the banner. I explained to Heddy that we had to buy it, if anything, to keep the banner out of enemy hands.

Heddy smiled and said, "Go ahead and buy it. It'll look very nice on your casket!"

And then, I remembered that my wife was a Cardinal fan. I blame my in-laws for that.

About the Author
Donn Frizzi is a well-traveled man, if you consider Pennsylvania to southern Indiana to Texas and finally Peoria to be the definition of well traveled. But in each of his stops he gained certain insights that make him who he is — including a Pirates and Rangers fan who must travel to St. Louis to watch quality baseball without buying a plane ticket. Poetic justice, perhaps? A talented writer, Donn also can make a good point by putting pencil to paper and drawing with satirical splendor. We’re hoping to persuade him to grace our website with an occasional toon, as well.