Wednesday, August 25, 2010

PNC Park: The House That Sid Bream Built

This past weekend, the Studious Metsimus / My Summer Family World Tour touched down in the Iron City, Pittsburgh, hoping to see the Mets win a series at a ballpark they've not had much success in (13-15 at PNC Park since it opened its mustard colored doors in 2001).

The trip there was long and filled with Cracker Barrel meals, but after what seemed like days, we finally made it to The House That Sid Bream Built.

Excuse me? The House That Sid Bream Built? In a city known for its steel workers and some football team that plays in Ketchup Field (which probably explains why the Pirates play in a mustard colored park), why would Sid Bream get the credit for building the stadium? Please allow us to elaborate for you.

Sidney Eugene Bream (no relation to Dwight Eugene Gooden and Darryl Eugene Strawberry) was sent to the Pirates by the Dodgers in 1985 to complete a deal in which four-time National League batting champion Bill Madlock was shipped off to Los Angeles. Bream was stuck playing first base, a position that was on lockdown due to the emergence of legendary Dodger first baseman Greg Brock, who hit all of .233 in his five Bream-repelling seasons in the City of Angels.

Once he arrived in Pittsburgh, he was part of a team that rose from the catacombs of the NL East (57-94 in 1985) to the division champions they became in 1990 (95-67). He formed a nucleus that included some of the most well-known Pirates in franchise history, like Jose Lind, Sammy Khalifa and Orlando Merced.

With Sid Bream anchoring the infield, the Pirates looked like a dynasty in the making. The supporting cast of Barry Bonds* and Bobby Bonilla served as fine complementary pieces to the team, but the glue that kept it together was Sid Bream.

However, after five and a half years in Pittsburgh, Sid Bream was due to become a free agent, and the $510,000 he was being paid by the Pirates just wasn't enough to keep the glue sticking to the team. With the Pirates deciding that the future at first base was the hitting machine known as Orlando Merced, Bream was deemed expendable.

Although the Atlanta Braves were a horrible team in 1990, Bream decided to go where the money was, and Atlanta had the green for him. Bream signed a three-year deal to play first base for the Braves and was paid far more money than he would have gotten to stay in Pittsburgh ($5.6 million over the three years).

The move appeared to benefit both Bream's former team and his new team. Orlando Merced hit .275, with 10 HR and 50 RBI in his first full season as a Pirate, finishing second in the NL Rookie of The Year balloting, robbed of his glory by some guy named Jeff Bagwell. Bream was the starting first baseman on the worst-to-first Braves and was part of a team that helped defeat the Pirates in the 1991 NLCS.

The defining moment of Bream's career came in the 1992 NLCS, also against the Pirates. After his Braves held a commanding 3-1 series lead in the NLCS, the Bucs stormed back, blowing out Atlanta in Games 5 and 6. Their convincing victories (7-1 in Game 5 and 13-4 in Game 6) gave Pittsburgh hope that they would finally make it to the World Series for the first time since 1979, after falling just short in 1990 and 1991. Everything looked set for the Pirates' first pennant in thirteen years when they took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7. Then poop happened, and Sid Bream was one of the fecal, I mean, focal points of the rally.

Starting pitcher Doug Drabek had been in complete command over the first eight innings of Game 7 and manager Jim Leyland decided to keep him in the game for the ninth inning. The former Cy Young Award winner was still the ace of the staff, leading the Pirates with 15 wins and a 2.77 ERA during the 1992 season.

However, Drabek had not been particularly effective against lefties in 1992 (.261 batting average for lefties against Drabek in '92, as opposed to a .189 batting average for righties) and the Braves had two of the best left-handed hitters in the game leading off the ninth inning in Terry Pendleton and David Justice.

Pendleton led off the inning with a double, bringing up the power-hitting David Justice, who represented the tying run. Drabek got Justice to hit a ground ball to the normally sure-handed Jose Lind at second base. However, there was nothing normal about what happened next.

Feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders (or maybe it was his batting helmet), Lind booted the routine grounder, allowing Justice to reach base. After a walk to our hero (Mr. Bream) loaded the bases, the night was over for Drabek. Although the Pirates were still up 2-0, the lead was precarious at best, with the tying run in scoring position and the winning run on first base in the form of Sid Bream, who reportedly once beat former track star Bill Buckner in a race.

Stan Belinda was called upon to put out the fire started by Drabek and Lind. His first batter, Ron Gant, hit a sacrifice fly to plate the first run and cut the Pirates' lead in half. A walk to Damon Berryhill reloaded the bases for Brian Hunter, but Belinda got Hunter to pop up to the shortstop, Jay Bell, for the second out of the inning.

The Braves were down to their last out and the Pirates had visions of champagne dancing in their heads, especially when the Braves were forced to call upon seldom-used Francisco Cabrera to pinch-hit in the most crucial at-bat of the series.

Cabrera lined a base hit to left that fell in front of Barry Bonds*. The tying run had scored. Chugging around third was Sidney Eugene Bream, hoping to score around Popeye's #1 fan (the restaurant, not the cartoon), Mike LaValliere. Bonds*' throw was slightly up the first base line. Bream slid at the same time that LaValliere threw his ample body at the plate in an attempt to block it. In a bang-bang play, Bream scored the winning run, sending the Braves back to the World Series and the Pirates back to the steel mills.

So let's get back to the title of this blog, in the event that you're still awake. Why do we call PNC Park "The House That Sid Bream Built"?

Well, when the Mets defeated the Pirates on Friday night, it gave the Pirates their 82nd loss of the season. This clinched their record-setting 18th consecutive losing season. Doing the math, that means their last winning season was in that fateful 1992 season.

After the Pirates dismantled their team following their devastating loss to the Braves in the 1992 NLCS, their attendance at Three Rivers Stadium plummeted. After finishing 7th in attendance in 1992, the Pirates never finished higher than 12th in the years following '92. The team knew they had to do something to bring the fans back into the ballpark, since the product on the field wasn't doing the job.

Thus the idea of PNC Park was born. Once Sid Bream crossed the plate in 1992, he set in motion the events that would lead to the beautiful park on the banks of the Allegheny River. Had Sid Bream been thrown out at the plate in Game 7, perhaps the Pirates would have won the game in extra innings. Perhaps Barry Bonds* wouldn't have bolted for San Francisco, home of BALCO. Perhaps the fans would have continued to come to Three Rivers Stadium.

But Sid Bream scored that run. The Pirates didn't win the pennant. Barry Bonds* didn't stay in Steel Country and the fans didn't come out to the ballpark.

Without that run, perhaps PNC Park would not have been needed to bring the fans back to the ballpark. Sid Bream built that house with his mad dash for home plate, the same house that the Studious Metsimus / My Summer Family tour invaded this past weekend (see, it all comes full circle).

Although we didn't see any Sid Bream statues, we did see statues of Roberto Clemente and legendary Negro League players such as Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.

We also saw a food court named after Pirate Hall-of-Famer Willie Stargell with Pops-themed eateries. (There was no "We Are Family" cookie stand there, because as we all know, the cookie stand is not part of the food court.)

The Mets and Pirates were dressed in throwback uniforms in honor of African-American Night. The Mets wore New York Cubans jerseys while the Pirates wore the uniforms of the old Pittsburgh Crawfords. Starting pitchers Jonathon Niese and James McDonald were kind enough to model the throwback jerseys for us when we watched them warm up in the bullpen prior to the game.

The game itself was a washout, and I mean that quite literally. The Mets had a slim 2-1 lead before David Wright hit a three-run homer to make it 5-1. During Wright's home run trot, the light drizzle that was falling throughout the game became heavier.

When the umpires realized that they had left their swim trunks and scuba gear in the hotel room, they decided to stop the game and put the tarp on the field.

After a one hour and six minute delay, Mr. Public Address Announcer told us that the game had been cancelled and that the Mets had come away with a rain-shortened victory. It was the first time the Mets had won a series on the road in a National League ballpark this season.

Unfortunately, the Mets were unable to sweep the Pirates, as Lastings Milledge and super-slugger Jose Tabata homered off Johan Santana in Sunday's series finale. At the same time, the Mets offense paid tribute to the late Three Rivers Stadium by imploding.

Lefty starter Zach Duke stifled the Mets' batters, allowing one run and five hits over his seven innings of work. That dang Duke boy had entered the game with a lowly 5-12 record and an ERA well over 5.00. But just like the Mets who played against those Sid Bream-led Pirates teams in the late '80s and early '90s, the Mets couldn't hit a Pirates lefty who had no success against any other teams in the National League.

Back then, it was the team of John Smiley, Zane Smith and Randy Tomlin who shut down the Mets and no one else. Now, it was the disciple of PSSST (Pitching School of Smiley, Smith and Tomlin) who handled the Mets.

The House That Sid Bream Built was a beautiful ballpark to visit, even if it was only for five innings. Pittsburgh embraces their history well, both Pirates history and Pittsburgh Crawfords history. The Wilpons should pay attention to that, noting that the city of Pittsburgh can be proud of their Pittsburgh Crawfords history without neglecting that the Pirates have history as well.

Pirates fans were far more polite than their counterparts across the state in Philadelphia. They did not insult fans and even suggested places to visit in the ballpark and around their city. They might not have a good team right now, but they're proud of their ballpark and their city and it showed in how they treated the "enemy" from New York.

Someday we'll go back to The House That Sid Bream built, but we will definitely do it by plane, even if it means sacrificing a trip or three to Cracker Barrel. Driving to Pittsburgh was a major chore, with traffic, poor weather, traffic, lack of scenery and traffic being the reasons why it almost became a good idea to hand over the car keys to Studious Metsimus blogger Joey Beartran.

That's it for our road trips this year. Next year, we'll go to new ballparks, eat new food and hopefully come back with more Mets victories, especially ones that take more than five innings to complete.

Thanks for reading about the latest Studious Metsimus / My Summer Family tour stop. We hope you enjoyed our wordy beyond belief blog. Although our road trips have come to an end for 2010, the Mets will play on for the next six weeks. Perhaps with one last run, similar to the one that ya gotta believe happened in 1973, we'll have a road trip in late October / early November. So let's keep on cheering for our boys in orange and blue. Ya (still) gotta believe! Let's Go Mets!


Adam Baker said...

I remember those days when Smiley,Smith and Tomlin simply shut the Mets down.I know everytime the Mets faced a lefty starter,Kiner or McCarver always mentioned the trouble with lefties.Interesting observation about Sid Bream.I never went to Three Rivers Stadium, but it may have been a dump. Did you go to the point where the rivers meet? The confluence I think it's called...(sp).I always thought Lind looked like an angry rat and couldn't stand Drabek either.Though I believe he was the one Straw hit a couple homers off of one night at Shea that knocked out some scoreboard lights.That was the last time we heard from the Bucs as contenders...
I found people were nice there also, and knew their sports...especially the Steelers.UPMC is state of the art too.Though getting around all of those one way streets was a pain, I liked the 'Burgh! Glad you enjoyed the Chicken & Dumplings!;)

Ed Leyro (and Joey) said...

We didn't go to the confluence of the three rivers. We did see Steeler fans, but I stayed away from them. As a Seahawks fan, I don't need them to remind me about the outcome of Super Bowl XL.