Monday, July 25, 2011

A fitting send-off

This week, my wife and I will end our two-year stay in Youngstown, Ohio, as we will be moving back to Grand Rapids, Mich., where we began our married lives three years ago.

We arrived in Aug. 2009 for job reasons (mine) and are leaving for job reasons (hers), and I'll always regret that it didn't work out here in northeast Ohio. Pittsburgh is about an hour's drive away, as is my hometown of Weirton, W.Va., making both destinations accessible, yet not close enough to spend a ton of time at either.

In a way that distance is symbolic, because while the location was almost ideal for me, the reality is this situation never came close to playing out as I imagined it when I took a media relations/broadcasting position with the USHL's Youngstown Phantoms two summers ago.

After a tumultuous year with the dysfunctional Phantoms franchise, I left the team in hopes of finding something better. There were a couple close calls last summer (and I'm still waiting on some other pending opportunities), but my wife and I recently decided it was time to prioritize her work and head back to Michigan.

It's been tough over the last few months knowing that in all likelihood I was about to move several hundred miles away from my family and my favorite city, but I tried to make the most of it with frequent trips home and to Pittsburgh.

Attending Pirates games was a large benefit to living in Youngstown; although the journey wasn't the easiest to make, especially during the week, I managed to make about 20-25 appearances at PNC Park in the last 24 months.

Included in those twentysomething games were six in this season of rekindled #BuccoFever, with the most recent being yesterday afternoon with my wife, dad and brother. It was during that Sunday afternoon tilt (my favorite kind) that I experienced something new.

Two weeks prior, the Pirates defeated the Cubs 9-1 with my brother and me in attendance at PNC, giving them an over-.500 record at the all-star break. For the first time, we watched a game of significance at the 11-year-old Best Ballpark in America(TM).

But even though that afternoon was goosebump-inducing, it was still missing something: namely, an opponent that was battling the Bucs for first place in the National League Central. The Cardinals entered the frame this weekend to provide that final piece to the puzzle.

To put it simply, it was all there yesterday, including a stifling combination of heat and humidity which added an atmosphere of attrition to the proceedings.

Actually, I should mention that something was missing on this Sunday of new frontiers. The Pirates offense, hamstrung by injuries and a lineup-wide dearth of power, was only half-present. Still, the home side managed to tie St. Louis three different times after falling behind by a single run.

Starter Charlie Morton provided some unlikely offense (a sacrifice fly) to counteract his lack of control (five walks). Recent free-agent signing Jason Grilli bailed Morton out with 1 2/3 innings of staunch relief, followed by single scoreless frames from Chris Resop, Joel Hanrahan and Joe Beimel to give the Pirates an opportunity to walk off with a win in the bottom of the 10th.

Xavier Paul's improbable one-out infield single gave the 35,000-plus some hope, a deserved award for enduring more than three hours of oppressive temperatures. That hope turned to delirious expectation when Paul swiped second base and took third on Cards catcher Gerald Laird's throwing error.

Chase d'Arnaud, who has been overmatched at times during his first month in the majors, was at the plate needing a medium-depth fly ball to keep the Pirates from being swept at home for the first time all year in a three-game series.

d'Arnaud delivered just that with a liner to center, his second RBI of the game on top of solid defensive play at third. The Pirates had won a game against a contending division rival in dramatic fashion.

It doesn't sound like much, but after over a decade of fruitless fandom, it was the fulfillment of years of personal dreams and expectations. My Pirates are in first place, the fourth day of the last 10 such a statement could be made.

They are still long shots to make the postseason, as the Cardinals, Brewers and Reds all figure to hang tough through the final two months, but for this fan of the Bucs, being on hand for Sunday's triumph was the best possible going-away present.

Follow Matt on Twitter and Facebook!

Matt Gajtka hosts the Polish Prodigy Podcast on Blog Talk Radio.

No comments: