City Scenes: Pirates 2023 Home Opener

The 2023 baseball season thus far has been a strange one for Pirates fans. The hot stove interval didn’t produce any big ticket news for the Pittsburgh club. Ownership had promised more additions and renovations for PNC Park, including a new scoreboard and jumbotron twice the size as the previous screen (more jaded Bucs fans interpreted this as a cynical ploy to squeeze more advertising space into the stadium). Then in December, fan favorite and former MVP Andrew McCutchen liked a tweet suggesting that the Pirates should bring him back to Pittsburgh. This seemingly innocuous social media activity incited a flurry of online speculation that Cutch might return to the Steel City (which I dismissed outright as the delirious pipe dreams of a suffering fanbase). Yet this speculation was vindicated the following month when the Pirates announced they had signed McCutchen to a one-year contract. In February, just as spring training was about to get underway, breakout star and ostensible face-of-the-franchise Bryan Reynolds made it public that he wished to be traded to another team since the Pirates weren’t offering an extension befitting his value as a player. This public airing of a dispute between a notoriously penny pinching ownership and the brightest spot in the starting line up inflamed the agony of Pirates fans and reinvigorated the incessant boasts of Yankees diehards that they would soon see Reynolds wearing pinstripes.

So it was a bit of a mixed-bag heading into the new season: fans implored the front office to meet Reynold’s extension demands and “just pay the man,” while anxiously anticipating McCutchen’s donning of the black and gold. My own expectations had been sufficiently tempered by seven seasons of Pirates fandom, but fate decreed that I would still be in Pittsburgh for yet another baseball cycle, and I dutifully planned to be present at the April 7th home opener. Still, I waited until the week before the game to get tickets, which had never been a problem in the past. However, for the first time ever in all my years of going to PNC Park, the only available tickets were “standing room” admission. I was highly skeptical that this would truly be a “standing room only” situation, having never seen that stadium with every seat occupied. But I was wrong.

The 2023 home opener was the most packed Pirates game I’ve ever attended. A visual scan of the grandstand did indeed give the impression that there was a spectator in every available seat. Under more normal circumstances the left field rotunda is sparsely populated with folks wanting to stretch their legs or coming down from their upper bowl seats to get closer to the on-field action for an inning. But at this home opener the rotunda railing was lined shoulder-to-shoulder with Pirates faithful.

I had to head all the way up to the top level of the rotunda to find an unoccupied patch of railing with a mostly unobstructed view of the field. This swath of stadium real estate is the usual stomping grounds of the Renegades of the Rotunda, and a small costumed crew of the swashbuckling superfans was present at their post, albeit uncharacteristically outnumbered by jersey-wearing normies.

My spot at the top of the rotunda did give me a prime vantage point of the new scoreboard screen, which was suitably impressive (and surprisingly lacking in dedicated advertising space).

So how to account for the blockbusting turnout? It certainly seemed like Pittsburghers showed up to welcome back their hometown hero McCutchen (OK, I know he’s originally from Florida, but he named his firstborn child Steel for crying out loud). On May 11, 2018 I was sitting in the lower infield boxes when McCutchen made his first return to PNC Park since being traded to the San Francisco Giants after the end of the previous season. During both his first at-bat and first time taking the outfield the stadium scoreboard displayed video tributes of Cutch highlights as a Pirate, and the crowd gave him a huge ovation. I can’t directly compare that reception with the welcoming he received in 2023, but the ovation certainly felt bigger and especially longer, being drawn out with protracted chants of “MVP!”

After all the hubbub of the home opener the start of the Pirates season seemed to sustain a certain electric energy. In late April the Pirates and Bryan Reynolds finally agreed on terms for an extension, finalizing the largest contract in the team’s history. This news not only relieved many anxious fans but it also capped off one of the best months of baseball the franchise has ever had. The team’s record has been much rockier since that startling early start, but as of this writing the Pirates have reclaimed first place in their division. What has perhaps been an inevitable regression to less spectacular performance has brought me some bittersweet personal consolation: at the beginning of this season I feared I might be leaving Pittsburgh just when the Pirates were starting to get good.

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