A Dream of Fields 10: The Pittsburgh Pirates

It’s only fitting that I get to celebrate my tenth field with the best story of them all. It’s an epic tale of a journey that almost got pillaged and plundered before we even got to the Pirates.

Friday, April 20, 2001, 7:05pm

PNC Park

10Pirates

Chicago Cubs 8, Pittsburgh Pirates 2

I took this trip with the same two friends I took the Mets-Phillies-Yankees trip with. Remember that trip with the great story of how we were asked to throw out the first pitch in Philadelphia? Must be something about Pennsylvania because my two best baseball travel stories are in that state. This is the story I tell everyone—friends, my students, dates, anyone who’ll listen. And now it’s the world’s turn.

We left my house at 6:45 on a Friday morning for a 7:05 game that evening, and I should have noticed the first harbinger of bad luck when my friends asked if I had the tickets and I didn’t. I ran back into the house and got them, and it really wouldn’t have been the end of the world had I forgotten them. The Pirates weren’t exactly selling out then.

I had our route planned, but it wasn’t the most direct route from Providence to Pittsburgh. We decided we wanted to stop in Philadelphia for cheesesteaks at Jim’s! Our lunch plans split our trip into two approximately equal legs, each about five hours. By leaving at 6:45am, I figured we’d miss the Providence rush hour, maybe run into some in New Haven, Connecticut, but glide right over the George Washington Bridge in New York around 10:00am after morning traffic had subsided. It was a narrowly open window, but as long as we got to Jim’s Steaks before noon, we’d be fine.

The first leg of the trip was a success. We parked the car at 11:45am about a block from Jim’s. The lunch rush hadn’t started yet, so we got our cheesesteaks and relaxed while we ate. When we left, there was a line that bent around the corner of the building. We dodged that bullet, and by 12:45pm, we were on the Pennsylvania Turnpike heading west ahead of schedule.

I had planned a five-hour drive from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, leaving an hour for traffic issues getting to the park in Pittsburgh. Some exits along the Pennsylvania Turnpike are separated by 30 or more miles, so there wasn’t always a variety of scenery. We passed by Harrisburg on time, and we continued ahead of schedule when we went through a few tunnels that went through mountains—that was cool, never done that before.

As we approached what was then Exit 12 (apparently, they have since renumbered the exits based on mileage), one of those signs that reads, “When flashing, tune to [some AM radio station]” had flashing lights. We tuned the radio and heard:

DUE TO THE PROBLEM ON THE PENNSYLVANIA TURNPIKE WEST BETWEEN EXITS EIGHT AND NINE, ALL TRAFFIC SHOULD SEEK ALTERNATE ROUTES AT EXIT TWELVE.

We were on the westbound side of the Turnpike! And we needed to get to Pittsburgh, Exit 6! At that very moment, we passed by Exit 12. It was 16 miles until the next exit, and we had no other choice but to keep driving and hope that The Problem—whatever it was—would be resolved before we got to Exit 9. Most of the drive toward Exit 11 was smooth sailing, until about half a mile or so before the exit because everyone was getting off the Turnpike to seek alternate routes. By this time, the message was:

DUE TO THE PROBLEM ON THE PENNSYLVANIA TURNPIKE WEST BETWEEN EXITS EIGHT AND NINE, ALL TRAFFIC SHOULD SEEK ALTERNATE ROUTES AT EXITS ELEVEN OR TWELVE.

We were in the leftmost lane of traffic, almost at the off-ramp when an eighteen-wheeler truck passed us and continued down the Turnpike. And another one did the same shortly after. Truck drivers have CBs, and they communicate with one another. These drivers obviously knew something. My friend in the backseat had studied the map (it was before the days of GPS) and informed us there wasn’t a quick alternate route, so we decided to chance it and head towards Exit 10, about 36 miles away. Either it would work or we’d be stuck in traffic for a long time and miss the game.

Ahead of us: just over 35 miles of open road—including the Alleghany Mountain Tunnel. Cool! We had made the correct choice, but now the message was:

DUE TO THE PROBLEM ON THE PENNSYLVANIA TURNPIKE WEST BETWEEN EXITS EIGHT AND NINE, ALL TRAFFIC MUST SEEK ALTERNATE ROUTES BY EXIT TEN.

We had to get off the Turnpike now. There were police and traffic cones directing all traffic to the off-ramp. We were given driving directions to Exit 7 and charged the appropriate toll, which my friend in the passenger seat thought was unfair because we were being forced to leave before our desired exit. He called it highway robbery.

We took winding state routes until we were able to get back on the Turnpike at Exit 7, and then we took the 11-mile drive to Exit 6 and found PNC Park. We arrived in the third inning, and the Pirates were already down by three runs, but since we weren’t fans of either team playing, it wasn’t a problem.

We were there for the ballpark more than the game, and just take a look how beautiful that park is.

Not counting Fenway, PNC Park is my favorite of the ballparks I’ve been to, and we were at the sixth game ever to be played there. We saw Sammy Sosa, then of the Cubs, hit a grand slam in the ninth inning. It was the first time in my “Dream of Fields” that the home team lost since the Minnesota Twins—and that wasn’t a problem because the Twins had been playing the Red Sox.

That night at our hotel, we watched the 11pm news to see if there was any mention of The Problem. There wasn’t. We bought Pittsburgh newspapers the next morning, but again, we found no reference to The Problem. There obviously was some sort of conspiracy, and we spent time on the longer ride home (we went to the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY—so not the most convenient way to get home) coming up with explanations.

Aliens had landed. The entire 15-mile stretch of road between Exits 8 and 9 vanished into thin air. A tanker carrying maple syrup collided with a truck carrying chickens such that the road was effectively tarred-and-feathered. Then the Men in Black had used their memory-erasing device on everyone except us.

I’ve recently uncovered not-so-secret documents as to what The Problem was. I typed “Pennsylvania Turnpike April 20, 2001” into Google and found this press release on the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s website. Apparently, there was a shift in shoring at a bridge construction site. Okay, that’s a reasonable enough problem that required traffic to leave the Turnpike. But the press release says that all westbound traffic could leave at Exit 9 and get back on at Exit 8. They made us get off at Exit 10 and gave us directions to Exit 7. Maybe we would’ve been on time for the game. They lied to us.

Now that’s highway robbery—and a problem.

– – – – –

Check out the other posts in this series:

  1. Boston Red Sox
  2. Minnesota Twins
  3. Los Angeles Dodgers
  4. Baltimore Orioles
  5. Montreal Expos
  6. New York Mets
  7. Philadelphia Phillies
  8. New York Yankees
  9. Cleveland Indians

Speak Your Mind

*