When you live in a place long enough, you become sick of the local radio stations. This was the case when I drove through Pittsburgh on Monday, April 9th, 2001. I go through a Van Halen phase every other year, and ’01 was one of those years. I was listening to a mix of Roth and Van Hagar songs, which to some people is sacrilege. But I don’t play by those rules, and it was the perfect soundtrack for my trip to Opening Day… the very first regular season game ever at PNC Park. Needless to say, I was really enjoying the ride.
Since the North Side was torn up due to the stadium construction projects, I was about to begin my habit of parking in the Strip District, walking through the city, and making my way across the 6th Street Bridge, which had recently been dedicated as the Clemente Bridge. Normally, the beginning of April in western PA is grey and miserable. But, on this Monday, the sun was shining and the air was a comfortable 75 degrees. I couldn't wait to see the ballpark, not to mention the new Roberto Clemente and Willie “Pops” Stargell statues. There had only ever been one statue in Pittsburgh sports history (Honus Wagner batting in front of Gate A at Three Rivers), so adding two new ones was a big deal.
As I crossed the river and approached the left field gates, I saw Pop’s statue, and it was overwhelmingly huge. The artist had captured Willie’s enormous physical and metaphorical presence at the plate. His stance was wide with his left elbow pointing straight back and an oversized bat sticking straight up in the air. I began to think of all the stories I knew about Willie: his contribution to his team and organization, the “Stargell Stars” he gave out for motivation and accomplishment, the fanfare of “We Are Family” in 1979, hitting a homer into the upper deck of Montreal's Olympic Stadium, and using a sledge hammer to warm up in the on-deck circle to intimidate the opposition (quite possibly the coolest thing ever). This last fact is what I focused on as I admired the enormity of this perfect representation.
I was 15 feet from the Pop’s statue when I noticed the elaborate collage of colors that a dense ring of floral arrangements had created around Willie’s feet. I focused on a man in his 40s who was on one knee. His cheeks glistening in the sunlight from tears, he stood up and performed the sign of the cross. I remained there for several minutes, observing the emotions of my fellow fans who continued to place flowers and photos around the statue. Still looking forward, I whispered to my then-girlfriend, “I like Willie too, but crying is a bit overboard.” The man in front of me immediately turned around and stated, “He died this morning."
My loathing of the Pittsburgh airwaves and my obsession for Van Halen had kept me from the most important news of the day.
If we had to lose him, it was only fitting he left the world on this day. The Bucs got stomped by the Reds that afternoon, but they received their beating in the most beautiful ballpark in the league on an abnormally pleasant April day in Pittsburgh. The Pirates were nine years into their 20-year decline, but it was obvious PNC Park would be the beginning of a new age for Pirate baseball. I’m telling you, between the new ballpark and the weather, I wasn't sure I was really in Pittsburgh. It was strange for something so sad to happen on a day that was, for all intents and purposes, wonderful. But there was also something poetic about losing an iconic individual who lived and died for our city and its ball club on the dawn of a new era for Pittsburgh. Who says baseball isn’t romantic?
That day has never faded from my memory, and it likely never will. I took my time to construct this design in order to best represent the thoughts and images that flooded my mind as I approached the dedication, which quickly became a memorial, for our beloved baseball hero.
We take our statues seriously in Pittsburgh.
* This design is printed with a specially mixed plastisol ink to color match the 1971 Pirates gold caps, and duel cured for a heavy, soft, semi-gloss finish.
* This design is printed on Anvil ring spun cotton tees. These tees are incredibly soft, comfortable, and flexible. They have a slimming cut, but not enough that it throws off the sizing. Bottom line, these tees will be among your go-to favorite tees.
For more detailed information, including sizing, check them out at Anvils website:
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