‘Opening day is like Christmas for us’
When you’re die-hards for a floundering franchise like the Pirates, the beginning of the baseball season is hope reborn.
“Opening day is the one day you’re not in last place,” said Ann Smeltzer, who has had Pirates season tickets with her husband Harry since 1994.
Since then, the Pirates are 1,883-2,258, a .458 winning percentage. But the Smeltzers have stayed true to the team through a 19-year postseason drought, 11 90-loss seasons (including seven straight) and the squandered Gerrit Cole era.
“That makes us very sad people,” said Harry, reflecting on the couple’s devotion to the downtrodden franchse.
For the Smeltzers, it’s not about good baseball. It’s about the good in baseball. They have built lasting friendships with people they’ve met at the ballpark. Ushers at games have invited them to their weddings.
“In 1997, I was pregnant during the summer,” Ann said, “and the next year, we went to opening day; the woman who was the cashier for our beer stand asked, ‘Did you have the baby?’ I said, ‘Yes, we’re bringing him tomorrow,’ and when we came the next day, she’d knitted a baby blanket for him. On his first birthday, the next year, she sent him a card with a savings bond. Her name is Priscilla, and we’ve now been friends for 23 years.”
The Smeltzers have many other fond memories of opening day. On April 9, 2001, the Pirates’ opened at PNC Park, the first game at their new stadium. Pirates Hall of Famer Willie Stargell died that day, and fans adorned his statue outside the park with flowers and tributes. At the 1992 home opener at Three Rivers Stadium, the team’s former ballpark, the Smeltzers snuck into the first row to watch Chuck Noll, the Steelers’ legendary head coach, throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Of course, that same season ended in misery for the Pirates, who lost in Game 7 of the NLCS to the Braves. (Remember Sid Bream?) Yet year after year, the Smeltzers return.
“Opening day is like Christmas for us,” Harry said. “I think everybody can be a fan on opening day, but to true baseball fans, it’s the best day of the year. If you have to describe what opening day means to someone, they’ll never get it.”
“I believe every season there’s truly a chance,” Ann said. “Every year is a new season and a new start, and you’re just hoping they don’t go completely in the tank by the spring.”