Apr. 8—The Pittsburgh Pirates' 2021 home opener is Thursday afternoon at PNC Park. They host the Chicago Cubs at 1:35 p.m.
The first regular-season game ever played at PNC Park — an 8-2 Pirates loss to the Cincinnati Reds — was April 9, 2001. That means the 20th anniversary of the park opening up is Friday.
In an effort to relive the game and flash back to one of the most important days in Pittsburgh baseball history, I talked to the star of that game, Reds first baseman — and Upper St. Clair native — Sean Casey.
What baseball player gets angry at batting cleanup?
Well, on April 9, 2001, Cincinnati Reds first baseman Sean Casey was ticked.
The Upper St. Clair product remembers being mad at the lineup card when he got to PNC Park for the inaugural regular-season game in Pittsburgh's sparkling new baseball stadium.
He was batting fourth. Not third as he had hoped.
As a local kid, Casey desperately wanted to get the first hit — or home run — at PNC Park. So he wanted to make sure he'd have an at-bat in the top of the first inning to maximize his chances.
"I was such a big Pirate fan growing up, going to all those games at Three Rivers with my buddies and my dad," Casey said. "For me opening up PNC Park, I had it on the schedule before the season started. I circled it. And I remember thinking to myself, 'Just gimme one shot! Just one chance to get the first hit.' If I could get the first hit, that would be so cool. That day for me was everything."
Casey considered pleading his case to manager Bob Boone but decided against it and left things up to chance.
As the game started, it was looking bleak for Casey, who had just gotten the first hit in the history of Milwaukee's Miller Park the week before. Pirates starting pitcher Todd Ritchie retired the first two batters, Barry Larkin and Michael Tucker. But as luck would have it, Ritchie hit the third batter, Dmitri Young, on the backside.
So Casey would get his chance after all. And on a 1-0 pitch, he stroked a no-doubt rocket shot into right-center field for the first-ever hit and home run in the stadium.
The moment was similar to Carrick's John Wehner hitting the last home run at Three Rivers Stadium at the end of the previous season.
"I have the chills talking about it 20 years later," Casey said. "It left my bat, and I was like, 'Oh my god, that is gone!' Before it went out, I knew it was gone."
Not only did Casey have the honor of hitting the first homer in the new stadium, but he also went 4-for-4 on the day. Unfortunately, he has neither the bat nor the ball.
The Baseball Hall of Fame took his bat. And the ball?
"The ball went about eight rows back and ricocheted onto the field. Adrian Brown is playing center field that day (for the Pirates). And I remember yelling to him, 'Throw it in! Throw it in!' But he threw it in the stands. I was devastated. I went from euphoria to devastation."
Before the next inning, Tucker went out to center field presenting a bribe from Casey to the fan who had the ball, offering as much Ken Griffey Jr. memorabilia as the fan wanted.
But the fan didn't budge. Although, at one point, before the series was over, the fan reached out to the Reds and said he'd give Casey the ball.
"I talked to (media relations director) Rob Butcher, and I asked him, 'Did you hear from that fan?' And he said to me, 'Yeah. He wants to give you the ball. But he wants to give it to you for $9,000!'"
Casey immediately realized he was being worked.
"He's not giving it to me. He's selling it to me! And he didn't even catch it. The ball was hit in another section," Casey laughed.
Casey was able to keep tabs on the ball from afar. And he was able to learn that the fan actually got the $9,000 asking price from a Pittsburgh area memorabilia dealer.
Fast-forward five years. It's 2006. Casey is now wearing Black and Gold as a Pirate. He was back at PNC Park for a "Pirates Fest" fan meet-and-greet.
"A guy comes up to me and says, 'See that girl five people back? She's got the ball!'" Casey recalled.
Sure enough, when the woman approached Casey in line for an autograph, he looked at the ball and it was legit. Casey said he could tell by the authentication.
For perhaps the first and only time in his life, the always loquacious Casey was at a loss for words.
He had found the White Whale. The Lost Ark. The Oak Island Treasure.
"I was thinking about grabbing it and (expletive deleted) leaving Pirates Fest and taking off," Casey joked.
But once Casey came across the ball, he did what no athlete ever wants to do in a pressure situation. He choked.
"It was such a 'drop the ball' moment. I held it and I looked at it," Casey said. "I shoulda said, 'Can I buy it off you? Who owns it? Can I get your number?' But I was fumbling. And I was just, like, 'I'll sign it for you. You have a good day!' And I signed it and gave it back to her."
The irony is almost too much for Casey to handle.
"So the ball is just out there. And it's signed ... by me," Casey said with a sigh. "I was so flustered; I couldn't believe it was the ball. It is the one thing in my memorabilia life that I really wanted."
Much like Indiana Jones in "The Last Crusade," Casey just gave the Holy Grail back to its rightful caretaker.
So after all that, no, Sean Casey doesn't have the home run ball.
But after 20 years, he is still etched in PNC Park history. And as a native Pittsburgher, maybe that's enough.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at email@example.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.
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