MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports­­

We’re in the final two days of February, thank God, spring training is in its second full week and we are 29 days away from Opening Day. It appears there is hope for us after all.

Here in Cumberland, we’ve been able to watch some baseball already, as the Baltimore Orioles and the Pittsburgh Pirates have been televising some spring training games, and whether it’s spring training or regular season, it’s just very comforting to have an afternoon baseball game playing on the television or on the radio as you go about your business around the house or on the road.

I always tell people that in Cumberland, Maryland there are two routes to every destination in town and the long way takes the same amount of time as the shortcut; and that we are two hours from everything, beginning with Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

When it comes to Baltimore and Pittsburgh here in Cumberland, you’re either Charm City or Steel City with no in between. A majority of the fans who live here have Pittsburgh Pirates pedigree, whether they are currently Pirates fans or not, because for over a half-century the Pirates were the closest major league club within driving distance of Cumberland.

My grandmother was a lifelong Pirates fan, while my mother, my aunts and my uncle grew up spending their summers in Pittsburgh with their grandparents, thus making everybody in our family a Pirates fan.

That is, until June 4, 1953, the day the Pirates acquired Toby Atwell, Bob Schultz, Preston Ward, George Freese, Bob Addis and Gene Hermanski in a trade with the Chicago Cubs for Joe Garagiola, Howie Pollet, Catfish Metkovichto and … Ralph Kiner, my mother’s favorite player.

Needless to say, this news was not warmly received by my mother, who, at the time, was teaching in Glen Burnie, Maryland, and by letter informed Pirates general manager Branch Rickey of her displeasure, pointing out that by trading Kiner he had, in effect, traded her as well. But she wasn’t going to the Cubs.

On April 15, 1954, coming up on 70 years ago, Mom went to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore to see Bullet Bob Turley stymie the Chicago White Sox, 3-1, in the first game the Orioles ever played in Baltimore. Thus, because Branch Rickey had traded Ralph Kiner, my mother went from bleeding black and gold to bleeding black and orange, taking brief sabbaticals in the immediate post-Mussina and post-Perlozzo days, not by writing letters, but by canceling her season tickets.

Having grown up an Orioles fan, I recall that as a 12-year-old, with the Birds soaring to their third straight 100-win season and American League pennant, I made myself believe it would be pretty cool if the Pirates, too, would make it to the World Series. After all, I reasoned as only a 12-year-old dope can, my grandmother was a big Pirates fan and it would make her happy. Plus, Mount Savage High’s Bob Robertson was emerging as the star first baseman for the Pirates.

On October 17, 1971 at around 5:30 in the afternoon, I was no longer speaking to my grandmother, who my mother forced me to sit beside at the dinner table that day. Nor did I ever want to see Bob Robertson again. Naturally, everywhere I turned that winter I saw him, as I should have, for he had become a bona fide World Series hero.

Things weren’t any better in 1979. In fact, they were worse because at age 20 I had learned how to run my mouth and make bets with my friends who were Pirates fans, who, despite the Bucs trailing the series 3-1 heading back to Baltimore, agreed to bet me if I would just shut up.

Let’s just say it wasn’t long after Omar Moreno caught the ball for the final out of Game 7, that I moved out of town under more cover than the Colts did when they left Baltimore. In fact, not long ago, I saw one of those friends for the first time in about 30 years, and the first thing he said to me was, “Don’t you still owe me five bucks from the ’79 Series?”

Having said that, through all the years of losing by both the Orioles and the Pirates, having become friends with Bob Robertson, and having grown older, I have found that while the Orioles will always be my favorite team, I cannot possibly not pull for the Pirates to do well.

Call it what you will — maturity (no), revisiting my family’s roots (possibly), or having great friends who are Pirates fans (eh). Or perhaps it’s all just come about from my pure affection for the game.

What I do know is it sure is nice to have a baseball game on again.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT