The beautiful PNC Park in Pittsburgh, PA. Free use photo from PxHere.

When I was younger, I learned the value of “giving opportunity the chance to knock.” Here’s one of the times it did:

So we started with a Phillies-related story for, you know, market appeal or something. But now, I’d like to tell what is likely my personal favorite baseball story/event/experience of my life (so far). How did it get to the point where 14 year-old Adam was hanging upside-down by his ankles, completely vertically suspended out and over the six-foot wall in left field at PNC Park during the All-Star Home Run Derby? Let’s start at the beginning.

Let’s Take A Trip!

Fresh off a spring trip to the World Baseball Classic (complete with, unsurprisingly, its own full set of stories) in March of 2006, my dad and I noticed something fun about the All-Star Game that year: it was in Pittsburgh!

The combination of the proximity to my hometown, ability to stay at my grandmother’s place less than an hour away from Pittsburgh, and location in a city with which we were familiar was too much to stay away. Also, did I mention the lineups for the event were stacked? The event drew, as the All-Star Game can and often does, the largest crowd of current and former stars I had ever seen assembled in one place – even larger than the one I previously wrote about!

As you may know, the All-Star Game and all of its associated events take place over a super-extended weekend during the second week in July. Festivities usually last from Friday through Tuesday, July 7th-11th this time. Friday and Saturday are occupied solely by the magic of FanFest. Sunday involves more FanFest, followed by the Futures Game and then the Legends and Celebrities Softball Game, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition. Monday is the day you start to wear out on FanFest, provided you’re the kind of normal person who goes for every hour of every day that it’s open. However, Monday is also the day that the big boy events start happening. Monday is Home Run Derby day. Tuesday is even more FanFest (Yay? Maybe? I don’t have a problem, you do…) followed by the main event itself: the actual All-Star Game.

Pittsburgh Doesn’t Disappoint

This year’s host, Pittsburgh and its merry band of Pirates, boasted a fairly new park and a fairly terrible roster. Their All-Star player and de-facto host was Jason Bay, a slight letdown considering the next one I would go to turned out to be in St. Louis in 2009 with prime Albert Pujols. But say, Bay made some hay back in the day and got himself onto the Hall of Fame ballot, so that’s fun.

And look at that view! We walked across that bridge every day from the convention center to the park. Pittsburgh has some truly beautiful views. It’s not a bridge too far to say that PNC Park has, without question, the best view of any ballpark. I really wish my home ballpark in Cincinnati had a view like that, but it really only exists from an area called “the cut in the hill,” and that would mean placing the ballpark (along with the already-perplexing airport) in Kentucky. Gross.

Anyway, Pittsburgh did an incredible job hosting the event. More people than just my father and myself caught All-Star fever. A noticeable buzz took hold in the city, and the excitement level stayed sky-high throughout the long weekend. The late-night car rides full of day recaps on the way back to base camp at my grandma’s house and the early-morning rides over to the events while planning the new day are some of my favorite memories, let alone the actual experiences themselves. Speaking of, let’s move on to the real stuff!

Bob Feller All-Star FanFest

FanFest: Fun Family-Friendly Festivities for Fans

The David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh played host to 2006’s FanFest; and what a host it was. As I remember, the place was enormous. A jam-packed ground floor paved the way for an enormous second level filled with even more exhibits, games, booths, memorabilia vendors, and all other things baseball. Check out the (somehow still available online thirteen years later) floorplan!

Popular features included the Hall of Fame exhibit, the wiffleball field, the place to get your picture put on a Wheaties box, the boatload of different art exhibits including the designer of the great program logo actively painting new works, the batting cages, the exhibit with the hat of every Minor League Baseball team (my favorite is probably still the Albuquerque Isotopes, not because I’m a nerd but because that “A” logo is sweet… okay, it can be both), and so many more. All of this said, however, every exhibit in the entire building came in a distant second to the area labeled “Major League Baseball Legends.”

Just inside the main entrance and a little off to the left laid, at least for us, the main event. Every day, every two hours, two former players or managers would take the stage to meet fans and sign autographs for an allotted two-hour window. All day. Every day. Which meant that, for a pretty extended period of time until some of the guys started to repeat after a day or two, my dad and I deprived ourselves of a lot of the full FanFest experience.

Always Meet Your Heroes. Art is on the internet. Baseball cards are on the internet. You cannot shake a Hall of Famer’s hand on the internet. Only in the autograph booth can you meet Harmon Killebrew, Bob Feller, Tony Gwynn (again), Juan Marichal, Earl Weaver, Luis Aparicio, Orlando Cepeda, Andre Dawson, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Fred Lynn, Bill Madlock, Dave Parker, and other friends all in the matter of a couple of days.

Fred Lynn All-Star FanFest

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

The good news was that the players switched every two hours. The bad news was that the players switched every two hours. Here’s why. At some points, the line would weave all the way back and forth through the main booth’s corrals, out the exhibit’s entrance, down “Bill Mazeroski Way,” across the entrance of multiple other exhibits, and out toward the main entrance itself.

Our longest wait was three hours, which, for those of you counting at home, means even if you time it perfectly, you still miss a shift after going twice. Sometimes they had some lesser-known guys set up, and we could go early and quickly and hop back in the forming line for the upcoming duo of Hall of Famers. Sometimes we just took it on the chin and waited three hours. Tough decisions, I know, but somebody had to make them.

We played the game. It also didn’t hurt that my dad, shy little church mouse that he is, decided to befriend the head security guy working the autograph booth to the point that we got the first heads-up of any schedule change and sometimes enjoyed some line-related perks as a result. A few times they even let him post up about 40 minutes back in line and me go all the way through and come back to join him. Saints to a 14-year-old baseball addict, I tell you.

Phil Niekro FanFest

It wasn’t long into the first day that we knew the benchmarks for the length of wait based on how far the line went: 40 minutes from the start of the corrals, one hour from the entrance to the exhibit area, two hours out past the Hall of Fame exhibit, and three hours if we were really unlucky and the line snaked out and around to the main entrance by the Taco Bell truck, which is oddly also a great memory.

There was a Taco Bell truck by the main entrance, they opened at very specific and different times each day, and everything was free. That was not a typo. The Taco Bell was free, but you could only get a taco at a time and they ran out in about 12 minutes. So we worked that into the schedule too, and I would loop from my placeholder father out to the Lunchmobile and back over and over again until we had free lunch. I don’t think I ate Taco Bell again after that week for about a decade.

The Ritual

The wait times may sound mind-numbing out of context and pre-smartphone, but they actually turned out incredibly enjoyable. Talking to all the fans in close proximity in line felt like talking to our Bizzaro-selves. We met “us” from so many other cities. Everyone knew their history, everyone knew their trivia, and everyone had their interesting stories to chime in and riff about.

One of the running jokes was that Orlando Cepeda (not particularly known as a good guy in my experience) didn’t care, didn’t want to be there, and didn’t even try to make his signature legible. The worst one Google can find is this one, and it’s still not even close. Seriously. I will remember for the rest of my life watching him check his watch, say “Time’s up,” and get up and leave the table with six people left in line – all kids younger than I was. He got booed for it too, and he deserved it. Later, when talking about this and comparing signatures, I told a guy mine said only “O C” with no lines or squiggles, to which he exclaimed “Hey, look! Mine has a bump!”

All of this kind of camaraderie with other fans played out to a backdrop of highlight videos, blooper reels, SportsCentury recaps, and any other baseball programming (it wasn’t around then, but I could watch Prime 9 all day) of the like on TVs in and around the concourse and booth itself. The crown jewel of the entertainment though, was this impressively talented barbershop group of six or seven elderly guys who sang classic doo-wop hits. I can still hear them in my head. Their best work was their rendition of this classic.

There were a few other side-events featuring players as well during FanFest, one of which involved legendary knuckleballer, Phil Niekro. It was poorly attended, for which my only guess was that it was upstairs, in a corner, and we found out about it from our security friend whose name I still remember (we met him again in 2017 in Miami 11 years later and he remembered us too!).

Since we had some quality time with Mr. Niekro and he was posted up in a booth in no rush, I decided to ask him a question or two. Nothing too fancy. I asked in particular about how he developed his knuckleball technique, and he proceeded to take the ball (that he had just signed) out of my hand and give me a full explanation of where he gripped the ball, how he delivered it, which fingers released the ball at which point, and why it worked. That’s something cool that a kid never forgets. He didn’t have to. What a “great guy” move that was. I’ll continue singing the praises of my “friend” forever.

Phil Niekro All-Star FanFest

Another event featured Buck O’Neill, a 94 year-old pioneer from the Negro Leagues in the 1940s who became the first African-American coach in MLB history. He was a remarkable man to meet and looked healthy as a horse, but he sadly passed away only three months later.

The whole thing turned into a ritual. We showed up in the early morning, scoured the schedule, made our plan, ate a ton of tacos, and spent the entire day totally immersed in the colorful, joyous, enriching experience of baseball culture nirvana before leaving for the ballpark. It doesn’t get better. Wait, yes it does! We haven’t even covered the main events yet!

Oh Yeah, There Are Real Events Too

The Futures Game features young talent from across all minor league levels facing off in a USA vs. World format to give fans a taste of what may be to come. The guys usually turn out to be pretty good. This game featured Joey Votto, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Gio Gonzalez, Pablo Sandoval, and Ryan Braun among others, with Billy Butler taking home the game MVP. Not bad overall. Our Sunday consisted of meeting many of the aforementioned heroes, followed by a walk over to the park for Futures Game.

The “All-Star Legends and Celebrity Softball Game” is always a blast. Seeing old, former studs hit a softball 300 feet in between at-bats from random celebrities of… varying levels of talent is surprisingly entertaining. Plus, it’s always another chance to find someone who isn’t at the other events. I think I met Fergie Jenkins at this one. Turns out John Kruk’s NL team beat Harold Reynold’s AL team 7-5. I’m honestly surprised that someone somewhere kept a record of it.

Louis Aparicio All-Star FanFest

Moving on to Monday meant more FanFest fun, followed by the Home Run Derby. The format was the old “10 outs” format that’s no longer in place where half of the player pool moves forward each round. I’m glad they switched the format because of the drama it’s already brought more than once. If you have doubts, see Todd Frazier’s hometown hero Home Run Derby walkoff in Cincinnati in 2015 (I was there!) in addition to Aaron Judge’s Paul Bunyan impersonation in Miami in 2017 (Also somehow there! And holy crap, by the way, that’s one of the most impressive feats I’ve ever seen. The atmosphere was nothing short of electric. And for an exhibition event, no less!). Anyway, this 2006 crop featured Ryan Howard, David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera, a few others, and somehow Troy Glaus.

We left FanFest on Monday to go to the Derby and swing by the car as usual between events to unload and reload supplies. I got everything I needed out of the car and walked around to see my dad pulling nothing other than a giant freaking six foot fishing net out of the trunk. What? “Dad, are you wanting to bring that to try and catch a ball?” I had seen them in the crowd at random events in the past but never put two and two together until that moment.

“I stopped by Dick’s and got it just in case. The worst they can tell me is no.” So down we marched to the park, giant friggin fishing net in hand, to of course be told no. But the story was funny. So back we marched, giant friggin fishing net in hand… you get it. But now we have that story too.

Getting Down to Business

Our seats for the Derby were tucked away in the left field corner about six seats from the foul pole. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like we would much be in homer territory since huge guys who are the best in the world at their craft don’t “get a hold of one” to only send it 325 feet… but we were in the front row!

The view was amazing! Plus, who doesn’t like to hassle people on the field for baseballs nonstop? After an hour or two of batting practice, I finally convinced Mariano Rivera’s son to throw me one. Good guy, nice kid, but I still hate the Yankees. Anyway, it was fun trying to guess which kid it was when they showed the video of Mo answering the Hall of Fame phone call with his family around him. Back to the ball, however, the problem was that it didn’t have the Derby logo. Catastrophe, I know.

Fast forward through the end of batting practice, which included a visit from the loudest “stealth” bomber in the history of mankind (I’m talking physically-force-you-to-your-knees-even-with-your-ears-plugged-and-make-you-and-your-dad-both-legitimately-believe-the-entire-stadium-is-collapsing-around-you-because-you’ll-never-hear-something-this-loud-again level of loud), and batting practice is wrapping up. The outfield clears out, they take down all the nets and cages, and the last person at the plate hits a rope of a line drive that bounces a few times in the grass and nestles up against the wall on the warning track… with the Home Run Derby logo on top and staring right into my face.

Talk about giving opportunity the chance to knock.

I look at my dad. My dad looks at me. We both look down at the ball. That net’s looking pretty sweet right about now, huh? As I said, the wall was about six feet high. My dad’s a good 6’3”, and tack on to that some length for the reach, but remaining standing behind the wall and reaching over it meant no dice. Adult Adam could have been a couple inches closer, but still no dice. Kid Adam didn’t have a prayer. Until…

“Can I try to get that?” Some guy who looked about in his mid-20s came down barreling down the aisle and slid over where we were. Fat chance, bud, Yao Ming couldn’t snag that. We informed him so in slightly more polite words, but he wouldn’t be denied. “Lower me down there! Your kid can have it, I just want to see if we can get it.” I obviously wasn’t going to be useful in that endeavor, but my dad considered giving it a shot despite clearly not being able to support this guy one-to-one because, well, he’s that dad. I was a little confused about the guy’s M.O. and getting more uncomfortable by the second. We all paused a moment.

“He’s skinny.” The guy pointed to me. He wasn’t wrong. “We could hang your kid over.” He was still batting 1.000, but I wasn’t sold. At this moment, we noticed a security guard walking out from the dugout on a line right toward us, presumably to collect the last remaining ball or two in the outfield.

“Adam. We can do this. It’s right there. But someone is coming, and you have to decide this exact second if you want to do it.” My dad sensed my nerves. “If he leaves, can you support me?” I’m not exactly the type to casually roll the dice on getting dropped several feet onto my head only to look up and make eye contact with some handcuffs. My dad affirmed, and as we’ve stated, the man doesn’t lack confidence. “Let’s do it.”

Over the edge we went, two hands on each ankle.

I crawled down the wall completely upside down. A little farther. I don’t like this. A little farther. This doesn’t feel good. Just a little bit… “I GOT IT! BRING ME UP BRING ME UP BRING ME UP!” And WHOOSH, I went back up at about fifty times the speed I went down. Ball in hand and feet firmly planted on the ground, life was good. I turned around to see the security person already heading back to the dugout.

Who even knows what it all looked like to someone watching from afar? The people nearby looked at us like we were completely insane, so I can only imagine what people several sections over who saw us were thinking. They probably thought we were the kind of people who would be stupid enough to try and bring a giant fishing net into a ballpark.

As quickly as he arrived, the other guy left – like one of those movie characters who it turns out they were all imagining the whole time until the big reveal. My dad and I were left to sit and process one of the more fun things we had ever done, and then it dawned on us: we still have an entire Derby to watch!

Home Run Derby Ball

Extra Innings

The Derby obviously ended up being a great time, too. Every single pitch had the crowd brimming with excitement at the chance of another deep blast. We got on TV (front row, dead center of the screen at 1:02:53. I have a white shirt and dark hat, Dad has a gray shirt and a Reds hat). Ryan Howard even won it by hitting the final shot off the “Hit It Here” sign where some fans won a bunch of plane tickets or something. What a night.

The All-Star Game was a good one too! Here I thought I could end the NL’s drought of 10 years by going to the game, but I was proven wrong. The NL led 2-1 heading into the 9th inning until (601 save-haver and all-time great closer) Trevor Hoffmann decided to venture into “you had one job” territory and blow the save. Mo came in to slam the door as he so often did, and there it was: 3-2 AL, Michael Young as MVP with the game-winning hit. The AL remained in charge until 2010, making it 13 games between NL wins (since the abomination of a tie that we call 2002 counts as “not winning”), a far cry from the days of the NL taking 24 of 26 contests only a few decades prior.

Funny enough, the NL won three in a row from 2010-2012, and I wasn’t at any of them. 2006, 2009, 2015, and 2017 all went the way of the AL, who, by the way, is depressingly on another six game winning streak. At this point, I’d do anything to attend an NL victory. Something insane, you know? Like, say, carry a giant fishing net both directions through the packed-in crowds of a large city… or maybe get hung head-first by my heels out over a wall or something? Yeah, that’d probably do it. If nothing else, it would make for an All-Star caliber story.