PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Pirates have appeared in a league-record nine National League Championship Series and been host to 17 playoff games before last night's Game 3 of the NLCS with the Atlanta Braves.
But the Pirates had been unable to sell out Three Rivers Stadium for any NLCS game until last night, when 56,610 watched, the third-largest crowd in team history.
Rick Cerrone, the Pirates' vice president for public relations, said tonight's Game 4 is also sold out, and only 2,000 general admission seats are left for Game 5. Cerrone said that game would have been an advance sellout if the original starting time of 4 p.m. had been kept.
CBS requested last week that Major League Baseball flip the start times of the American and National League games on Sunday, when the Braves, who televise most of their games on a cable superstation that reaches most of the country, would be involved and attract a larger audience in prime time.
Cerrone said he believes the weekend sellouts will vindicate the Pirates' fans, who took a national beating last year, when the seventh game of the NLCS was not sold out, and more than 10,000 of Three Rivers' more than 56,000 seats were vacant.
"We could probably have sold another 25,000 tickets for [tonight's] game, even with Pitt and Notre Dame playing across town," Cerrone said.
Cerrone said the blame for the failure to sell out Game 7 last year lies not with Pittsburgh fans, but with the Pirates themselves, who, unlike many clubs, including the Orioles, do not require fans to buy strips of playoff tickets, but sell them on an individual game basis.
"We're not going to say to the guy who comes to 10 games a year and pays $5 a game, 'You have to pay $25 a game and buy seven of them [covering the NLCS and the World Series],' " Cerrone said.
Cerrone said the Pirates' attendance this season has been hurt by the five-month absence of the city's daily newspapers, because of a strike by the Teamsters union.
He said the club was on pace to break last year's record season attendance of 2.065 million, before the strike, but finished at 1.8 million.
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, who once doubled as the team's general manager, said he has no interest in returning to that role.
But, as field manager, Cox can now appreciate the job he once did in scouting and developing the Braves, who are considered one of baseball's most talent-laden organizations.
"We were lucky. There was no panic. We were trying to win, but we were realistic about it, too," Cox said.
The Atlanta manager gave the Braves' owner, cable impresario Ted Turner, particular credit for sticking with Cox as he built the club.
But Cox also appreciates the extra pressure that managing a club that has a national following, generated by daily coast-to-coast television appearances, can bring.
"If you're on a superstation, you'd better have a product to sell. These things just don't happen," Cox said.
The Braves were so concerned about facing Pittsburgh rookie pitcher Tim Wakefield, who started last night's game and throws a knuckleball nearly exclusively, that they asked Bruce Dal Canton, the pitching coach of their Triple-A affiliate in Richmond to throw batting practice.
Dal Canton, who was 51-49 in 11 seasons, including four in Pittsburgh, also was a knuckler and calls it the most difficult pitch to control.
"Once you've got the feel for it, it's like you're out there playing catch with the catcher," Dal Canton said.
Dal Canton said he had only seen Wakefield pitch on television, but admired the young pitcher's command of the pitch. "The thing that's impressed me with him is he throws it for strikes. If he gets ahead in the count, he can get it over when he wants," Dal Canton said.
What? Us worry?
Doug Drabek, tonight's starter for Pittsburgh who dropped Game 1 of the series, acknowledged that the Pirates 0-2 start in the NLCS, combined with their failures in the last two playoffs, could lead to a sense of frustration.
"We have to make sure we don't go out there and start overdoing stuff and trying to make up for the last two years," Drabek said.
"We have to go out and make it happen in the game at hand and not worry about what's happened in the past."