Ron Cook: Can future sports moments be as memorable without raucous crowds?

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The Florida Derby ran as scheduled Saturday at Gulfstream Park. Tiz the Law won by 4 ¼ lengths to become a Kentucky Derby favorite. More noteworthy was the fact the race was held with no fans in the grandstands or in the infield.

Talk about strange.

Perhaps we had better get used to it.

The NHL, NBA and MLB have talked about playing in empty arenas and stadiums, should the hostage situation with the COVID-19 pandemic ease.

I started to think about some of the wonderful pandemonium in the stands at Pittsburgh games. Imagining no fans at those games almost makes me want to cry.

The best sporting event I’ve attended was the Pirates-Reds wild card playoff game at PNC Park in 2013. If you close your eyes and let your imagination roam, you still probably can hear the “Cue-to! Cue-to!” chants that reverberated through the North Shore that night. You still probably can see Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto dropping the ball — literally — and serving up a home run to Russell Martin on the next pitch. Bedlam ensued. The Pirates went on to win, 6-2.

I’ve never believed the crowd can intimidate a professional athlete. I don’t think it happened with Cueto. But I do believe the fans can inspire their team’s players. So it was with Martin. “I don’t even remember running around the bases,” he said of his home run. “I think I just floated.”

The only Pittsburgh baseball games that came close to that magical night happened on the final weekend of the 1978 season. The Pirates needed to sweep a four-game series from the Phillies to win the National League East and looked as if they might do it when they won a Friday night double-header by scoring the winning run in each game in the bottom of the ninth inning. That the Pirates lost, 10-8, the next day when pitcher Randy Lerch — of all players — hit two home runs didn’t lessen the thrill of that Friday night.

The Penguins and their fans have provided their share of terrific moments at Civic Arena and PPG Paints Arena. I think of the boisterous “19-40! 19-40!” chants directed at the Patrick Division-winning Rangers during the 1992 playoffs, reminding the Rangers of their most-recent Stanley Cup win. I think of the eruption late in Game 1 of the 1992 Cup final against the Blackhawks when Jaromir Jagr tied the game with 4:55 left and Mario Lemieux won it with :13 remaining.

More recently, there was the overtime win on Nick Bonino’s goal that eliminated the Capitals in six games in the 2016 playoffs and Chris Kunitz’s goal in double-overtime that sent home the Senators in seven games in 2017. I’m not a fan of any team, but I was exhausted after watching those games. I can only imagine how the fans and players felt. I remember suggesting to Ian Cole after that clinching win against the Capitals that it felt as if Gary Bettman should have been in the building to present the Cup to Sidney Crosby. “It feels like we’ve been playing the Capitals for like a month,” he agreed. “But we’re only halfway there.”

The Steelers won each of their six championships at a neutral site, but they won a lot of big home games to get to the Super Bowl. The crowd I remember best was at the AFC championship game against the Ravens after the 2008 season. That was the game when Troy Polamalu intercepted a Joe Flacco pass and criss-crossed the field to return it 40 yards for the clinching touchdown. You will see Polamalu’s brilliance on that play dozens of times before he is inducted this summer into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Then, there were the on-field celebrations after two of the greatest moments in sports history. There was the unbridled joy at Forbes Field after Bill Mazeroski’s home run took down the mighty Yankees in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series and the happy mayhem at Three Rivers Stadium after Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception beat the Raiders in the 1972 playoffs.

How lucky have we been?

I’m still going to be greedy and gripe about the one celebration that we didn’t get to enjoy. Thousands of fans — it seemed like millions, actually — gathered outside PPG Paints Arena during Game 5 of the Penguins-Sharks Cup final series in 2016, ready to party all night. The Penguins had a chance to become the first Pittsburgh team to clinch a championship in the city since Maz’s 1960 Pirates but were beaten, 4-2. It was eerie walking outside the building an hour after the game and finding the streets empty. What a night that would have been.

You know what, though?

The parade through downtown after the Penguins’ 3-1 win in Game 6 eased that disappointment.


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