- Associated Press - Monday, July 27, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Esther McNeal has been a Pirates fanatic for most of her 93 years as a Pittsburgher. But she has only ever been in the stands for one game, and that was more than a half-century ago, when her beloved Bucs played at Forbes Field in Oakland.

The busy mother of four never had enough time for a trip to the city to indulge her passion.

Instead, “we watched all the games on television,” said McNeal, of Harrison City, Westmoreland County, “or listened to them on the radio if we didn’t have a TV.”

That sad fact didn’t sit too well with her granddaughter Cindy Shtur, who despite a move to San Diego 15 years ago also is a hard-core Pirates fan.

“My grandmother knows more about baseball than most people,” she said, “including all their names and their statistics.”

So Sunday, after months of planning, Shtur made good on a promise she made to herself years ago to get her grandma off the couch and into PNC Park for a game.

Following lunch at the ballpark’s swanky Lexus Club, Mrs. McNeal and her family got to watch the Pirates take on the Washington Nationals from cushy seats behind home plate. They also got to briefly hang out in the Pirates’ dugout before walking onto the field before the first pitch, where the still spry, 4-foot-7-inch nonagenarian decked out in a bright-yellow Pirates T-shirt and “Raise the Jolly Roger” button was honored as one of the team’s Fans of the Day.

The best part? Everything other than the tickets came as a complete surprise to McNeal, who was so thrilled by the prospect of seeing the Pirates in person that she got her hair done and slept all night on her back to keep it looking just so.

“It’s just so exciting,” she said of getting to walk on the field and sit in the team’s bench area, where she chatted (and offered pitching advice) with manager Clint Hurdle.

Still looking just a bit dazed after hearing her name over the loudspeakers, McNeal also got to meet Pirates owner Bob Nutting.

“I thought I was coming to sit in the bleachers!” she exclaimed.

A native of the North Side, McNeal began her love of baseball in childhood, when she played softball - first at Horace Mann Elementary and later at Oliver High School. As a young mother, she recalls, she spent many years helping her two sons and their teammates warm up before Little League games.

Her pitching days are long behind her. But McNeal, who’ll turn 94 in December, still drives and plays bingo, and only recently gave up bowling.

“And she cooks most of my meals, and cleans the house,” said her daughter, Jane Shtur, who also attended the game with husband, Michael, an Air Force navigator during the Korean War and freelance Pirates photographer in the 1970s.

Cindy Shtur hatched the plan about three months ago, when she asked Lisa Ashbaugh of Visit Pittsburgh to help her secure tickets. Concessionaire Levy Restaurants, which provides food service on the club level, and the Pirates quickly came on board, although it would take until this past Wednesday to confirm that Mrs. McNeal would be publicly feted.

“I cried when I got word it would happen,” Cindy Shtur said.

The only thing that didn’t pan out was a much-hoped-for face-to-face between her grandmother and her favorite player, Andrew McCutchen.

McNeal’s daughter also was thrilled by the experience, after initially feeling kind of nervous.

“I thought, ‘My mom’s going to kill us!’ ” Jane Shtur said. “She doesn’t like the limelight. The only time she makes waves or gets vocal is when the Pirates are losing.”

There was no yelling on Sunday. The Pirates beat the Nationals, 3-1.

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Online:

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com


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