By Thomas Leturgey
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Tim DeBacco admits to being “pretty shy,” and wonders how or why anyone might be interested in how he’s dealing with the coronavirus lock down. But with retirement of Steve Blass after last baseball season, DeBacco’s becomes the longest-tenured voice associated with today’s Pittsburgh Pirates.
Without so much as a second glance, Pirates fans walk along with the unassuming announcer on sidewalks outside of PNC Park before and following games. The same can be said inside the park for pre-game festivities, where DeBacco joins in-game host Joe Klimchak for an employee dinner prior to each outing. Inside crowded elevators, fans make small talk with the equally gracious Klimchak, but don’t recognize DeBacco unless he utters…anything. Once the nine-inning contest is underway, the baseball ambassador’s presence has been unmistakable for 81 games over each of the past 32 seasons; and for many, he is a most welcome friend of summer.
DeBacco, 55, remembers being involved in an audition just prior to the start of the 1988 season. The team was hiring a new public address announcer and the East Brady, Pennsylvania native was among the dozen or so candidates given a script and hot microphone, primed with direction to read into an empty Three Rivers Stadium. All of the aspiring announcers were encouraged to alter the script of starting lineups and promotional plugs to their liking, and DeBacco did as he waited his turn. The then-recent Clarion University of Pennsylvania alumnus was proud of his best effort and returned home as well as his to day job in television production. A week later the Pirates’ Public Relations Director Rick Cercone called and made sure that DeBacco “wasn’t going to be moving” anytime soon. The job was his. (For those wondering, play by play announcer Greg Brown would join the broadcast team six years later.)
It was an exciting opportunity for the long-time baseball junkie who, in his teens, recorded his own recaps following games.
DeBacco has introduced the names of thousands of players to untold numbers of fans since Barry Bonds first strode to the plate in the bottom of the first inning on April 11, 1988 to face the Philadelphia Phillies’ Kevin Gross.
He has done everything he could for the Pirates, including help with the annual Fantasy Camp in Bradenton, Florida. In 1999, the team asked Tim if he could drive Willie Stargell from the airport, a task that floored the life-long fan. As circumstances arose, they talked about Willie’s practice of leaving his right pinkie extend below the baseball bat. Stargell told DeBacco a story about learning the trick from Mickey Mantle. Then an impressionable announcer, DeBacco would years later roar with laughter as he discovered an interview where Stargell gave a completely different origin to broadcaster Nellie Briles.
A decade ago, DeBacco gained another break when he became the in-house organist for the Pittsburgh Penguins. That experience has been remarkable, since that team has had regular success in the NHL playoffs. This year’s 40-23-6 team was third in the Metropolitan Division and poised for another run at the Stanley Cup when much of America, and all of professional sports, came to an immediate halt. “We were close to the playoffs and it’s been an exciting year,” he said. “It’s been tough to flip the switch.”
The stoppage has (temporarily) left fans of both teams without Tim DeBacco’s unique contributions. In the meantime, he owns and operates a communications firm, and is able to work from his Oakmont home. Tim “hunkers down” with Susie, his wife of 28 years, as well as their college-aged daughters Sophia and Cassy, who are completing their courses online.
Unfortunately, DeBacco has no inside knowledge as to if or when hockey playoffs might start or major league baseball could return for his 33rd season. “I don’t hear anything other than what fans hear,” he says. He does believe that if crowds are to return to home ball parks this year, fans will respond with a standing ovation upon the initial pitch of the season. “It will be amped up,” he said cheerfully.
“We all miss it,” he says. “We want to welcome it back if it’s safe.” He notes that the Pirates have a new regime with new team President Travis Williams, General Manager Ben Cherington, and manager Derek Shelton, so he’s eager to get back to work. Through all of this this, he misses all of his co-workers at both the Penguins and Pirates, some of whom work nearly every sporting event in town.
“There is a Silver Lining in all of this,” continues a faithful DeBacco. “We’re having meals together as families, cooking together, playing games. Most importantly, we ‘stay the course,’ and we will be one day closer to normalcy.”
And for Pittsburgh sports fans, normalcy means hearing Tim DeBacco play the pipe organ at PPG Paints Arena for ruckus Pens fans, and enthusiastically introduce that first batter at an overjoyed PNC Park.