The Pittsburgh Pirates Have Many Hidden Heroes.
There are the men who play on the field every night, whose jerseys we wear, whose names we chant, whose triumphs we celebrate, whose losses we mourn. They are a special kind of hero – the ones on the baseball cards – they are members of an elite brotherhood just 750 strong who every year captivate our minds and our hearts playing a child’s game on a very grown-up stage. But for every Major League Baseball team that takes the field each night, there is another team working behind the scenes to make sure every game goes off without a hitch – for the players and the fans. They are the Hidden Heroes of baseball – and these are their stories.
For Pittsburgh Pirates Ball Girl Suzie Cool, Providing a Great Fan Experience is the Ultimate Goal
It doesn’t take much time watching Suzie Cool snagging foul balls down the first and third base lines at PNC Park to see that the Pittsburgh born and raised former college softball player has major league moves. Surprisingly, what she does as a ball girl at Pirates games is just one example of the overall hustle that defines the dynamic West Allegheny High School graduate.
At just 24 years-old, Cool has a resume that people twice her age would envy. Ball Girl for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Live Production Intern for Root Sports, part-time Producer with 93.7 The Fan, In-game Host for the Wheeling Nailers and newly named In-game Host and Reporter for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
“It’s a lot, but I really enjoy being busy,” she said happily. “I think, the more the better.”
It All Started with Softball
Cool’s stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates started in 2014 when she applied to be both a Ball Girl and member of the Bucco Brigade.
“You have to try out for the Bucco Brigade and pick a 45-second talent,” she explained. “And to be honest, other than playing softball, I don’t really have much talent.” Still, she gave the try-out her best effort, using a slingshot to shoot Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups at her interviewers while dancing to “Eye of the Tiger.” While her performance landed her just short of making the Brigade, the opportunity more suited to her natural talents, Ball Girl, was hers.
“I love baseball and played softball myself, so it was perfect,” she said.
Cool played softball at West Allegheny High School, eventually becoming a starter through hard work and determination. “I practiced hard. There was never a day where I wasn’t practicing or hitting a ball off a tee,” she said. “I was always working to make myself better.”
It paid off, earning her a starting position throughout her college playing career at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. She played outfield exclusively, primarily in centerfield. “It’s not very common for someone to just play outfield, but I wanted to focus and be the best at it,” she said.
Most, if not all, of the ball girls for the Pirates have a background in softball, she said.
“All of us have played softball at some point in our lives,” she said. “I don’t think that they would just throw somebody without some experience out there. It’s a little scarier than it looks at times.”
She still uses the glove she got freshman year of college, pink laces and all, to field fouls at PNC.
“It’s honestly about to fall apart,” she said. “But I love it.”
Former Pirates pitcher and current color-man Bob Walk ribbed her about the condition of her glove on more than one occasion. He’s gone so far as to suggest she seek a glove sponsor. “I told him, ‘Bob, I don’t think anyone’s going to sponsor me with a glove – but if you really want to try, go ahead’,” she said. “But I think I’ll just stick with my pink laces – I’m good.”
A Day in the Life
So what is it like to field foul balls at PNC Park during games? A lot harder than it might look.
Last year there were 14 ball girls at PNC, she said. For a night game, she arrives at the park between 5 and 5:30. After taking a few minutes to visit with friends who work at the stadium, she heads into the locker room and gets ready for the game.
“You have to mentally prepare yourself,” she said. “You might make a good play, or you might make a mistake sometimes. That’s embarrassing. You have to get your mind right.”
Typically three ladies work a game, switching between guarding the first base line, home run wall and third base line. They take to the field about a half an hour before the game begins and the action doesn’t stop until the final pitch. While it may seem like the job of the Ball Girl is to simply retrieve foul balls and give them to fans, it’s only a small part of what they do.
“A lot of our job is interacting with our fans at the park – which is the part that I absolutely love – you can make anybody’s day by giving them a ball or just talking to them or taking a picture with them,” she said.
She’s gotten to know some of the season ticket holders in the areas along the foul lines where she works and is always striking up conversations with out-of-towners as well. While connecting with others comes naturally to her, she understands that it is also a common trait shared by everyone working at the ballpark.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”Suzie Cool” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“You know, whether you’re Terry (Kissel) the cameraman putting them on TV or you’re Scoreboard Joe (Klimchak) inviting them to come and play a game on the big screen, or you’re me handing them a ball, you’re making a difference and you’re making someone’s day,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s something the Pirates instill, but I know that it’s something everyone I come into contact with who works at PNC just tries to do.”[/perfectpullquote]
As for the action during a game, Cool’s preferences changed as she gained more experience on the field.
“I used to like third base better because I felt like you didn’t get as much action, but now that’s why I like working first base better. The grounders and everything do seem a bit harder and it just seems like you get a lot more opportunities to make plays,” she said.
Cool and her colleagues executing those plays are sometimes fans in the lower levels’ only defense from screaming line-drive foul balls. “We’re putting ourselves out there for the fans. Yeah, it’s entertainment, but it’s to protect them too,” she said.
Would she take a ball for a fan? Without hesitation.
“If the ball is going toward somebody in the first row that doesn’t have a glove, that can’t protect themselves, I’m getting it. Or I will get hit with it,” she said. “You can’t let anybody get hurt.”
Her first year on the job a foul ball by Andrew McCutchen bounced off the third base wall and hit her in the arm. During the first game she worked of the 2016 season a hard-hit one-hopper line-drive barely missed hitting her, prompting first baseman John Jaso to ask if she was okay. But that’s just part of the job, she mused.
And just like Cutch and his fellow Pirates, the ball girls work the duration of the game – no matter the weather conditions. She says the folks at PNC always work to take care of her and her colleagues – from security giving them hand warmers when it’s cold to vendors making sure they stay hydrated on hot days.
“You just kind of deal with it,” she said. “At the end of the day, I feel so lucky to be there, so whether it’s 30-degrees and raining or it’s 100-degrees and I’m sweating, it doesn’t really matter.”
Sports as a Metaphor for Life
The qualities it takes to be a good ball girl, Cool said, include being fun, outgoing, athletic and smart about the game. Those are also traits that make a good sideline reporter. Which is convenient, because that’s Suzie Cool’s chosen career. Although after chatting with her for any amount of time, one can easily see that nothing she does is by chance.
“I’m starting to slowly get into it with the two jobs I have with the Nailers and the Riverhounds,” she said noting that she’s progressively done more in-game interviews recently. “It’s baby steps though, broadcasting is definitely hard to get into.”
She’s helping herself along in that regards by working towards a graduate degree in Media Communication with a concentration on Broadcasting through Point Park University. She also takes every opportunity afforded her by her internship with Root Sports to study reporters Robby Incmikoski and Dan Potash.
“I really try to pay attention to what Robby does and what Danny does. I think they both do an awesome job,” she said noting that she’s shadowed Incmikoski and is planning to shadow Potash soon.
While she’s not planning to take any opportunity for granted, if she were able to pick the sport she worked in, given where she started out, her answer isn’t at all surprising.
“Wherever I get my break I’m going to absolutely love it, but ultimately I would love baseball – that’s just where my heart is,” she said. “I played it, I work in it now, I love the Pirates, so that would be where I want to end up. I know the other sports well, but baseball I know inside and out like the back of my hand so that is just ultimately what I absolutely would love to do.”
She knows too, what the job really is about – giving the fans an experience they won’t forget. And that she could have no better an organization to help identify in her the values needed to work in such an in-demand field than the Pittsburgh Pirates.
She credits the co-workers and bosses, as well as fans and friends she’s met throughout her short but expansive career, with helping to guide her down a path to achieving her goal.
“A big part of my story is my journey. And I get to meet all of these amazing people along the way. Whether those people were there to tell me ‘Hey I don’t think you’re cut out for this’ or ‘Hey, you are going to do this,’ I appreciate every single one of those people and what they’ve done in my life,” she said. “And it’s not just about the people I work with, but the fans and everyone I interact with, too. Every single person has helped me in some way.”
Lest anyone think she is too focused on the future to appreciate the present, Suzie is fully aware of how very “cool” her life is right now.
“I know I have this end-goal of being a sideline reporter, and that’s what I’m working toward,” she said. “But I really am enjoying this journey that I’m on right now, too.”
Photos published with permission by Suzie Cool.