MOOSIC — Looking back on a moment that happened a quarter of a century ago, staring skyward at a seat that’s no longer there, J.P. Meck on Thursday night cherished the excitement as if it occurred yesterday.
“I was sitting up there,” Meck said, pointing at a railing above the first base line at PNC Field, “in the bleachers up top.”
It seems anyone who was there for the home opener of 1989 will always hold dear the magnitude of that magical night.
Because when John Martin threw the first pitch for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons at Lackawanna County Stadium on April 26, 1989, the landscape of Northeastern Pennsylvania changed forever.
“We never had anything like that before,” said Meck, a Wilkes-Barre native and former Coughlin and Crestwood High School football coach who watched history that night, “as far as big-time sports. That’s why it was so exciting.”
Since then, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins established themselves as a top AHL franchise, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers generated interest in arena football as they came and left, and an array of shopping centers and attractions broke ground in the area.
Back then, a pro baseball frachise was viewed as a life boat.
“There really wasn’t much of anything,” said Frank Scopelliti of Scranton, who also attended Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s inaugural baseball game. “There wasn’t arena football, there wasn’t hockey, there wasn’t (semi-pro) football, there weren’t any shops at Montage.
“We needed something.”
What they got was the first International League Triple-A baseball franchise to ever play in the state of Pennsylvania, and a hometown team that’s kept fans coming back to watch the game for 25 years.
Meck, Scopelliti and his wife, Theresa, were all in attendance for the first-ever game in Moosic. And they were at Thursday’s home opener of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, marking the 24th season they’ve visited what is now PNC Field — which didn’t host any Triple-A games in 2012 because the facility was being remodeled.
They’ve endured through name changes — as the facility began as Lackawanna County Multi-Purpose Stadium and evolved into PNC Field. They’ve seen the field’s artificial surface replaced by natural grass. They’ve seen the Red Barons — who played as the top affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies — leave and the New York Yankees top minor league team replace them.
They’ve seen that team switch names, from the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. And they’ve seen the upper deck of the old, double-tiered Lackawanna County Stadium chopped off when PNC Field was remodeled into a fan-friendlier, wrap-around concourse during the summer of 2012.
“We’re still here,” Scopelliti said, “and we keep coming.”
For Meck, the attraction is simple. He’s a Yankees fan.
“The big reason it’s exciting for me is, it’s the Yankees,” Meck said. “You see some of the kids playing here, and all of a sudden, you see them on TV. That’s alluring. Plus, it’s a cheap date. You could bring your family here and not spend a lot of money.”
Every now and again, area fans just may run into a major-leaguer around Moosic.
“It’s nice to see some of the players come through the system,” Theresa Scopelliti said. “Last year, with (Derek) Jeter (rehabbing with the RailRiders), it was very exciting.”
Almost as thrilling as watching an area take its first crack at the big time 25 years ago.
“I think people were just happy to have baseball,” said John Davies, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s first and longtime public-address announcer who has his old booth named in his honor. “I don’t think they would have minded if we were affiliated with the San Diego Padres. The first game here was a carnival atmosphere. My first words were, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the beautiful Lackawanna County Multi-Purpose Stadium … .’ A big cheer went up.
“And I had goose bumps.”