Updated: 4:34 p.m. April 6
For the first time in a very long time, Pirates fans in sections 26 and 27 along the third-base line of PNC Park won’t be seeing Phil Coyne.
The 99-year-old who spent 81 of those years working as an usher — at Forbes Field, Three Rivers Stadium and most recently at PNC Park — has been conspicuously absent this season as the team got off to only its third 4-0 start since 1983.
Coyne said he won’t be back as an usher.
Not this year.
Not next year.
“I’m done,” Coyne told The Incline today by phone from his Oakland apartment, explaining that he was left shaken by a fall two weeks ago and has struggled with his balance since Christmastime.
“I quit this year because my head — something’s wrong up there. My equilibrium is off, and I was scared of falling. I wouldn’t have done it anyhow. I’m too shaky.”
Coyne has no memory of how the fall occurred and said though he was scraped and bruised, he had no serious injuries.
He’s rehabbing at a UPMC hospital now and refers to it as “balancing school.”
He’s living in his Fifth Avenue apartment, which he said he shared with a brother until his death roughly four years ago. Coyne is tended to by a loyal gaggle of nieces and nephews, he explained.
Last year, on his 99th birthday, Coyne was honored by the Pirates for his lifetime of service to the team. (Coyne turns 100 in three weeks.) At the time, he said he hoped to be back this year, assuming he was up to it.
But that looked less and less likely while the team was suffering through an uneasy offseason marked by mounting criticism of ownership, a pair of unpopular trades and a revenue sharing grievance filed by The Major League Baseball Players Association.
Coyne declined to discuss any of this, saying only, “I don’t get into that. That’s the managers’ job, not mine. I put you guys in your seats.”
Or at least he did.
With Coyne’s surprisingly quiet exit, the Pirates have lost a fixture and a brand ambassador — the Sister Jean of Pittsburgh.
A pro-sports era here has come to an end.
Forget McCutchen. Forget Cole. Coyne may be the biggest loss of the offseason.
He’s a walking historical archive in a sport that values its history arguably more than any other.
In eight decades with the team, he’s seen everything — championship runs, stadium changes, legendary games and legends of the game and no less than 14 presidential administrations. Coyne, a retired machinist who never married, took his only hiatus as a Pirates usher to fight in Italy during World War II. When he returned home from battle, he went back to work and back to the stands.
The City of Pittsburgh honored Coyne in August with a proclamation.
“NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Council of the City of Pittsburgh does hereby recognize Phil Coyne for his remarkable commitment to the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and the Pittsburgh community and for demonstrating passion for the game of baseball,” the proclamation sponsored by former Councilman Dan Gilman reads.
Now, Coyne just listens to or watches the games from home.
“I’ll miss it,” he said today before rushing off to his afternoon appointment at balancing school.
“I have the radio, and I can hear the whole thing. But it was impossible to come back this year.”
Asked if there’s any chance of him returning later in the season or maybe even next season, Coyne’s voice raised a pitch.
“I’m done forever,” he said with either audible emphasis or an underlying sense of frustration.
“I can’t. What if I fall? I can’t do it. I need a cane.”
He continued, “I’m sad. I tried to make it to 100, but I just couldn’t make it. It’ll be sad, and I’ll try to make games and go over and see everybody and see my people when I can.”
Pirates President Frank Coonelly issued a statement Friday saying, “Legends never really retire. Having worked his first Pirates game at the age of 18 in 1936, Phil remains number one on our organizational seniority list and will always have a place on our team.”
At Wednesday’s game, in a driving snow and biting wind, Coyne’s absence was palpable. He’d been there at last year’s home opener in similarly inhospitable conditions. This video was from that day.
On Wednesday, in his old sections, blanketed fans asked the ushers if they’d seen him. The ushers said they hadn’t. One usher said he hoped Coyne would be back once the weather warmed.
Coyne is clear, though: that won’t be the case.
“It’s gonna surprise you when I tell you this, but the last two games, I was glad I wasn’t working,” Coyne said, referring to the weather and only the weather. Then he laughed.
Coyne will be back at PNC Park soon, though. He plans to attend a game with family and friends on April 27 in celebration of his 100th birthday.
He wasn’t sure where they’ll be sitting, but it’s safe to assume his old sections will be beckoning. Coyne said it’ll feel good to be back — even if just for a few hours.
Like being young again.