The ball passed hands, and, one by one, each man scrawled his name in ballpoint pen -- a ritual seen almost as often as double- plays and routine flyouts at McKechnie Field, the Pirates' spring training home.
This March day in 2007, however, it wasn't the likes of Freddy Sanchez, Jason Bay or Paul Maholm scratching their signatures on the virgin-white leather. Instead, it was 10 guys -- mostly retirees -- who grew up in Swissvale or grew close since.
"That's what happens when the game isn't progressing very quickly," said Jeff Long, 63, of North Huntingdon, Westmoreland County.
"But the beers are," Butch McGuire, 64, of Penn Hills quickly added.
Long dreamed up the idea and bought the ball, a Major League Baseball official variety that now resides in an official Major League Baseball plastic case under a pile of socks and other items inside his bedroom chest of drawers. It is retrieved only for special occasions and has yet to see daylight on the most special of occasions -- the death of one of its signees.
The plan is to place the ball on the casket of each man as he passes and take a group photo with those who remain. The last man to go gets to be buried with the ball.
"Jeff must have been in a morbid mood," said Barry Fraser of Penn Hills, an elder statesman of the group at 65. "But I'm going to be the last guy."
"My money is on Jack (Caracciolo)," said Bill Yearsley, 64, who still lives in the same part of Swissvale where many of the group were raised. "He's only 42."
Others in the group include:
Jim McGuire, 63, of Waldorf, Md.;
David "Hambone" Yearsley, 61, of Export, Westmoreland County; and
Tim Murray, 64, of Gulfport, Fla.
Terry Culligan, 64, of Swisshelm Park and his brother, Roddy Culligan, 75, of Wilkins also signed the ball and have made a few of the annual trips to Bradenton, Fla.
The spring training ritual started with an idea at the retirement party for Bill Yearsley, who in January 2006 drove a Port Authority bus for the last time after 25 years behind the wheel of several East End routes. Someone asked what he always wanted to do. Go to Pirates spring training was the answer. His wife, Lorraine, encouraged him and his friends to go, saying it would be much easier when they could still walk rather than being pushed around in wheelchairs.
Like many of their wives, she didn't envision the thousand-plus- mile trek becoming an annual pilgrimage. …