Luke Henne | Staff Writer
Oct. 15, 2020
John Wehner, a current broadcaster and long-tenured member of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, has seen just about everything, but even he couldn’t prepare for a season like 2020.
Throughout the course of the truncated 60-game regular season, all 30 Major League Baseball teams played games without spectators as a precaution against the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The impact of no fans in the stands was certainly felt by the players, but also by Wehner and his fellow colleagues at AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh.
“Doing the games was different. We did not get to travel for road games, but at home, you kind of got used to it,” Wehner said. “The [artificial] crowd noise was a big factor that helped a lot, although sometimes there was cheering when there shouldn’t [have been]. It was just different to not have fans and to not have contact with the players.”
During the shortened season, in an effort to speed up the duration of games, the league implemented temporary rules, such as both the American League and National League using a designated hitter, while also having a runner start each extra inning on second base.
Wehner — as traditional as they come — was not a fan of the former of those modifications.
“I do not like the DH. I like the strategy in the game. I was a bench player. With having a DH, you basically take away at-bats from your bench players and you don’t need a bench unless someone gets hurt,” he explained.
However, Wehner ended up being more welcoming to the latter rule.
“I didn’t think I’d like the runner on second in extra innings, but I thought it was interesting and pretty neat. Obviously, it shortens the games,” Wehner said. “You don’t play 15-, 16- or 17-inning games anymore. You’re not at the ballpark for seven hours. I don’t know if it’ll stick around, but I liked it.”
Now 53, Wehner grew up in Pittsburgh, graduating from Carrick High School, located just seven miles from PNC Park. After playing college baseball in the Big Ten at Indiana University, Wehner was drafted by the Pirates in 1988. He got the chance to play for his hometown team from 1991 to 1996, and again from 1999-2001.
The hard-nosed utility player was overjoyed by the opportunity to represent the team he grew up cheering for on a daily basis.
“I used to go down to Three Rivers Stadium often, and my dream, from the time I was little, was to play in the major leagues. To be able to sign with them, go through the minor leagues and to get that call-up was incredible,” Wehner said.
His on-field career was certainly littered with unforgettable memories.
“From hitting the last home run at Three Rivers to making the final out at Three Rivers, it’s all just insane to me. It’s incredible that a guy from Carrick could spend so many years with one organization,” he remarked. “It’s not something I ever thought could happen, and it’s certainly something I don’t take for granted. I’m incredibly grateful.”
Sandwiched in between Wehner’s two stints with the Pirates was a two-year detour (1997 and 1998) to Miami for a ride with former Pirates manager Jim Leyland and the then-Florida Marlins. In the first of Wehner’s two years with the Marlins in ‘97, the franchise won its first World Series title, defeating the Cleveland Indians in seven games.
One small step on the path to the Marlins’ victory stands out in Wehner’s mind.
“For [Jim] to give me the opportunity to come down there and be a part of that was incredible. Beating the [Atlanta] Braves in a series was huge,” Wehner recalled. “You don’t forget that because of what the Braves had done to the Pirates [in 1992], and there were so many former Pirates on the team.”
The impact of forever being known as a world champion has stuck with Wehner.
“To be able to be a part of winning a World Series is almost hard to explain. To be able to celebrate the fact that you are the best team was really cool. There’s a lot of great players who have never won a World Series, so for me to say I have a World Series ring is really neat,” Wehner said.
Since 2005, Wehner has worked as a color commentator for the Pirates. As grateful as he is for his time with the franchise as a player, he may be even more grateful for the chance to be a broadcaster for the team.
“I don’t know what’s more far-fetched and ridiculous: Making it to the major leagues as a player from Carrick or being a broadcaster from Carrick. I have the bad Pittsburghese; it would only work here in Pittsburgh,” Wehner said, laughing.
Like many Pittsburghers, Wehner has seen the franchise suffer through many painful seasons, while also witnessing some triumph along the way. As a broadcaster, one September night will always be ingrained in Wehner’s mind.
“When we finally made it to the postseason again, in 2013, it was something else. I remember being with [play-by-play partner] Greg Brown,” Wehner said. “Being able to celebrate that win [at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs] was incredible. It was certainly a long journey.”
In parts of 11 seasons at the big-league level, Wehner batted .249 with four home runs and 54 runs batted in. Despite all the adversity he faced along the way, he persisted and persevered, never failing to forget the work ethic that helped to build his success en route to a professional career.
“The odds are stacked against you. You’ve got to work hard and play the game the right way. You’ve got to want to go to practice. For me, it was never an option to do anything but to continue to practice and play the game with respect, sportsmanship and fundamentals,” Wehner said.