Bradenton's McKechnie Field 'home' for diehard Pirates fan

vmannix@bradenton.comMarch 20, 2014 

BRADENTON

Players' names and their current teams were neatly written in two columns on Brad Slopey's legal pad.

Adam Dunn. Chicago White Sox.

Adam LaRoche. Washington Nationals

Aki Kiwamura. Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

Slopey had pages and pages, and he beamed while showing off his handiwork from his box seat at McKechnie Field.

It was hard to tell who was more proud -- Slopey or his dad, a Pirate Booster Club member for 13 years.

"He keeps track of all the Pirates trades, gets on the computer to see how they're doing with their new clubs," Jim Slopey said. "He calls and tells me what's going on with them. He'll also call me and say, 'You see so-and-so is up for a trade?' He's an inspiration."

Neal Huntington feels the same way.

"I look forward to seeing Brad at the ballpark," the Pittsburgh Pirates general manager said. "He's a motivation for us all."

Brad Slopey has Down syndrome, but the plucky 43-year-old Pirates' fan hasn't let that stop him or slow him down.

Especially when it comes to returning here for spring training.

"I look forward to this every year," he said.

That's 20 years and counting.

A regular Grapefruit League season-ticket holder at McKechnie, Slopey is a familiar sight to many around Section 1 behind home plate. He's a season ticket holder up at Pittsburgh's PNC Park, too.

"He wears everything Pirates right down to his socks," said Pat Bishop, a Pirate Booster Club usher for eight years.

Slopey always accessorizes his outfit with a snazzy black leather vest that has drawn the interest of amused baseball scouts who sit nearby and have grown fond of him.

"They've offered me money for it, but I said no thanks," Slopey said.

He doesn't need the money.

Brad Slopey is self-sufficient, an accomplishment to be acknowledged fittingly on Friday, the ninth anniversary of World Down Syndrome Day.

Since graduating from Penn Hills High School, Slopey has worked the last 21 years for Allegheny County as a file clerk. He also shares an apartment in Squirrel Hill, Pa., with another man who has Down syndrome. They do their own cooking and shopping, too.

When Slopey needs to go somewhere, he travels by city bus.

"He pays his own way and gets along pretty well," his father said.

That's way more than the doctors' initial prognosis gave Jim Slopey and his wife, Marcia, when their son was born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by mild to severe mental impairment, weak muscle tone, shorter stature and a flattened facial profile.

"They told us forget he ever occurred and he'll never amount to anything," Jim Slopey said. "Well, he has the ability to do a lot of things. Everybody is here for a purpose, and I think his was to make us a little stronger, more aware. Brad's influenced our whole family."

The Slopeys insisted on mainstreaming him through school, supplementing his education with tutors.

That made a lasting impression on their daughter, Tami Ribar.

"My mother and father were strong enough to keep pushing," she said from East Liberty, Pa. "They kept looking for ways for Brad to be integrated into regular schools, and getting teachers and staff to work with him and accept him as much as they would."

The Slopeys also helped form the Shining Arrow Association, a Penn Hills nonprofit dedicated to working with the developmentally challenged since 1975.

One of the summer camp counselors was their daughter, and that experience led her to become an occupational therapist.

"I've always used my brother as an example for parents with kids who have been diagnosed with Down syndrome," she said. "He's very unique, an independent optimist in his own way. He doesn't think of himself as being disabled or having limits. I don't look at them as limits, either. You look for their gifts and possibilities and work with that, see what they're able to do."

Brad Slopey does a lot, too.

He's the head usher at his church in Penn Hills.

He dresses up as Santa for his family's Christmas celebration.

Then there's that devotion to the Pirates.

Slopey must own every team jersey ever made -- home and away.

His favorite player is second baseman Neil Walker.

"Brad's passion for the team is clear," Huntington said.

His father will vouch for that.

Every summer the pair take a baseball trip, following the Pirates on the road, a journey that takes them to Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland and Washington.

They go to games at numerous minor league ballparks around the region, too.

"It's a classic time for father-and-son bonding," Jim Slopey said.

That also goes for his son's stay at McKechnie Field, which is winding down. Brad Slopey flies back to Pittsburgh on Saturday, and he'll be missed by the folks sitting around Section 1.

Pirates' brass included.

"He seems to greet his challenges with a smile, and he has an enthusiasm for life that is infectious," Huntington said.

Brad Slopey's presence has rubbed off on Pat Bishop, as well.

"He's an example of his parents not giving up on him because of his handicap," the McKechnie usher said. "It's awesome to see that."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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