Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: PNC Park
HOME TEAM: Pittsburgh Pirates
VISITED: July 20, 2002
CHRONOLOGY: 25th of 34
RANKING: 4th of 34
One of the best episodes ever of Cheers concluded with John Cleese as sardonic Dr. Simon Finch-Royce opening a hotel window and shouting to the city below:
Hear this, world! The rest of you can stop getting married now — it’s been done to perfection!
Fed up with Diane Chambers’s constant door-knocking and reassurance-seeking, Cleese’s character was being quite sarcastic. I, however, am not. I could easily to go to such a hotel window and exclaim the exact same sentiment to all those mulling or building a baseball facility after PNC Park. Per Dr. Finch-Royce, I’d exhort, “Envy them, Great American; envy them, Citizens Bank; for you shall never be as cozy as it!”
It was, in fact, from a hotel window overlooking Pittsburgh that I would have guaranteed PNC Park would be a total epoch-shattering success, and, like the good doctor, I would have staked my ballpark-loving life on it.
PNC Park was the moment a decade of throwback ballpark construction was leading up to. There were breakthroughs before, there was innovation en route, but the culmination of the phenomenon that began in the early 1990s reached its peak with the opening and blossoming of PNC. It must have. I can’t imagine any newer place ever being better.
I’ve seen nine ballparks for the first time since I was in Pittsburgh, all of them, except resuscitated RFK Stadium, as new as or newer than PNC. None of them came close to matching it for its intimacy, for its warmth, for its originality, for its sense of purpose, for its oneness with its surroundings….none of them.
Except that other teams in other cities need a place to play, I’m with John Cleese’s Cheers character, or at least channeling him: You can stop building ballparks now, baseball. It’s been done to perfection.
And I might have said that without ever leaving my hotel room, which played a huge role in forming my perspective on the matter. Stephanie and I stayed at the Renaissance, a name that probably means nothing to you. It meant nothing to me until I did a little checking in the planning of our trip to Pittsburgh and discovered the Renaissance was that boxy building that appeared in every panoramic shot of PNC. You know how your eye is drawn to the Roberto Clemente Bridge? If you follow it across the Allegheny River, away from the ballpark, you can see that building at its foot. It’s the one with the arch cut out in the middle.
That’s the Renaissance. That’s where we stayed. That’s where everybody should stay when they go to Pittsburgh, provided you get the room we got by dumb luck. Ours was on the tenth floor, tucked into the archway at an angle that allowed us to take in almost everything PNC had to offer without ever having to leave our accommodations.
Of course we wouldn’t stay glued to our window. Of course the idea was to get in the elevator, press down, walk through the lobby, hit the street, cross the bridge (just steps away from the Renaissance) and go inside PNC Park (just steps away from the Clemente). Of course we did that. But I swear we almost didn’t have to.
PNC Park from the hotel across the Roberto Clemente Bridge gave me a better experience than most ballparks do from their upper decks. It was like a super skybox suite that couldn’t be replicated at any ballpark no matter how many marketing wizards put their heads together to charge you for it. Our tenth-floor room offered hotel-like amenities (because it was a hotel); an incredible perch on the action; and the giddiness that came with sensing you were getting something for nothing. Well, not for nothing — the room cost whatever the room cost, but it wasn’t part of some extravagant Baseball Glimpse package, and nobody was hyping it to you. You just went to the window, you opened the window and you were practically inside PNC Park.
No kidding. We bought tickets for the Saturday night game but the Friday night game, as taken in from the tenth floor window could have counted as our first PNC affair. Hell, we actually stretched and sang along to “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” with the crowd from our room. They might not have heard us, but we could hear them.
I had never been to Pittsburgh before this pilgrimage and knew next to nothing non-baseball about it except for the confluence of the Three Rivers (the Allegheny and the Monongahela forming the mighty Ohio, and even this I knew from Ralph Kiner) and that it used to be sooty. A good friend in college was from the area and we had a running joke about how it dark it was during the day there because of all the smokestacks — it was funny because he assured me it was no longer true.
The sky was perfectly clear when we landed on Friday afternoon and the city was lovely. It struck me as one of America’s great undiscovered gems except I’m sure many millions of people before me had discovered it. It wasn’t just PNC Park, though I have to say that was the gem among the rivers. My first glimpse was on the shuttle in from the airport. It was breathtaking. Had I any real feel for how momentous it was, I would have jotted down the exact time I first laid eyes on it.
One of the dozens of great things about PNC Park is how indigenous it appears to the terrain, as if it grew along the banks of those rivers. Surely it existed when Fort Duquesne was established in 1754 and the city grew up around it, right? Though I know this to be inaccurate, it doesn’t seem cockeyed to imagine. PNC’s limestone exterior is nestled so comfortably into its space that it doesn’t look like it was built. It looks like it occurred organically.
And that bridge. Swear to Honus Wagner that the first time I saw PNC on television, when the Mets were playing the first exhibition games there in March 2001, I assumed the Roberto Clemente Bridge was some kind of golden walkway dreamt up by a clever architect to make the whole scene seem a little more, I don’t know, Pittsburghey…a design house’s complement to the black light standards and steel motif. Silly me — it was an actual bridge: the Sixth Street Bridge, unveiled in 1928 and brilliantly renamed in 1998 to dovetail with the construction of the ballpark
PNC syncs perfectly to its environs and it never lets you forget it’s the home of the Pirates (said with a straight face, skipping any and all cheap shots about the long string of sub-.500 seasons that has grown only more endless since I was there). The Clemente Bridge. The Clemente statue. The wall that’s 21 feet high for Clemente. Honoring Wagner and Stargell and Kiner (at least his hands) and lately Mazeroski with statuary. Loads of player banners. Loads of oversized Topps cards — not hidden away, not doled out grudgingly, mind you, but readily accessible and proudly displayed. Pittsburgh’s Negro League tradition got its due, too.
Some of this, the parts dotting the PNC exterior, we caught before we went to our official game on Saturday. After we checked in at the Renaissance and enjoyed an excellent Cuban restaurant next door, we walked across the Clemente (navigable by car and foot most of the time, limited to pedestrians before, during and after games) to explore. Two seasons into its existence, I’d salivated over PNC on TV but up close, even out for a stroll, it was even more astounding. Every inch of the place, every inch around the place, the sidling easy by the river as if intrinsic to the Western Pennsylvania ecosystem.
It wasn’t exactly PNCville around the ballpark, but there was enough in the way of sports bar action for those seeking it, and you were only a Clemente’s amble away from the edge of downtown if you sought food and drink that way. I also had no idea — remember, we were Pittsburgh tyros — there was something of an artsy section of the city adjacent to the ballpark. We wandered into the Andy Warhol Museum for a little non-baseball culture. I had no idea Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh. They later named the Seventh Street Bridge after him. I wonder if it and the Roberto Clemente Bridge ever have a catch. Or hit each other pop flies.
We inspected a bit of downtown Pittsburgh later but it was all prelude to our super skybox suite on the tenth floor. Having gathered takeout from a deli down the block, we headed for the hotel while ticketholders made their way across the Roberto (sad pecking order sign: Steelers t-shirts sold on Sixth Street before the Pirates game — football training camp was open and, as that Friday’s Post-Gazette explained, that meant Pittsburgh’s baseball season was over). Stationed at our window — windows, actually; one for each of us — we watched a pretty decent trickle of humanity stream over the river in advance of first pitch. We turned on KDKA for play-by-play but were served just as well by the voice of Pirate public address announcer Tim DeBacco. When he asked the 23,812 in attendance to rise for the national anthem, 23,814 of us stood.
Yes, we were that close. Except for losing a slice of right field, we could pretty much see everything that went on in the game, and aided by the broadcast team, we became honorary big fans of journeymen outfielders Adam Hyzdu (3-for-5 featuring a fifth-inning grand slam) and Rob Mackowiak (a two-run pinch-hit blast in the seventh). If Bob Prince’s partner Rosey Rosewell had still been calling Buccos games in 2002 and had bellowed his trademark home run call of “open the window, Aunt Minnie, here it comes!” we would have been ready.
Our windows were open. We sat by them, feet up, beverages handy, taking in a real, live baseball game without having to be at a real, live baseball game. It was akin to the Wrigley rooftops, I suppose, except no gouging was involved. We really did stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” we really did stretch in the seventh and we really did offer cheers for the home team as they defeated the Cardinals 12-9. And we were blown away by what happened when the sun went down. PNC Park’s lights reminded me straight up of those old-time illustrations of Fenway Park or Crosley Field, the ones reproduced on postage stamps that had been issued a year before. In those iterations, the ballparks in question appeared to be bathed by light, as if by a cosmic shower head. That’s what happened here — but there was something even better! Set against the hills off in the distance (who knew Pittsburgh had hills?), PNC, from our angle, looked almost to have been carved into a bluff…like the Polo Grounds, for goodness sake.
Nearly thirty years of going to ballgames at this point in my life and I’d never had the Polo Grounds evoked. Technically speaking, we didn’t go to this game, but from the tenth floor of the Renaissance, it was close enough.
Experientially speaking, it was very close. We still had an actual game to attend the next night, and you could be damn sure we were going to attend the hell out of it. Still, the hotel window game is the one we recall most fondly when we recall our trip to Pittsburgh.
Saturday brought yet one more dimension to bear: a special guest star joining Stephanie and me. The date was July 20, relevant in that July 20 is the birthday of my Chicago-based friend Jeff (hero of the unforgettable Mets-Cubs Friday doubleheader of four years earlier). Jeff’s a fine family man — lovely wife, two bright children, including a daughter I induced with all manner of Metsabilia, when she was three or so, to adore Mr. Met — but he had mentioned every summer since we’d been corresponding that when July 20 rolled around, he did whatever the hell he wanted. Well, I suggested some months earlier, July 20 will be a Saturday, and Stephanie and I are thinking about going to Pittsburgh, and since it’s sort of halfway between New York and Chicago, and since this is your birthday and you do whatever the hell you want on your birthday…
No more needed to be said. Jeff put some frequent flier miles to good use and we agreed to rendezvous in the hours ahead of that night’s game. It’s one of those things I always thought sounded like a superb idea, meeting somebody in a city where neither of us lived just for baseball, but it was the first time I’d ever done it.
And, per the vibe that accompanied the weekend, it was superb.
Stephanie and I did a little more local sightseeing early, took a train ride (who knew Pittsburgh had trains?) and, as planned, we met Jeff in our lobby. He was staying a few blocks away without a ballpark view, but we dragged him up to our room so I could show him our catbird seat window and breathlessly describe what the previous evening had been like and looked like. He agreed it was sublime, perhaps just to get me to shut up about it already.
The three of us made good use of the Roberto Clemente Bridge, fitting enough in that Roberto Clemente was one of Jeff’s baseball heroes growing up. We each took turns posing with ol’ Bob’s statue and toured a bit of the riverfront. Jeff occasionally gazed through his trusty binoculars in search of aviary happenings. As a dedicated birder, Jeff keeps a “life list” of every species he’s spotted. He also, like me, keeps a log of every ballpark he’s visited.
I enjoy reading Jeff’s words on birds, but the obsessive language we share is ballparks, and the fact that we were seeing a ballpark new to us together for the first time added yet another layer of depth to the weekend. By the time we recrossed the Clemente for dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant downtown, we were deep in ballpark talk, trading stories and opinions the way we might have traded cards if we had grown up in the same place at the same time (though Jeff wouldn’t have traded me his Bob Clemente unless he had at least quadruples). Our dialogue probably wasn’t anything we hadn’t sent each other by e-mail in the previous half-dozen years, but for one evening the conversation was plucked from captivity and set free to roam into tangents, digressions and asides to say nothing of anticipation for what loomed directly ahead.
God, I enjoyed that.
Back across Roberto one more time, back to Pittsburgh’s North Shore to physically inhabit PNC Park. You’d almost think that after all the buildup and euphoria, the actual experience of going and being inside couldn’t help but be a bit of a letdown.
It was nothing of the sort. It was what all the walking and talking was leading to. And it couldn’t have been better.
For me to love a ballpark more (or at least rate it higher) than Shea, there has to be one instant very early in my immersion inside it when, without my brain doing anything proactive, my mouth drops open and forms nothing more than a quiet ohmigod. Wrigley had that. PNC definitely had that. It came after we emerged from the concourse and inhaled our first full view of the PNC Park vista.
Some parks, like Wrigley, aren’t quite done justice by television, even though they look great on TV. Some parks, like Fenway, are enhanced by television beyond their already high standards. PNC pulled off a double play worthy of Groat and Mazeroski. It had sucked me in from the moment I saw it on the tube, but in truly living color, my crush went hi-def.
Everything. Everything about it was incredible. There’s the downtown skyline. There’s our hotel in the foreground. (I can make out our window! We watched from there last night!) There’s the bridge. There’s the river. There’s the greenery beyond the green fence. There’s the ironwork and the seating and the ramps. Oh, it just blended so beautifully. The only thing I didn’t care for was the green batter’s eye as it got a little in the way of everything else, but I guess the batter did have to see the ball…so OK, it can stay.
Nothing that occurred during the game, taken in from splendid seats maybe 20 rows behind home plate, could have made me love PNC any more deeply than I did at that first internal sight. But nothing made me love it any less, either. The Pirates’ gamenight presentation (save, maybe, for a dopey Photoshopping of what celebrities would look like with mullets) was first-class. For example, the sound system was perfect. It’s an odd thing to remember, but because so many are ear-splitting, I noticed the acoustics were just right. Jason Kendall’s at-bat music — the “guess who’s back…back again” refrain from Eminem — was so sharp and so clear that I think it’s the reason “Without Me” soon became my favorite song of 2002.
We got a big kick out of the pierogi race, an amiable knockoff off of the sausage derby in Milwaukee. Would have loved to have tried a pierogi, or anything they were cooking behind us, but we were still full from dinner. Impressive concessions, if just to sniff. Impressive two-story team store. One of the pierogi magnets — Sauerkraut Saul — sticks in my office to this day and Stephanie still wears her Pirates-Mets First Game Ever shirt (deeply discounted from the year before) around the house.
Too often you watch a game from Pittsburgh on SNY and you see thousands of empty seats. But on this Saturday night, the Cardinals helped generate a near sellout of 35,000 (capacity is about 38,000, which sounded a bit small when I first heard it, yet felt just right when I was amid it). The offensive fireworks from the evening before continued, especially from our man Hyzdu, who contributed three hits, a pair of three-run dingers and seven RBI. Bucs blew away St. Louis 15-6. It was a joyous night for people who came to root for the home team, not just applaud the home park. It got only better in the minutes after the final out when we tracked the baserunners and outs on the informative and attractive out-of-town scoreboard and confirmed the Mets held on to win in Cincinnati — yet another reason to cheer.
I could have kept cheering for PNC Park, lousy name and all. If I ever became prosperous, I decided, I’d buy season tickets here, never mind that I lived far from Pittsburgh. If I could afford it, I’d fly in on weekends and whenever else I could, just to sit here and watch baseball in the perfect setting. Maybe I could work out something to reserve that room in the Renaissance. Or, I thought, maybe I should just cut out the 332 miles and move here. That neighborhood around the Warhol seemed pretty nice…
I wasn’t moving to Pittsburgh and I wasn’t hauling ass for any more Pirates games, but boy was I smitten. And I still am, despite more recent associations with PNC Park as the place where late-inning Mets leads come to die agonizing deaths. Despite the often frustrating results and general malaise that surround every Mets-Pirates game, I could do with more Met visits to PNC just to ogle it more often on the telly. I’m not the only Mets fan who’s noticed it, either. When Citi Field was still in the drawing board phase, there was a quote from Jeff Wilpon expressing his admiration for PNC Park and how it, as much as Ebbets Field, was a model for what the Mets would build. Shortly after Citi opened, Wilpon cited PNC as inspiration for the finished product.
Good taste on Jeff’s part. I don’t see a damn thing that’s similar between the two other than size and steel — theirs is open and airy everywhere; ours continues to deal me bouts of claustrophobia — but I don’t hold that against Citi Field. No way anything built since PNC Park could match PNC Park.
It’s just too perfect.
The question you steadfast ballpark countdown trackers may be wondering isn’t, “If you love PNC Park so much, why don’t you marry it?” (which is easy to answer: Stephanie got to me first, and I believe marriage among a man, a woman and a ballpark is illegal in both New York and Pennsylvania), but rather, “If you love PNC Park so much, how could it possibly be only No. 4 on your life list?”
That’s a great question you haven’t asked, and I’ve certainly mulled it since July 20, 2002, when Jeff and I discussed our respective rankings on our final trek across the Clemente, back toward our respective lodgings. Jeff said he was ready to slot it above anything he’d ever seen. I did not argue the point with him, as there seemed no place better to experience a ballgame — of that I’m convinced.
Nevertheless, I guess I’d have to say a trio of other great ballparks got to me first and I’m extremely loyal and not a little sentimental about such relationships. Thus, the final three installments in this series will delve into the intense emotional attachments I formed for a trio of PNC predecessors, but honestly, if you’re looking for a good baseball time, you’ll never find a greater one than the one you’ll find out Roberto’s way.
Another countdown you should by all means monitor is being conducted by Dave Murray, who takes us through the Mets Guy In Michigan‘s version of the Topps 60 Greatest Cards of All Time. Naturally, they’re all Mets cards. He’s so far taken care of 60-51; 50-41; 40-31; and 30-21, and made a couple of detours for the sake of equal time and topicality. Dave might trade you an extra Bob Clemente, but good luck prying away his twentieth Mets Maulers.