This past week I took a road trip with three of my teammates to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for a quick two-game set between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs at beautiful PNC Park.
Before I get into the review, I’d like to quickly share my impression of the City of Pittsburgh itself. I’ve heard it called the “armpit of America” and Canadians often refer to Hamilton, Ontario as the “Pittsbugh of the north.” For those that don’t know, Hamilton has a lot in common with Pittsburgh, both cities had booming steel plants in their respective heydays. Today, Hamilton is what one would consider to be pretty grungy, depressed, and in a state of disrepair. I was expecting something similar, something along the lines of a “Detroit Light.” To say that Pittsburgh exceeded my expectations would be an understatement.
Pittsburgh is what Hamilton would look like if Hamilton was given a deep clean and injected with growth hormone. The picturesque city sits within a river valley where the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers meet. The skyline is striking and beautiful, the downtown is clean and bright, and at night the city is absolutely gorgeous. While the downtown was eerily quiet on night – especially so since I was there both Friday and Saturday evenings – it is a fitting backdrop for one of baseball’s most aesthetically pleasing ballparks.
PNC Park opened in 2001, and follows “retro-classic” trend of ballpark construction that began in 1992 with Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The park was constructed in only 24 months, at a cost of $262 million US – financed jointly by the Pirates, taxpayers, and private fundraising. PNC has the lowest seating capacity (38,362) of any of the retro-classical stadiums, befitting the smaller size of Pittsburgh.
When it opened in 2001, it was nearly universally-hailed as the best ballpark in baseball. ESPN.com writer Jim Caple ranked PNC Park as the best in baseball, calling the stadium “perfect” and comparing it to the famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Falling Water. Toronto Blue Jays President Emeritus Paul Beeston said the park was “the best he’s seen so far in baseball.”
PNC Park is located on the north shore of the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh, directly east of its predecessor, Three Rivers Stadium, and west of Heinz Field, home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers. The site was selected specifically to incorporate the city skyline into the stadium’s design. Following construction of the stadium, the city of Pittsburgh renamed the 6th Street Bridge near the southeast corner of the park the Roberto Clemente Bridge. To create an enjoyable experience for fans to access and exit the game, the bridge is closed to vehicular traffic on game days to allow spectators to park in Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle and walk across the bridge to the stadium.
Being a riverfront stadium, boaters are encouraged to dock their boats along the riverfront walkway that surrounds the stadium and access the game that way – or just party.
In terms of sheer aesthetics, PNC Park is tough to beat. PNC Park is one of only two stadiums constructed after 1990 (Comerica Park being the other one) that has just two main decks. The last one pre-1990 was Milwaukee’s County Stadium in 1953. This creates a real feeling of intimacy, almost like a minor league ballpark. Its prime location along the shore of the Allegheny River takes advantage of scenic vistas of the downtown skyline and riverfront, creating an exciting and striking urban sports venue.
The design of PNC Park is meant to salute other retro-classical ballparks, such as Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. This homage is reflected in the design of the ballpark’s archways, steel truss work, and light standards. The series of masonry archways extending along the entry level facade and decorative terra cotta tiled pilasters are meant to evoke memories from Forbes Field in particular.
The park has also tried to differentiate itself from other retro-cassic ballparks by importing Kasota limestone from a Minnesota river valley to contrast the brick bases of other modern retro-classic stadiums.
Statues of Pirates’ Hall of Famers Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Bill Mazeroski are positioned at various points outside of PNC Park. Wagner and Clemente’s statues were previously located outside of Three Rivers Stadium, and after the venue was imploded, the two statues were removed from their locations, refurbished, and relocated outside PNC Park. Wagner’s statue was originally unveiled at Forbes Field in 1955. The base of Clemente’s statue is shaped like a baseball diamond, and each base contains a glass box full of dirt from three of the fields Clemente played at as he progressed through his baseball career: Santurce Field in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Forbes Field, and Three Rivers Stadium. Encircling the baseball diamond is a stainless steel rim, engraved with fifteen events in Clemente’s life. A sixteenth placeholder is left open to symbolize the incomplete circle of Clemente’s life.
Clemente’s life and career were both cut short when a plane he chartered to deliver aid to the earthquake-stricken Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, crashed into the ocean off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico immediately after takeoff on December 31, 1972. Finishing his career with a .317 batting average and 3,000 hits, the Pirates immediately retired his #21 jersey. In 1973 he became the first Latin American player inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame after the mandatory five-year waiting period was waived.
A statue for Bill Mazeroski was added at the right field entrance, at the south end of Mazeroski Way, during the 2010 season.
At nighttime, the area around the stadium lights up. Take a walk across the few bridges that cross the Allegheny River and just take it all in. It’s absolutely gorgeous at night.
The worst ticket in the whole park is $22US – approximately $30 CAD at the time of writing. Because of PNC’s intimate design, the highest seat is just 88 feet from the field, giving every fan in the park an ideal sight line. For the views alone, it’s well worth it.
For a seat in the lower deck along the baselines will run you $60US or more. I would hazard a guess that these ticket prices are league average, and as a fan, I felt I received more than fair value just from being able to experience the ballpark and associated views alone.
Again, it’s tough to beat. This is the way baseball is meant to be played, and enjoyed by fans. In stark contrast to the last ballpark I reviewed, Pirates fans are passionately invested in their team and are intently engaged throughout the entirety of the game. This is especially impressive, because the current Pirates are a last place team who, at the time I attended, had only one six games since the All-Star break (nearly a month and a half). Pittsburgh is a last place team, but 30,000 fans showed up on a Friday night to cheer them on. With that said, the Pirates were playing the Cubs, and at least 30% of those fans were Cubs fans.
Anecdotally, I had a shirt made before the trip that was identical to an iconic shirt former Pirate Dave Parker wore:
I received lots of commentary and fist bumps for the aforementioned shirt, which proves, in my mind, how knowledgeable Pirates fans are about baseball and their own team. How many other fan bases would instantly recognize an innocuous t-shirt made by one of their players from a team 40 years ago?
One cool feature was the player intros on the JumboTron. As a player approached the plate, they would play a very short montage clip of Pirate legends (even Doug Drabek!) before showing the player photo of the player at-bat. I think this would go over real well in Toronto.
At the Friday night game, the struggling Pirates took the Cubs to extra innings and were then able to walk it off. Fans were appropriately enthusiastic about the win – their 7th since the All Star break. Here’s a quick video of the post-win reaction from fans.
As a first-time fan at PNC, it was immediately clear to me that PNC combines the best features of yesterday’s ballparks with the latest in fan and player amenities and comfort. Perfectly situated and thoughtfully designed, PNC Park presents baseball in the way it was meant to be enjoyed.
The two-level Pirates Clubhouse Store at PNC Park is located on Federal Street outside the Left Field Gate entrance near the Willie Stargell statue. It has some really great swag for just about any type of fan you can think of. Heavy on the Starling Marte jerseys, and of course, Roberto Clemente as he is appropriately revered as a god in the city of Pittsburgh.
What I personally found to be a nice touch was the amount of Kent Tekulve apparel. You may remember Kent Tekulve from a mailed-in MopUpDuty post from 2007. He was actually a terrific reliever and played during the Stargell’s Stars era of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, however. Pittsburgh is full of hipsters and they love wearing things ironically.
A big hit is the availability of the 1979 pillbox Pirates hat. Pirates players were awarded stars from Willie Stargell for exceptional effort on the field or good deeds off it. Players would then stitch each star onto their hat as a point of pride. A big miss here is that you can’t get a hat with stars already on it, nor can you buy your own Stargell stars to affix yourself. Another big miss is the absence of the yellow version of the same hat.
The main bar at PNC Park is the Miller Lite Skull Bar, which is just average. The Jim Beam Left Field lounge is an indoor refuge when things get a little too hot, and it’s definitely for fancy boys. There are a few party terraces in left field, but they’re small and unremarkable.
The neighbourhood around the ballpark has plenty of bars, but they were noticeably quiet post-games on both days. There are two hot spots in Pittsburgh to party at after the game: the North Shore (where the park is located), and the South Shore, otherwise known as “Sou’side.” The Southern Tier Brewery is usually busy.
Here’s where PNC Park committed an epic fail. For both games I was at, the stadium was probably at 80% capacity, but half the concessions were shut down. Lineups were huge! For everything! And the employees at the concessions were slow, unfriendly, and mostly apathetic. There’s also a clear bourgeoisie/proletariat separation between fans in the upper deck and fans in the lower deck. On the upper deck there are only two kinds of beer available: Miller Lite and IC Light. IC, short for Iron City, is a “premium light lager that embodies all things black & gold.” Canadian beer drinkers will be able to draw a comparison to Hamilton, Ontario’s Steeler Lager. In other words, it’s not good.
The lower deck has much better options. I was told I needed to check out Primanti Brothers sandwiches, a Pittsburgh institution. I had the Pittsburgh steak & cheese and it was probably one of the worst sandwiches I’ve had. My uber driver later told me I picked the worst one, and should have “chosen a sandwich with a meat that could have stood up to the toppings – a pastrami or capicola.” So, it could be my fault. The bread was exceptional, but otherwise it’s just a sandwich with french fries on it.
Instead, I should have went to Manny’s, a barbecue and smokehouse run by former Pirate Manny Sanguillen. And I would have too, if it wasn’t for the lineup 150 people deep that snaked around the concourse. To even get a single bottle of water warranted a one-and-a-half inning wait. Concessions are also prohibitively expensive: $7.50US for a bottle of water.
After a few IC Lagers permeated my brain, I thought PNC Park might be the greatest baseball stadium I had ever been to. After I sobered up, I realized it’s not – but it’s close. Though room for improvement is small, there are a few things that could be implemented to make this park the perfect place for all fans. The upper deck could be spruced up with more options for fans and families. Better party zones and improved (and open!) concessions would inch this park closer to perfection.
My time at PNC will forever be etched in my mind as an ideal place to watch baseball. Additionally, I could see this park being viable for the next 60, 70, even 80+ years, which is not easy to say about most parks. In my opinion, it is destined to become one of the classics like Wrigley Field. Pittsburgh fans are lucky to have a jewel like PNC in their downtown and the only thing that’s missing is a winning ballclub.
How does PNC rank among our ballpark reviews? Check out our Ballpark Review Roundup to find out.
Featured image photo credit: Callum Hughson/mopupduty.com