On a bleak January evening in 2002, two ambitious 18-year olds on winter break from college sprawled a U.S. map across a Cape Cod living room floor, sifted through a stack of ink-splotched MLB team schedules, and plotted a summer road trip for the ages: eleven games in eleven different ballparks in nine cities over ten days.
Over the last twelve summers, I’ve chipped away at my goal of seeing a home game in all 30 MLB cities. At press time, only one remains: Minneapolis. Today we look at PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
When people find out that I’ve visited all of these ballparks, the conversation invariably shifts to, “so which one is your favorite?” My assessment depends on a number of factors, both objective and personal, but the top five always includes Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Oriole Park at Camden Yards and PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
Fenway is a given. It’s my home park, filled to the brim with 102 years of baseball history – a combination that makes it one of my favorite places in the world. It isn’t just a venue, it’s an experience, one that doesn’t need Neil Diamond singalongs or NESN contrivances to validate it.
I love going to a night game at Fenway. There’s something about the sun setting over the third base line, the light towers humming to life, and the buzz in the air, particularly when the team is in a pennant race. You know you’re the subject of hundreds of thousands of New England TV screens, that in backyards and bedrooms and basements across the region, sets of ears strain to hear the radio call of what you’re seeing in person, awash in the sights and sounds of the game and the beating pulse of an old city.
Wrigley Field is the second oldest facility in the game, and though some would argue it hasn’t aged particularly well, I appreciate the time warp aspects of the Friendly Confines. I love the hand-turned scoreboard. The intimate setting. The ivy. The happy stylings of an organist instead of DJ Casper barking at attendees, “everybody clap your hands!” Chicago is a great city. Changes are coming to Wrigley, and though the fans deserve the modern amenities, I’ll prefer to remember it the way it was.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards set the standard for modern ballparks upon its opening in 1992. They did everything right in building that one. It’s a jewel. And when the Orioles field a competitive team, it shines even more brightly.
But PNC Park sneaks up on you. First of all, it’s inhabited by the Pirates, who, up until last year, hadn’t had a playoff team since 1992. Did I mention it’s in Pittsburgh? Rust Belt cities just don’t get much love. And third, it’s named after a bank. Much like my perception of mononymous restaurants and bars as pretentious, a ballpark named after a bank is an automatic strike for me.
But then, you go to a game. You arrive by boat, or walk over the Roberto Clemente (nee Sixth Street) Bridge. You gaze upon the limestone façade and the Honus Wagner statue out front (monuments to Roberto Clemente, Wille Stargell and Bill Mazeroski elsewhere on the grounds further cement the historical significance of the franchise). Inside, it’s intimate, with a quaint two-deck design and a capacity a touch above 38,000.
And oh, the view. You look out past the outfield at a spider’s web of yellow bridges (Clemente the most prominent) traversing the Allegheny River. A riverboat quietly slips beneath the bulky buildings that compose the city’s skyline. Seafaring fans drop anchor in the river, on the lookout for a home run ball. You can walk along the concourse next to the river and pick up a Primanti Brothers sandwich, some pierogies, or catch Manny Sanguillen at his BBQ joint.
When the place fills up (as it did the night of a free post-game KC and the Sunshine Band concert for one of my visits), it can really rock. I’d imagine the Pittsburgh faithful were equally as enthusiastic about the Pirates’ playoff run last year as they had been for KC and the Sunshine Band.
I’d also submit that Pittsburgh is wildly underrated as a municipality. The people, so long as you don’t out yourself as a New England Patriots fan, are Midwest-friendly. There’s a good bar scene. The Monongahela and Duquesne inclines are two of the more interesting features of any city I’ve visited. Toss in over a century of Pirates baseball, plus the fact Pittsburgh was once home to the Crawfords and Homestead Grays, and it’s a great place to visit, see and learn about the game.
Leaving Pittsburgh (I’ve visited three times, twice on road trips), I’ve turned my radio dial to find polka music and stamp collecting talk. That’s just how it is. This hodgepodge of anecdotes among a sea of experiences at ballparks leads me to believe that Pittsburgh’s PNC Park is quite possibly the best place to see a baseball game in America. And others would back up that claim.
At Fenway next week, as a lost Red Sox season comes to its merciful conclusion, I’ll probably be overcome with remorse and reconsider…