|Pittsburgh's gem rates the best|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 staff
Editor's Note: This is the final report card in Page 2's summerlong series rating all 30 ballparks in Major League Baseball.
PITTSBURGH -- Frank Lloyd Wright designed his masterpiece, Falling Water, as a retreat-in-the-woods a couple hours outside Pittsburgh for department store owner Edgar Kauffman. Cantilevered over a waterfall, the home is both completely modern and thoroughly romantic, interacting harmoniously with the landscape by merging modern building materials with the natural elements surrounding it.
Falling Water is regarded as the perfect blend of art, architecture and environment.
Or at least it was until PNC Park opened.
The Pirates re-signed Andy Van Slyke instead of Barry Bonds. They signed Derek (Operation Shutdown) Bell to a $9 million contract. They signed Pat Meares to a $15 million contract. They are en route to their 11th consecutive losing season. And they just traded their best player.
But at least the team and the city got the ballpark right.
No, not just right. Perfect. This is the perfect blend of location, history, design, comfort and baseball. It's as if the House That Ruth Built had first been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and then run past Ray Kinsella for final approval.
After a summer of touring every stadium in the majors, after standing in more lines than a Moscow babushka, after eating so many concessions that we make David Wells look like Ichiro, we finally have our winner. The best stadium in baseball is in Pittsburgh.
1. Access: You can drive or you can boat to the ballpark but the best way to get to the stadium is to stroll from downtown across the beautiful Roberto Clemente Bridge. The Bridge is closed off to automobiles on game days and drops you off right in front of the park, where my friend Scooter and I found a block party in progress with a band and beach volleyball.
This is the best entrance in baseball that doesn't include the bullpen door swinging open and "Hells Bells" blaring over the loudspeaker. Points: 5
2. Exterior architecture: The rough limestone walls mimic the rugged Allegheny landscape. The majestic statues of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell are as inspiring as the players themselves. The restaurants and shops make an effective use of the site. The ballpark's 38,000-seat capacity is intimate, putting everyone so close to the field you can hear the players calling their mistresses. The wide-open outfield provides a sweeping and spectacular panorama of the Pittsburgh skyline, offering baseball's best view since Halle Berry stopped going to David Justice's games.
In short, Pittsburgh hasn't seen anything this beautiful since Clemente unleashed throws from right field. 5
3. Interior architecture: And it's just as nice inside. The park is warm, intimate, easy to navigate and with such an attention to detail that the luxury suites are numbered after great seasons in Pirates history. There is the 1903 suite, the 1960 suite, the 1971 suite, the 1979 suite ... though, curiously, I didn't notice a 1953 suite. 5
4. Ticket prices and availability: Ah, the first -- and only -- negative. All the seats are good but the prices are just too high for a team that hasn't won anything in more than a decade. The bleacher seats are excellent but they're also $14. There is only one price section under $10: the $9 seats in the upper deck in the left-field terrace. I mean, c'mon. These are the Pirates we're paying to see, not the Stones.
Worse, the Pirates have this indefensible policy where they slap a $2.75 charge on every ticket purchased over the phone or the Internet. That's not a TicketMaster charge, that's the Pirates' charge if you buy the ticket through them (there is no charge if you buy the ticket at the stadium). So that $14 bleacher ticket is really $16.75.
I can think of no surer, more insulting way to alienate fans.
Short of fielding 11 consecutive losing seasons, that is. 2
5. Seat comfort: They may not be quite as comfortable as Danny Murtaugh's old rocking chair, but they're close enough. 4.5
6. Quality of hot dogs: You know how some teams have interns running around with those gas-canister powered cannons to shoot T-shirts into the stands between innings? The Pirates use them to launch hot dogs into the stands. As I watched them, I couldn't help but wonder about some very embarrassing moments at the doctor's office.
DOCTOR: And just how did you get this wiener stuck in your ear?
PATIENT: A guy shot me with a cannon.
DOCTOR: Yeah, sure ...
PATIENT: No, really. A guy shot me at a Pirates game.
DOCTOR: Please. That's very funny but I have a lot of patients to see.
PATIENT: No, really. A guy shot me at a Pirates game.
DOCTOR: Look, I can't help you unless you're honest with how this happened. 4
7. Quality/selection of concession-stand fare: By now, you know how I feel about stadiums that serve only the standard ballpark fare while ignoring the local choices. That's not a problem here. You can get pierogis, Primanti Brothers sandwiches, and for all I know, mozzarella-covered steel ingots. 5
8. Signature concession item: Giving new meaning to the term "signature" item, former Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen signs autographs while you wait in line for his barbecue sandwiches behind the bleachers.
But the best item is the famous Primanti Brothers sandwich, a Pittsburgh institution. It has generous servings of roast beef, cheese, cole slaw and -- this is the key -- French fries all between two buns. I bet Willie Stargell ate them for breakfast. 5+++
9. Beer: Some of the concession prices are a bit high but that's not a problem with the beer, which is downright reasonable. Penn Pilsner was $5.50 and bottled imports were just $5, among the lowest prices I've seen. 5
10. Bathrooms: Clean, plentiful and the lines were so short it was as if they were showing "Gigli" inside. 4.5
11. Scoreboard: The main scoreboard is just fine but the out-of-town scoreboard is what really makes this spectacular. In addition to showing you the score, inning and pitchers for each game, it also shows you how many outs and how many runners are on base and where they are. This is the next best thing to having Harold Reynolds, Peter Gammons and Bobby V updating you from the wall.
The only thing that was missing from the Mariners score was the sound of Dave Niehaus. 5+++
12. Quality of public address system: Good sound, decent music. But the Pirates really ought to crank "We Are Family" at top volume after the seventh-inning stretch. 4
13. Fun stuff to do besides the game: You can stroll along the river, get an autograph from Manny, play volleyball outside, grab a cone at Ben & Jerry's, compare your grip on the bat with Ralph Kiner's, pose by the Clemente and Stargell statues or wager on the Pierogi races.
You almost don't need the game, which is fortunate given the way the Pirates play. 5
14. Price/selection of baseball souvenirs: There are plenty of places to buy souvenirs, including replica caps from the '70s ($25) along with "We Are Family" T-shirts. The only thing missing was Sister Sledge's greatest hits. 4.5
15. Friendliness/helpfulness of usher stauff: The woman at the gate was so friendly I thought she was going to offer to carry my bag to my seat. But why shouldn't she have been friendly? She has the world's most beautiful office next to the Chrysler Building. 4.5
16. Trading-up factor: The Steelers defended the pass better at the end of last season than the ushers protected the box seats. Scooter and I were able to move from the bleachers and sit right behind home plate without a problem. 5
17. Knowledge of local fans: Four -- count 'em, four -- fans recognized me at the stadium and said they read Page 2 all the time. That would be five points right there except that three of them were visiting from Wisconsin. But it still was darn impressive. 4
18. Seventh-inning stretch: It may be the only thing at the stadium that was just average. Like I said, "We Are Family" would go over big. 3
19. Pre-and-postgame bar-and-restaurant scene: With bars, block parties, concerts and beach volleyball all part of the stadium complex, the Pirates haven't seen this sort of partying since the days of the Pittsburgh drug trials. The only thing missing is a Milner's Retreat, where you can go into a bathroom and snort coke with Milner, Berra and the boys. 5
20. Wild card: When building a stadium, most teams just look at the most recent new one and say that they want one just like it, only bigger and more expensive. Not Pittsburgh. The Pirates and the public built a stadium that is not only located in Pittsburgh but one that is part of Pittsburgh.
Ray Kinsella was wrong. Baseball heaven isn't in Iowa. It's in Pittsburgh, along the banks of the Allegheny River. 10
TOTAL POINTS FOR PNC PARK: 95