When I was growing up, Pittsburgh was not the kind of place people talked about going to for a vacation. It had a reputation as being gritty, polluted, uneducated, and boring. It was lumped in with other rust-belt cities in decline, like Cleveland, Buffalo, and Detroit: bad weather, no amenities, decaying downtown.
Yet after hearing many glowing reviews of it from friends recently, I found myself making the seven-hour drive there last weekend from my home in Queens, NY.
Here's the upshot of it all: I loved Pittsburgh. It was a great city, in every respect. It was surprisingly clean, but perhaps anything would seem clean for someone who's lived in the Big Crapple for any period of time (just a joke, fellow New Yorkers!).
It was also affordable and picturesque; there was a lot to do, and the people were great. And I mean really great. One example: I stopped to ask directions and this very nice woman actually offered to pull out her computer and Mapquest my destination using wireless Internet at a local coffee shop.
Maybe I've become jaded by life in New York, but that seems crazy nice to me. And it wasn't an isolated incident. Everyone was so friendly.
So, after a lovely first day in Pittsburgh, I admittedly was in a pretty good mood, and the fact that we were going to a baseball game that evening only made things better. After parking downtown (for free!) my girlfriend and I walked across the lovely Roberto Clemente Bridge to PNC Park, which lies across the Allegheny River from central Pittsburgh.
The bridge was closed off to vehicle traffic, and folks were leisurely wandering across the river, enjoying the nice weather (clear skies, temp in the low-80s). As you cross the bridge, you come to the street that runs along the eastern side of the park. Immediately on your left is a very nice statue of Clemente himself—as well as several attractive restaurants associated with the stadium (outdoor seating, and what smelled like decent enough food).
On the right side of the street are private restaurants and bars, also with plenty of outdoor tables. We chose one of those restaurants and had a nice (and surprisingly cheap) meal and drink before the game.
The next part blew me away.
After our meal, we were able to walk right up to the box office and purchase same-day grandstand seats for $9 a piece. Now, maybe that seems normal to some of you, but as someone who has spent many hours scouring Stub Hub and eBay for Fenway tickets, only to either find: a) nothing; or, b) bleacher seats for $50 a piece, I was astounded that good, cheap seats would be available just minutes before game time (despite having been assured by others beforehand that my last minute plan would work).
Heck, even tickets at Shea Stadium, not considered a tough find, start off at roughly $25 a pop these days.
But that wasn't even the best part.
The best part was that those last-minute, $9 seats yielded us one of the most spectacular views of a city I've ever seen, and certainly the best I've seen while planted in a stadium seat (see the above photo for the approximate view we had).
Though we purchased outfield grandstand seats, we entered near the home plate grandstand and easily found empty seats to poach almost directly behind the plate. Rather than suspiciously asking for our tickets and trying to catch us in the wrong seats, our usher, Helen, was friendly and even gave us sightseeing tips for the following day.
Helen has been an usher for the Pirates for 20 years I learned (which, judging by appearances, means she started ushering sometime during her 50s), and she walks to PNC from her home every game day.
Soon, Paul Maholm threw out the first pitch, and I began to concentrate on baseball. I noted the following during that game (Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Milwaukee Brewers, Aug. 30, 2008):
1. They gave all the fans Willie Stargell collectible plates at the door, but the plates have a big sticker on them saying that eating off of them could poison you. Maybe I've been a lawyer too long (actually it's only been three years), but that sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen. Seriously, "Here's a plate, now don't eat off of it." You gotta think there's a better promotion idea than that. How about a bobble head that explodes if shaken?
2. Unbelievably, Ryan Doumit is the only player in either team's lineup batting over .300, though at .299 Braun is as close as you could get.
3. Actually, besides Doumit, Pittsburgh didn't start a player batting over .277. Ouch, this one could be ugly for the Pirates. Maholm makes it through the first unscathed.
4. Nyjer Morgan, the Pirates' leadoff hitter, comes to bat at the bottom of the first and a weird watercolor image of his face appears on the Jumbotron. Do you think they really had him sit for a watercolor portrait?
Did he ok this painting in lieu of his photo? In other parks, players enter to hard rock or rap songs. Nyjer enters to a silence and a pastel portrait.
5. Now I'm starting to understand Nyjer's choice—all of the other Pirates players are in photos, but the photos are dark and creepy, with the players either giving you a menacing look, or staring of blankly into the distance. It looks like the kind of artistic photos a Goth teenager would make with his friends. Good call, Nyjer.
6. After a few innings, my girlfriend points out that none of the Pirates' players have badass intro music. It's like they can't even pretend their team is intimidating. We start talking about the music the Mets' players use (we live a mile or so from Shea), and remember that there's a lot of salsa and meringue.
After a brief mental inventory we realize that approximately 98.645385649% of the team is Latino. Seriously, think about it: Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Fernando Tatis, Endy Chavez, Angel Pagan, Robinson Cancel, Ramon Castro, Moises Alou, Johan Santana, Oliver Perez, Pedro Martinez, Pedro Feliciano, Ambiorix Burgos, Tony Armas, Duaner Sanchez, Luis Ayala, and El Duque. And that's not even counting Jason Vargas, because, frankly, the dude looks a little pasty to me.
7. The Brewers bust things open with a five-run sixth inning, and Maholm is chased from the game. Later in the sixth, Brandon Moss homered and the Pirates set off fireworks to celebrate the blast. "We may be down 7-2, but we have all these fireworks!" I actually think that the fireworks are a nice touch, and it sure made the kids near us happy.
8. I also realized that, more than a month after the Bay-Ramirez trade, I still have a soft spot for Brandon Moss, whom the Red Sox sent over with Craig Hansen as part of the compensation for Bay. I'm happy that Moss has been embraced in Pittsburgh, and I hope he does well. He wasn't ever going to get a real chance to start in Boston.
As for Hansen, good riddance. That's why you don't use your top pick for a reliever. If a starter doesn't pan out, you put them in the bullpen. If a reliever doesn't pan out, you can use them to throw batting practice. Enjoy that ERA of 10, Pirates fans.
9. As beautiful as the skyline was when we first arrived, seeing the sun set against it is amazing. If the Pirates could only field a decent (not necessarily even great) team this place would be packed every game. A great venue with lots of amenities, cheap seats, good food options, walking distance from downtown—all they need is compelling baseball and they'd have the complete package.
But when you try to trade fireworks for wins, eventually your fans are going to lose interest. The Pirates actually have quite a proud history, with five championships and many memorable players (Clemente, Stargell, Mazeroski, Honus Wagner, Ralph Kiner, Pie Traynor).
If General Manager Neal Huntington can just stop the bleeding that was caused by former GM Dave Littlefield's boneheaded leadership (prime example: taking on the corpse of Matt Morris and his bloated contract last year and even giving up two prospects in return!), this team should be able to gather the resources to compete.
Huntington has stated that he favors sabermetric evaluation of players, which is a good first step. And he has at least realized that the team can't win as configured, hence the recent trades of veterans Bay, Damaso Marte, and Xavier Nady, for young talent including interesting prospects in Jose Tabata (once the prized position-prospect of the Yankees' system, who has done nothing but rake since the trade) and Andy LaRoche (reunited in Pittsburgh with brother Adam).
But until the rewards of such moves are realized, I can't blame continued skepticism on the part of the Pirates' fanbase. After all, they are 15 years removed from a winning season.
10. Well, the Pirates tried to make it interesting, putting a final run across the plate in the bottom of the ninth, but in the end, they took their ninth-straight loss. I guess that's about all you can hope for from what amounts to a AAA lineup.
Despite the lopsided 11-3 score, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the game. I guess the venue does make quite a difference. In my mind, there's nothing like watching a game in a historic ballpark like Wrigley or Fenway.
But as far as new parks go, PNC is definitely my favorite (eclipsing even Camden (Baltimore) and AT&T (San Francisco)). And its unexpectedly lovely home-city is just icing on the cake. I have a feeling that I'll be back, and hopefully the next time I'll be as inspired by the team as I am the ballpark.