Previous game: Miller Park in Milwaukee
Next game: Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia
Miles traveled to get here: 554
Miles traveled total: 2,784
Final Score: Pirates 6, Braves 1
PNC Park is beautiful. Every aspect of it is clearly put together with care. The views are spectacular. The food and drink choices are superb. The fans are unbelievably friendly. I just wish there were more of them.
Granted, this is coming from a guy who goes to a bunch of A’s games, where I sometimes feel like one of 15 or 20 people in the Coliseum. But that stadium is OLD. And nobody pretends that it’s a jewel of the area (note: I really do love the Coliseum. It’s better than just about every person believes it to be). And it’s STILL outdrawing PNC Park this year.
People have been telling me for the last year that I GOTTA SEE PNC. That it’ll blow me away. This has happened probably three or four times as often as it has with any other ballpark in the country. And, again, it is gorgeous. But why, then, were there so many empty seats? I had a conversation in Philly the next day that stuck with me. A fellow ballpark traveler with tickets to the Phillies game pointed out what I had been thinking already: it’s harder to be in the elite ballpark category when people aren’t really going to the games. Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia doesn’t receive a tenth of the accolades that PNC does, but it’s beautiful as well. And it was darn-near full, too. Even in Oracle Park’s worst ticket season in years, they’re still outdrawing the Pirates by almost double (32,500 per game to 17,400), and that’s with the A’s nearby and the Warriors in the NBA finals again. All that being said, I know that baseball attendance is down in general. And I really DID love being at PNC. I was just…surprised.
I nearly missed my flight from Milwaukee on Thursday morning, which would have spelled disaster. I was the last person on the plane, and was just getting into the security line when the flight was boarding. It was a combination of thinking I could cut it close and having a confused Uber driver. But I did make it.
The bus trip from the airport to PNC was way easier (and much less urine-smelling) than the bus in Milwaukee, which was nice. It brought me to within a half-mile or so of the ballpark, and gave me a chance to walk across the fantastic Roberto Clemente Bridge.
I had a bit of trouble getting my backpack into the stadium: or rather, it wasn’t the backpack but my water bottle that caused the difficulties. The security agent told me I would be unable to bring a metal bottle into the ballpark, then called over another guy who said the same thing. I explained that I didn’t have anyplace to store it, and that it was empty, and that I needed it for the next nine days, and that I’d keep it tucked in the very bottom of my backpack for the whole game. That worked, thankfully.
I wandered around a bit, checking out the various food options, buying my Pirates’ pin, looking for Primanti Brothers to get one of those sandwiches everyone’s been telling me about.
The sandwich was delicious. I chatted for a while with the two guys in front of me in line, who suggested I get the Capicola with Cheese. An older lady in front of the three of us had one as well, and she was offering half of it to every person in line. “I really can’t eat all of this,” she said. “I’ll wrap it up for you!” It was adorable how she was like every single one of our grandmas. One of the other gentlemen agreed to take it. And it WAS a big sandwich.
I ate the first half of it at a table facing out toward Heinz Field with a 73-year-old guy from Erie, PA named Ron Davis. He was a gold mine of Pirates lore. You can hear us chomping on our Primanti Brothers sandwiches while we chatted here. He doesn’t really look like Jeff ‘The Dude’ Bridges. He just kinda sounds like him.
“I went to a night game against the Chicago Cubs in 1956,” he told me. “We’d go to doubleheaders on Sunday. I saw all the great players: Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente.”
His story veered in an unexpected but also quite lovely direction regarding his migration from Pittsburgh to Erie.
“After I retired I had time to go to games, although I live about two hours away from the park. See, what happened was my roommate from college and his wife had gotten divorced after 30-some years of marriage and my wife and I had gone similarly down that road. And so she and I started seeing each other and we ended up getting married and living happily ever after in Erie PA.”
Davis has fond memories of the ballpark of his childhood, Forbes Field, which was built in 1909. “It was a wonderful place to go,” he told me. A place where bleacher seats were 99 cents, general admission would run you $1.50, reserve seats were $2.50, and box seats were three bucks.
Many a happy weekend afternoon was passed in those bleachers.
“We’d go on Saturday and go out to right field,” Davis said. “There was hardly anybody in the park. Roberto Clemente would be about 20 feet below us and we’d go ‘Roberto! Arriba! Arriba!’ and he would never acknowledge us. Always very professional. Of course I saw him throw out players at third base and home plate. He was one of the greatest.”
Davis recalled going to games in the 1950s as pretty much exactly what you’d expect. He paints a lovely booze and tobacco-fueled portrait.
“One of the things that’s really changed,” he told me, “is that on a Sunday afternoons you’d see guys coming in, there’d be two of them with a cooler full of beer over their shoulder and they’d sit there and drink through the doubleheader. By the middle of the second game they’d be pretty drunk and red-faced and shouting and everything. There was never any trouble, though; I never saw any fighting or profanity. But they were drinking a lot of beer!”
That sparked another memory, “I guess one that would be frowned on these days,” he said with a laugh.
“Oh, that’s another thing; they had cigarette machines all over the park. For 25 cents you’d get a pack of cigarettes. So we were 12 years old, and we’d put a quarter in and get a pack and smoke cigarettes and think we were the hottest thing around.”
I thanked Ron for his time and headed toward my left-field corner spot, where I found Karen and Mike, who were in their season ticket seats with their baseball-loving grandsons, Linkon and Keegan. Keegan actually was the subject of a bit of fame last May when he fell backwards as he was catching a foul fly in spectacular fashion. The Pirates announcers called it the ‘catch of the game.’ You can see it here. Kid needs to get signed by somebody right quick.
They are a lovely family from Connellsville PA, passionate about the Bucs and they were thoroughly enjoying the game. Mike is a retired cop who now helps out with school security and enjoyed razzing the visiting, somewhat obnoxious Braves’ fans. I couldn’t help but picture Walt’s brother Hank from ‘Breaking Bad.’ The accent and mannerisms were spot-on (note: Mike if you are reading this, I swear this is a compliment! I loved Hank!)
I would have stayed longer but I wanted to explore PNC and I was getting thoroughly crispy in those sun-drenched seats. So I headed back to the concourse and toward the 300-section behind home plate; this is generally the point from which you see all of those iconic shots of PNC, with that amazingly-cool bridge in the background. It’s a ridiculous vantage point.
Up in the ‘cheap’ seats, which are some of the best in the park, a young dad was keeping score and doing an admirable job of keeping track of his children. They yelled and screamed at all the appropriate times and waved their Bucs flags proudly when the home team knocked out the visiting Braves 6-1.
After leaving the park, and chatting with some of the super-friendly stadium staff, I slowly made my way through town to the incline, on the top of which I was staying at an inexpensive AirBnB. After writing for a while in a nice outdoor bar called Red Beard’s, I headed to my bed and fell asleep almost immediately. Day two was in the books.