SPORTS

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June 27, 2003

American Ball Park Reviews . . . with Dan Ankeles

PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Last Sunday it sold out with an attendance figure of well over 37,000. I have said it many times this past week, but I'll do it again. PNC is by far the best ballpark in which I have ever watched a game, and I've been to most of the good parks, old and new alike.

Besides its small size and general coziness, the park's best feature is the city in the background. Fans facing the outfield will see a host of interesting skyscrapers (including the PNC Bank building), a large bridge over the nearby river on whose bank the park was built, and even portions of the steep, green hills that surround the city. On a beautiful summer day, I felt right at home, almost as if I were in Fenway or Wrigley.

Another heartening feature of PNC is that it is both fan friendly and family friendly while still maintaining a spirited crowd. Pittsburgh folks are always very much underrated in the sports enthusiasm department, probably because they are stuck in the middle of western Pennsylvania (aka "nowhere") and are often overshadowed by Philadelphia fans, who, as Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcels claims, would boo Santa Claus. I guess that's what happens when you live so close to New Jersey.

But I digress. One of the main reasons PNC is so fan friendly is the gentlemanly behavior of all the ushers. They are mostly older men who know and love baseball and have the uncanny ability to bring me back to my childhood days when my dad used to take me to Fenway before I was even tall enough to see what was going on. During batting practice an usher approached me, and I was afraid he was going to send me back to my section (the standing room only section). Instead he remarked on my White Sox hat and asked if this was my first time at the park. He then went on to point out several features of the field and upper deck. He also directed my attention to the stands along the third base line, where one of the Pirate pitchers was literally playing catch with little kids in the stands. A pleasant surprise indeed.

Later on when my friend and I decided to sit in the bleachers, the usher simply asked us if we were OK, rather than scrutinizing our tickets, the way the people in both Chicago parks do. A second-rate team like the White Sox, which is dead last in the American League in attendance behind even Detroit and Tampa Bay, could learn a real lesson in public relations (not to mention ticket pricing schemes) from the Pirates. Here is an organization that understands the importance of simply letting fans sit in most available empty seats. If someone claims the seats, you are simply asked to "scoot down" and are given no further trouble.

On a side note, PNC features what is by far the best out-of-town scoreboard in the majors. Fans can see the score, which team is batting, the inning, how many outs there are, and how many men are on base. Thus I got to see in gruesome detail as the Red Sox choked against their supposed National League East rival over in Philadelphia.

Perhaps the only problem with PNC is the same problem most new parks have in this era of rebellion against cookie-cutter parks like U.S. Cellular Field: it does not favor pitchers at all. The power alleys are short, and there is one triangle in left-center that is ideal for triples. Also, because of the attempt at a cozy atmosphere there is little foul ground anywhere, which turns a routine foul pop-up into a souvenir more often than not. If you are a fan of offensive baseball, this is not a drawback in the least, but I happen to like good pitching and defense and abhor the designated hitter rule (this is all despite being an American League loyalist).

The food at PNC ranks right up there with the best most parks have to offer, and the beer, interestingly, comes in little plastic bottles, right alongside the soda. This makes it harder for the idiot in the seat one row back to spill beer on you and your little six-year-old.

Lastly, PNC park retains and, to a certain extent, enhances the "team identity" that defines the Pirates. The banners commemorating older starts like Willie Stargell, Honus Wagner, and the great Roberto Clemente are large and clearly visible for fans in most seats. In addition the large jumbotron in left field features many pirate-themed cartoons and voices that seem to legitimize the neighboring rivers as meaningful bodies of water.

Overall PNC park gets a first class rating. Anyone who plans a ballpark road trip this summer would be a fool to miss it.