Part IX: PNC Park
(AKA: Surviving the “Tarp Monster”)
Brace yourselves, folks. This stadium is among the best, but the weather was absolutely no joke. After making a visit to a former ballpark site, Mike and I met up with an old friend, Chuck, in downtown Pittsburgh. It was great getting to see him, and I was sad he couldn’t make it to the game with us. For the record, traversing through the streets of Pittsburgh is not fun. Trying to navigate through there is no laughing matter, either. It doesn’t help that Mike absolutely hates Pittsburgh, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from enjoying my day at PNC Park.
Ballpark 23: PNC Park, elevation 733 feet
The game: Padres @ Pirates on July 7, 2015
At least we found decently priced parking at $15 across the Allegheny River, so that meant I would get to walk across the famous Roberto Clemente Bridge which serves as a pedestrian walkway during home games. That bridge is closed off to traffic so people can take in the stadium from an already astonishing view. I know Mike would have preferred to park closer to the park on the same side of the river, but walking across the bridge is definitely the way to go, and parking tends to be cheaper. In fact, I saw one lot for only $5 that wasn’t too far from the ballpark. That walk up was breathtaking, and I recommend it to anyone visiting PNC Park for the first time.
Well before the game began, I walked around the right field area to take in some batting practice and see a couple balls go over the right field seats. One of them actually ended up in the river! This also gave me an opportunity to see some of the restaurants in the right field area. One minus for this ballpark was that the left field area wasn’t open until 90 minutes before the game, so we couldn’t get to the main team shop early. But, the area by the river was still a sight to behold and worth checking out early.
As for the team shop, this two-story masterpiece has some great memorabilia. One small detail that didn’t go unnoticed on me was the floor of the team shop in the team’s colors of black and yellow. I very much liked the design of this place. The stuff they had for sale was plentiful. They had a very full stock of jerseys, hats, and specialty shirts that had been released throughout the season. Of course, I wasn’t going to spend an arm and a leg on a jersey… but I was going to get not one, but two hats! I purchased the obligatory dark yellow alternate fitted cap for $40, but the must-have was the classic pillbox cap from the 1970s. This was actually a sweet-looking fitted pillbox cap with yellow horizontal stripes, and two stars next to the classic “P” on it. These stars were in honor of Willie Stargell who was part of the “We Are Family” championship team in 1979… a team that is still part of Pittsburgh sports lore. I was told at the counter that a whole new shipment of those popular hats had just come in, and I was very lucky to snag one! I did notice that everything was well-stocked, but there were only about seven to eight of each size of those pillbox caps. I like that they are somewhat exclusive and only $35. This goes without saying, but I really lucked out.
Ticket prices: This was the first game in a while where I actually had to buy tickets! Oh, the humanity! (Note the sarcasm there…) Looking on StubHub was the way to go here, although there is not much of a difference between the actual ticket prices and the prices on secondary ticket brokers. The tickets we got were maybe three to four dollars cheaper than face value. Where did we sit? How about right behind home plate in the top deck area? The view from here is beyond spectacular as you get a magnificent view of the Allegheny River. This was in section 316, row A. Because this section was just above a club area, there were no actual seats in front of us. Normally, I would say these were the best seats in the house… but more on that in a minute.
The food: Before the game, there were three particular food items I was looking for, the Cuban pretzel dog, the Brunch Burger (a burger with two donuts as the pieces of bread) and “The Closer” which is a stacked grilled cheese sandwich with several different cheeses, originally named after former pitcher, Jason Grilli. The Cuban pretzel dog is only sold in one place, and that’s behind the right field bleachers. For nine bucks, it was a good deal because of the quality of ingredients they use, and everything is grilled right in front of the hungry customers. The meat on top of the big hot dog were grilled right there, and the pretzel bun was tasty! Overall, it was a high-quality dog, but it was only one hot dog. I was ready for more.
Unfortunately, neither of those other two items are no longer sold in the left field district in the Hall of Fame Bar. The Closer was taken off the menu shortly after Jason Grilli left the Pirates, and the brunch burger was removed just before the start of the 2015 season because there was a large menu overhaul with new chefs entering the fray.
Despite my grand disappointment, I still went inside the Rivertowne Brewing Hall of Fame Club and asked to look at a menu. This is where an extremely helpful and friendly hostess named Meghan helped me pick out some food and drinks. When I told her what I was doing as far as the ballpark tour went, and sampling different foods across the nation, she could tell I was sad about not trying those previous signature food items. However, she did suggest I try an item called the pulled pork pierogi stacker. When I saw what was on it, I was immediately intrigued and decided to get one.
This is the Hala Kahiki. Those cups are not small…
After talking for a few minutes, I had remembered that my friend Chuck (from earlier) mentioned trying some Rivertowne beer at some point while at the ballpark. Upon mentioning this, Meghan pointed out that there were about a dozen different drinks from that brewery, and quite a few IPAs! She was so nice and gave me a preview. I sampled a pineapple brew… I had never had a pineapple beer before, so this was unique to me. From the tap, this tasted much better than I thought! With that, I ended up purchasing two beers, Old Wylie’s IPA, and the Hala Kahiki (the pineapple beer). I also got a small taste of the working man’s beer from there. Yeah, it tastes like Coors Light… not exactly what I was going after. If I’m going to drink beer, I’m going for the good stuff made locally.
The meal I ordered was the HUGE stacker that came with house-made ranch potato chips. Because I wanted to catch the game, I got a to-go order and a huge thanks from Meghan at the Hall of Fame Club. Her hospitality was excellent, and she led me to one of the best food items I’ve ever had. These chips were so fresh and delicious, and they lasted well into the night. As for the stacker, imagine some of the best food items you could ever taste rolled into one exquisite item of deliciousness. Inside, it’s house-smoked pulled pork with pierogies! I had tried pierogies earlier in the trip, and Mike even made some for me the previous night, so I was very much sold on them. Now add caramelized onions and a small bit of BBQ sauce to the mix. This is all between a fresh baked pretzel roll with sea salt. I’m not even kidding… this ranks very highly on all the food I’ve ever had across the majors. All for ten bucks. Yes, I spent that much time on the food there, but it was that good.
The fans: I will keep this short… the PIRATES fans are great and show some great enthusiasm for the game. The hometown fans I encountered were all very friendly and seemed to be pumped for a great season. Despite being in 2nd place in the NL Central division, they had a strangle hold on that top wild card spot. A return to the playoffs looks like a lock for these Bucs. These fans are hungry for a deep playoff run, and really believe they can do it.
So I loved the Pirates fans. However, during the game, we were seated next to… well… one of the most insufferable Royals fans I’ve ever had the displeasure to come across. Sadly, this guy would not stay quiet during the entire game, and kept talking to himself very loudly. Not only that, he would provide very extensive play-by-play throughout the entire game. He said “can of corn” about a dozen times during the first few innings alone. The less I say about him, the better.
The game: Because of the somewhat higher elevation compared to most other ballparks, the balls tend to jump off the bats at PNC Park. This is the very definition of a hitter’s ballpark with the low walls in left field, also. The first two innings went by quickly… then the rains occurred. This wasn’t just any rain, though. The rains came quickly and violently. For the first few seconds, there was a little rain, but we stayed in our seats like a couple suckers. About ten seconds later, the extreme winds started and these were strong tropical storm-force winds! I’m not exaggerating when I say that my hat was nearly blown away and I had to hang on to everything in my hands for dear life. However, we didn’t get the worst of it.
It’s obvious how sad I am for the rain delay…
As we were leaving the field, we could see trash blowing in the upper deck, and the grounds crew having trouble with the tarp. At this point, we ran to the nearest exit and didn’t want to see what else would happen. As we staked out a good spot in the bar area where the TVs were located, we saw what was happening on the field. As the grounds crew were trying to cover the infield, one of those poor workers got swallowed up inside the tarp! The winds had become so out of control that the tarp knocked over a worker, and he was lost in the giant tarp. When this happened, a few Pirates players (including Andrew McCutchen) came to his rescue and helped out the grounds crew. The fans that stuck around were very concerned and cheered very loudly when the Pirates players helped. The loudest cheers then came when the tarp was firmly set in place. I have to give so much credit to the Pirates players for helping out the grounds crew, that was an incredible showing and a job well done in a scary moment. The rain delay ended up being nearly two hours. Oh, big credit to the Pirates for making an awesome shirt out of this. I wish I could get one, I’d wear it all the time! **READ ABOUT IT HERE
During this time, we checked out the Hall of Fame club and the plaques there. We also sauntered through the lower deck and saw the big memorabilia stand behind home plate. The jerseys there were not cheap, I’ll just say that! But the stuff they have there is beyond incredible. We could have spent more time downstairs, but we heard the announcement that the game would resume soon, so we made it back to our seats… with the Royals fan there.
Right away, the Padres scored two runs on a Matt Kemp double to make it 2-0 Padres, but Andrew McCutchen get an RBI double to cut the San Diego lead in half. The score would remain 2-1 in the Padres favor until the bottom of the 5th inning when we had some fireworks. With Neil Walker on first base, McCutchen was up to the plate, and hit what looked to be a sure 2-run home run… enter Justin Upton…
We thought it was gone! Everybody either gasped or applauded that amazing home run robbery by Justin Upton. McCutchen had a look of disbelief as if to say, “Really?!? What do I have to do to get a home run tonight?” At the time, that was a game-saving play by the Padres’ outfielder. However, on the next at-bat, Jung Ho Kang ripped a triple to right field scoring Walker to tie the game at two! This was a perfect time to use the phrase, “The baseball gods giveth, and the baseball gods taketh away.” In a few minutes, the Padres went from having a game-saving play to giving up the one-run lead they had.
After that inning, we were treated to the pierogi races! I know more ballparks are doing some sort of race around the warning track, and Pittsburgh has gotten in on the fun with their signature food. The winning pierogi nets a prize for their representing section. This race just felt so fun!
After that race, Mike and I were really getting tired of the fan who wouldn’t shut up. The last straw was when the guy tried explaining to me what a double switch was when Mike asked about it. Just as I was about to explain to Mike the intricacies of the double switch, the fan started talking. He started off saying it was a National League strategy and went into the details about it. As politely as possible, I simply turned my head and told him, “I’ve been to 23 ballparks and have watched baseball for just as many years. I know what a double switch is. Thank you.” At that point, we moved to the top row which was covered. Oh, I should point out that the rains had returned, but these were light rains.
So far, this is the only ballpark that shows the breaks of each pitch!
As for the rest of the game, both teams were moving quickly to try and end the game before midnight. After seven innings, the game was still tied at two. But, at least from those top seats, we got an even better view of the river and the Clemente bridge beyond the outfield. As far as views go, this is among the best in the majors.
Finally, in the bottom of the 8th inning, Gregory Polanco tripled in Sean Rodriguez (who was hit by a pitch earlier in the inning) to give the hometown Pirates a 3-2 lead! A good amount of fans remained, and they brought the noise! This was as good an ending as I had seen through this trip. Finally, Mark Melancon closed the door by getting his 28th save of the season. The save gave the Buccos the win, and prompted a few fans to let their flags fly! What did many of those flags say? Raise the Jolly Roger! Soon, more fans brought out their flags and were giving high-fives to everyone in sight. These fans were unbelievable, and it was fun to see this kind of win. The amount of people that stuck around until almost midnight was surprising. One other thing I noticed was that one of the downtown buildings across the river lights up in gold every time there is a Pirates win. Apparently, it also lights up in patterns for every home run!
Despite the rain, this is one of the best ballparks out there, and everybody should visit this jewel box of a park. There is a good sense of history, the food easily ranks in the top five of all parks, and the views are unparalleled. Combine that with the team going on a fantastic run right now, and PNC Park should be visited by as many people as possible. As an addendum to this post, the games immediately following this game were even more dramatic than the one I saw. The Pirates are well on their way to a playoff spot, the fans will come out! As long as the workers and ushers continue their courteousness, this could be a memorable season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in the history of PNC Park. Again, a special thanks to Meghan at the Hall of Fame club. To everyone else, thank you so much for reading the blog. See you at the ballpark!