Like many baseball fans, I was disillusioned after the 1994 strike. My soon-to-be wife and I were living in Toronto at the time, and we focused the next few years on establishing our careers. I wasn’t traveling for work much then and didn’t really have the desire to spend my vacation time hitting ballparks.
I didn’t give up on baseball entirely, though football got more of my attention. Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s streak was nice. Watching Ken Griffey and Barry Bonds in their primes was a treat. The McGwire-Sosa 1998 home run derby sparked my interest. And the 1999 All-Star Game in Fenway with the all-century team and the Ted Williams tribute was fantastic.
But what really rekindled by interest was a road trip that my wife and I decided to take on a long weekend in the summer of 2002.
She was a few months pregnant with our daughter (our first born) and wasn’t feeling 100%, so we eliminated excursions centered around eating and (obviously) drinking. And because this was last minute, plane tickets were out of the question, meaning we needed to be driving distance from our Toronto home. We hemmed and hawed and almost decided not to bother, but on Thursday night, I decided to look at the MLB schedule and came up with a plan where we’d tour around the Great Lakes and hit a Pittsburgh Pirates game at their relatively new park, see a few area museums, hit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and catch a Tigers game in Detroit before heading home. No drive would be longer than 5 hours. To my shock, she said yes.
We managed to leave a little earlier on Friday than anticipated and arrived at our Pittsburgh hotel around 6pm without plans for that night (the Pirates game was booked for Saturday). What I didn’t realize was that the hotel we booked was literally right across the river from PNC Park. We parked, checked in, and I looked out my window and saw this beautiful ballpark filling up on a beautiful night. I asked her if she would like to catch a few innings seeing as how we were “right here”. Again, to my shock, she agreed.
Now this was only year two in PNC Park’s existence. While there were rave reviews, the overwhelming love hadn’t yet poured in for this gem. And because this trip was so last minute, I hardly had a chance to do the research I would normally do.
We left our hotel and started walking across the Roberto Clemente bridge. It was love at first sight. This beautiful 2-deck stadium beckoned you from downtown Pittsburgh. That bridge walk is maybe the best 883-foot walk in America.
We then got to our seats and it got better. The surprisingly gorgeous Pittsburgh skyline seemed to be in the stadium.
By the 6th inning, we got a little hungry and asked an usher for a good local dish. The guy learned that we were from out of town, liked our story, spoke with a guy behind the counter, and we ended up with an on-the-house Primanti Bros sandwich. I was in baseball heaven and my love affair for the great game was rekindled.
Re-energized by this trip, the next season that I decided to hit the rest of the parks that I hadn’t yet visited and have been going to games around the country ever since. Less than 4 years after that trip, our son was born, and I passed the love of the game along to him.
When people ask me, “You’ve been to them all. What’s the best stadium?” That’s different than, “What’s your favorite?” The best stadium in baseball is PNC Park.
Exterior aesthetics 10/10; Interior & Concourse Aesthetics 9/10; Sightlines & seating 9/10; Amenities & entertainment 7/10; Flow 5/5; Celebrating history 4/5; Scoreboards 3/5; Grand entrance 5/5; Sense of place 10/10; WOW Factor 30/30. Total 92 points divided by 2 for 46
Ballpark aficionados have said many great things about PNC Park. So will I.
- It’s simply the most stunning view in baseball including McCovey cove. No skyline is better framed than Pittsburgh’s. Because the field is sunk, the view from all infield seats, even the lower bowl, is amazing. I would be content sitting here on a warm summer’s night, drinking a beer without a baseball game.
- It’s a beautiful, simple, nearly perfect design: two decks and a small suite level, no distractions or kitschy add-ons, a gorgeous batter’s eye, and a wide open outfield with very few seats allowing the city to come in
- The limestone exterior is a nice change from the red brick and works well in its surroundings. The dark blue steel and seats reflects the riverside location. This color scheme carries over to the concourses as well.
- Because it’s only a two-decker, you never get too high at PNC, thus creating a more intimate feeling
- The Pittsburgh Baseball Club mezzanine seats feature three main lounges with fabulous collections of historical pictures, retro jerseys, and other memorabilia. Tickets here get you access to Club 3000 which honors all players who have reached 3000 hits. Amenities include billiards and arcade games. And maybe the best view in baseball.
- The leftfield outfield seats are right in the action. With a low fence, the first few rows are closer to the field than some bullpens.
- The lower deck concourse allows for views of the field. It’s not a 360-degree concourse. The outfield concourse is lower, but that then affords better river views.
- There are several tables and ledges that allow you to enjoy your food with some civility before heading to your seat
- While the park is not choc-a-block full of extra features due to its limited footprint size, there are a couple of restaurants and gathering spots: the Jim Beam lounge in left and the Bowtie Bar in right
- The kids’ area improved greatly with a virtual reality Home Run Derby and a Speed Pitch Experience that uses Diamond Kinetics to judge speed and accuracy
- The main scoreboard is small by modern standards. And it was starting to show wear. An investment in a new board is needed.
- The lower deck has a fairly gentle slope which pushes the upper deck (and even the higher lower deck seats) further from the field. Not higher, but further
- The upper deck seats lack cupholders
But look: complaints about the physical stadium itself is like pointing out the mole on 1987 Cindy Crawford. It’s just a stunningly beautiful facility and as close to a perfect stadium as there is in baseball.
Selection isn’t what it is at other parks, but what they offer tends to be really good. Choices include:
- The Pittsburgh cone (Kielbasa, pierogi, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing, in a waffle cone)
- Tenders Love and Chicken signature chicken sandwich
- A crazy savory-sweet totchos dish
- Manny’s BBQ – home to the Pulled Pork Pierogi Stacker often staffed by former Pirate Manny Sanguillen himself
- Chickie & Pete’s crab fries and Mrs. T’s pierogis (both located in Pop’s Plaza in left)
- BRGR burger joint: the Fire in the Hole is their best option and their shakes are also good.
- Local fare from the Smorgasburgh including Rita’s Italian Ice, Pop-A-Dukes’ gyros & salads, and good wings from Quaker Steak and Lube
But the super high score here really comes courtesy of having a Primanti Bros in the ballpark. My personal fave is their cheesesteak, which includes fries, coleslaw and tomato in the sandwich itself, served on fresh Italian bread. It competes with the Lobel steak sandwich in New York and the H&F burger in Atlanta as the best single concession in baseball. In fact, I’m proclaiming it as #1. If you don’t like it, I likely don’t like you. And if you have the best meal in baseball, you score high here.
The Pirates’ beer selection used to be among the best ones. They’ve slipped relative to others not because they’ve changed, but because others have put more emphasis on their craft beer selection. They get a bonus point for getting to the table early.
Local brews abound, and not just craft. Iron City and Yuengling have a strong presence here.
Craft from Troegs, Victory, Penn and Southern Tier (which has a satellite brewery yards from the ballpark) can be found easily. With a little hunting, you can also get stuff from North Country, Rusty Rail, East End Brewing and Yards. I also found a Cigar City Jai Alai, Guinness and Dogfish Head if you want something a little different brewed outside the Keystone State.
Like the food selection, you don’t have the widest bar scene immediately surrounding the stadium, but there are enough good options to make things work. The stretch between the ballpark and the football stadium have a few options ranging like McFadden’s, Jerome Bettis Grille 36, Tequila Cowboy, and the Foundry. There are also a couple of good bars on Federal Street.
You could also pre-game in Pittsburgh’s compact downtown which has a few more options. Starting and parking on the other side of the river also affords you that amazing walk over the Clemente bridge.
The Pirates have been bad more than they’ve been good. Prices reflect that. Great lower bowl seats can still be found for about $50. Concessions and beer prices are slightly below average. Your wallet will be as happy as your eyes.
Despite all the bridges, I find getting into Pittsburgh to normally be a breeze, especially those of us coming in from the North. Parking is plentiful but a tad pricy around the park, but if you go further afoot in the North Shore or cross the bridge into downtown, you can often get a much better deal. The Pittsburgh T stops close to the ballpark. You can even take the Gateway Clipper and get there by paddleboat from Station Square just south of downtown. And if you’re staying downtown or one of the nearby North Shore hotels, it’s an easy walk.
You can go days without seeing your shadow in Pittsburgh. Rain and cold can both be spring issues as well. But summer nights are often nice.
For such a beautiful place, the vibe tends to be muted more years than not. The Pirates have struggled in the free agency era to attract and retain talent and have been an also-ran more years than not, leading many Western Pennsylvania sport fans to speak with their wallets and not come out. Given many of the 81 home games are meaningless, excitement is often low.
Now the fans who DO show up tend to be good baseball fans, but it’s hard to be jazzed even in such a gorgeous place when there’s only 15,000 of you there. This changed a little in the middle of the decade when the Pirates were making playoff runs and the park was, on average, 80% full. But the Pirates have returned to their losing ways, and crowds have thinned out again. Maybe try to go on a weekend or against a popular opponent for a better atmosphere.
Most of the other things that help make the experience are done well. Ushers are nice and pretty chill. Some of the vendors do their jobs with some pizzazz (and the occasional thick Yinzer accent). The Parrot, now that he’s no longer part of a 1980’s cocaine ring, is one of the better baseball mascots
Despite a relatively small scoreboard, the game day operations crew do a really good job. Their player intros and team videos are some of the most creative in baseball. The music isn’t always copycat stadium jams. For instance, they play The Whip by Locksley after home runs and have played Freaks by Timmy Trumpet as the players take the field. And the pirate theme is played just right; it’s used, without it going over-the-top.
The close proximity to the Allegheny means that power-hitting lefties can hit bombs that get wet. There’s something cool about watching a ball clear the entire ballpark, and that’s possible here. I’ve been lucky enough to see it happen a few times and it always creates a great buzz.
I’ve been to games with near full houses and they are way more fun. Alas, the concession areas feel really crowded and lines can then take over an inning. The park is too pretty to be wasting time in line. So if you’re in a near-full PNC, eat BEFORE the game and so you have more time admiring the view.
OTHER FUN THINGS TO DO
Three fun Pittsburgh eateries:
- Primanti Brothers (Strip. If you’d rather get your sandwich pre-game for a buck or two less.)
- Big Jim’s (The Run. A place that looks like it came out of Central Casting for “blue color eatery in a hard scrabble town”. But the food is good, big and cheap. Great Reuben.)
- Butcher and the Rye (Downtown. Upscale place with an unbelievable whiskey list. Currently closed due to COVID, reopening uncertain.)
Three places to imbibe before the game:
- Mike’s Beer Bar (Ballpark. Wonderful tap list and usually busy on game days.)
- Southern Tier Brewery (Ballpark. Good brew pub and some good grub as well.)
- The Foundry Table and Tap (North Shore. Gastropub with great patio between the stadiums.)
One bar in the area worth hitting:
The Urban Tap (South Side. Tons of taps and creative takes on American food classics.)
Three craft breweries in the area worthy of your time:
- Dancing Gnome (Sharpsburgh. Hop-forward brewery with an industrial taproom.)
- East End (Strip. Home of the Big Hop American Ale.)
- Penn Brewing (North Shore. Pittsburgh’s original craft brewery, home to German-style brews.)
Three fun tourist attractions in the area:
- Andy Warhol Museum (North Shore. Take more than 15 minutes to explore it.)
- Kennywood (West Mifflin. Classic amusement park with some great coasters.)
- Duquesne Incline (Mount Washington. Old school funicular that offers fabulous city views.)
There are only three stadiums that make me swoon upon entering. Wrigley Field and Oracle Park are two of them. But no park makes me swoon harder than PNC.
No other park offers this view. No other park built in the last 60 years offers this level of intimacy. And no other park has literally brought me to tears of joy (as this park has done on a warm summer’s fireworks night as I had my arm around my son while nursing the last of a 7th inning beer). This was the park that rekindled my love affair with baseball. It’s the best physical park in baseball and an absolute bucket lister.