Before I begin, I feel I need to make something clear.
There is no such thing as a perfect ballpark.
Our very perception of a ballpark is framed in terms of quirks, imperfections, and uniqueness. We can go on and on talking about how the experience at one was wonderful or breathtaking, and in a particular moment with the right weather or a great team, it may well seem perfect.
As we know from merely watching the game, one game is a ridiculously small sample size. If I had the time and money, I’d spend at least one homestand at every park just so that I can get the feel for it. The nooks and crannies, the neighborhood outside, day and night games, weekdays and weekends. One game provides a pretty small subset of those variables. Knowing that makes me reticent to judge a ballpark based on one game.
This is why I like to take ballpark and stadium tours. They allow for the opportunity to strip away much of the game fervor (or lack thereof), which can boost or mar an experience without the observer realizing it. I can take in much of the trivial minutiae from the tour guides while filtering out the occasional rah-rah bombast. My mind can turn towards the technical matters, the details that often get lost during a game.
When I took a business trip to Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, I had just missed the A’s visit to PNC Park. As a result I couldn’t take in a game with the Pirates on the road. I did have a lunchtime slot for a 90-minute tour before an appointment, so I drove over to the North Shore for a visit. I had seen a game there in 2001, the park’s inaugural year. At the time the place had only been open for a few weeks, and I was eager to see this shiny, new, yet undoubtedly retro ballpark. I was so eager back then that I had mistakenly locked the keys to my rental car in the car. After a blissful afternoon in the right field bleachers, the Allegheny River rolling behind me, I spent a highly stressful hour trying to get the keys out, and then upon giving up, calling the rental car company to report that I was abandoning the car. I hailed a cab for the airport and hadn’t been back until this most recent trip.
Trying to block out the car crisis, what I remember about PNC Park was that it was the friendliest park I had been to, more than even Wrigley. When I took my seat in RF, the usher directed my down to the seat, took a towel, and brushed it off. I would’ve given him a tip except that I was shocked I didn’t know how to react other than to give a polite thank you.
The seats and steelwork at PNC Park are deep blue, a nod to the Pirates’ ancestral home, Forbes Field. One of the first concrete-and-steel ballparks, Forbes only grew in stature as the Pirates moved into cavernous Three Rivers Stadium. Baseball at Three Rivers was the archetypical cookie-cutter experience: Astroturf, bad seating angles, and a fully encompassing upper deck that killed views. Despite a decent amount of success on the field, the team frequently struggled at the gate, leading many to wonder if the market could fully support the team in the long run.
The Pirates were saved when legislation was passed to build two separate, new stadia for the baseball club and the Steelers. PNC Park opened first in the spring of 2001, Heinz Field followed in the fall. Three Rivers is now a parking lot serving the two stadia. Both are reachable by one of the many bridges that cross the Allegheny River. You could park along the North Shore for a game, but you’d be best served parking downtown and taking in the approach to the ballpark by walking across the Roberto Clemente Bridge. You’ll end up in centerfield, where you can walk along the river or check out the bars and restaurants along Federal Street.
12 years after my first visit, PNC has maintained its handsomeness. The tan limestone facade still looks lovely. Walk in the main gate behind home plate or at third base/left field and you’re greeted a sweeping, octagonal rotunda. For years teams have struggled to figure out how to integrate vertical circulation, and HOK managed to make it a feature at PNC. The rotunda in LF also acts a nice standing room vantage point for a game, regardless of level.
The third base gate is also called Legacy Square and is worth a visit because of the numerous tributes to great Negro League players like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and one-time Athletic James “Cool Papa” Bell. Pittsburgh was once home to two great Negro League teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. A team store stands alongside. The outfield concourse is at street level, while the main lower concourse is up a level. Take the rotunda ramp, you’ll enjoy it.
Walk along the main grandstand and you’ll notice that there are no obstructions. There’s no press box behind the plate and no suites or other stands that could block the view. All of the suites are set in their own mezzanine level, and the press box is way up at the top of the upper deck, a situation that many a media wonk have groused about over the years. Despite their complaints, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the best layout in the majors. It’s the simplest, the cleanest, and most importantly, the shortest of the new ballparks. There are two club seating levels, but only one true club concourse. The tallest row is only 88 feet above the field.
PNC Park is also the only “two-deck” ballpark of the last 25 years, though the term is somewhat deceiving. The front part of the upper deck is the exclusive Pittsburgh Baseball Club seating area, taking up the first 10 rows. The back 20+ rows are the true upper level and have a separate, regular concourse. The advantage of this layout is the aforementioned vertical space conservation. However, because of the limited cantilever (13-14 rows or 40 feet), the upper deck is somewhat swept back instead of on top of the action. The park was built before the advent of the split deck-single concourse layout, so there are no views of the action from the upper concourse. PBC has views from patio areas carved out where seating sections would normally be. The roof is simple and more ornamental than practical.
Sure, the press got the short shrift when PNC Park was built. Most press levels are only around 50 above the field and 130-140 feet behind home plate, making for an enviable, cozy view of everything. Recently teams such as the Angels have started to move the writing media to not-so-optimal locations. As more teams look for additional premium spaces to sell within their parks, expect this trend to continue. It’s a reflection of a much larger trend in the NFL, where the media is often relegated to a corner while the space usually reserved at midfield is offered up as a handful of ultra-premium suites. The 2011 renderings of Cisco Field indicated that the PNC or Nationals Park examples would be followed, with the press level(s) up top.
Because of its 2001 opening date and its scenic waterfront locale, PNC often gets compared to AT&T Park, which stands to reason. Both are highly rated HOK products. Both have the water along the right field wall. Both have 68-69 luxury suites and about 6,000 club seats. That’s where the similarities end.
In Pittsburgh, a decision was made to have the facade run right up to the sidewalk at home plate, with the home plate rotunda immediately inside. A small plaza at the corner has a Honus Wagner statue. That’s a very different approach from San Francisco, where the expansive Willie Mays Plaza greets fans before funneling them through the gates and onto ramps or escalators. Personally, I like the PNC Park approach more because it feels more complete. The vertical circulation elements at AT&T are little more than an afterthought, serviceable but ugly, a byproduct of the limited footprint. (Yes, I said something at China Basin was ugly.)
The color scheme at PNC is also better. I had misgivings about the dark blue seats fading over time, but that hasn’t happened at all about halfway through their useful life. The green seats at AT&T are copycat and not true to the team’s colors, though the Giants can be forgiven for not using a garish orange for their seats.
That brings me to the biggest advantage of PNC. Essentially, there are zero compromised seats. Notice that didn’t say “bad” seats, as that term often gets tossed around with little regard for what it means. What I mean is that every seat has a great view of the entire playing field. As you’d expect, there are no obstructed view seats – and every seat in the main bowl has a great view of the Pittsburgh skyline. The comparison is more fundamental than that. At PNC the left field corner is turned at a 45-degree angle, which ensures that fans there will be able to see all of the field. Compare that to the LF corner upper deck at AT&T, which has a great view of home plate but is practically blind to most of the outfield. Again, this was probably decision made because of limited space (and the desire to cram in as many seats as possible). In the end it’s an inelegant solution, one that HOK/Populous did not repeat anywhere else since. Thank goodness for that.
AT&T Park originally cost $100 million more than PNC Park to construct despite having only 2,000 more seats. Where did the money go? Two separate club levels, for starters. There’s a lot more finished space at AT&T, more concrete, and the foundation was more expensive due to seismic concerns.
AT&T has its own advantages over PNC. It’s 100 feet closer to the water down the right field line. AT&T’s outfield design is much more iconic and interesting and the beer selections there are slightly better. AT&T also didn’t set the “moat” trend of separating the field club seats from the regular field level seats as PNC Park. (In PNC’s defense, at least the moat is accessible.) That said, AT&T Park is less intimate, not as good looking, is more blatantly commercial, and the main seating bowl arrangement is way too much like Minute Maid Park’s (or most other HOK designs) for me to call it unique or interesting. Neither park has an aggressive cantilever many baseball purists desire.
Both Pirates fans and Giants fans can easily make the case that their ballpark is the best among the new regime. They are. If I’m going to pick one, it’d be PNC for the reasons described above. There’s no shame in using PNC as the model for a new A’s ballpark in Oakland. It’s a standard bearer, even if it’s not perfect.