PNC Park Tour

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.

It’s not.

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.

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Home Plate Gate at PNC Park

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.

View of home plate from LF corner

View of home plate from LF corner

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.

View of Downtown Pittsburgh from LF corner

View of Downtown Pittsburgh from LF corner

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.

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Panorama from press box

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.

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Lounge area of Pittsburgh Baseball Club down 3B line

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.

The grandstand at PNC Park

Suites in the mezzanine, press box up top

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.

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Legacy Square with rotunda in background

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.)

Batting cage adjacent to Pirates' clubhouse. Turf shown comes from Three Rivers Stadium

Batting cage adjacent to Pirates’ clubhouse. Turf shown comes from Three Rivers Stadium

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.

Pirates dugout

Pirates dugout

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.

41 thoughts on “PNC Park Tour

  1. Such a beautiful ballpark! PNC could also act as a model for Cisco Field downtown in that its only has two decks. If the field at Cisco/Diridon is depressed like the Coliseum, then the entire surrounding structure/grandstands won’t have to be to tall or menacing. Great photos again RM. It’s photos like these that provide me with hope of a beautiful yard in Downtown San Jose.

  2. never been to pnc park or pit in general but just looking at the park thru videos and pics it’s been by far my #1 park in any top parks list in mlb or heck sporting venue in all the country.

    simple and it’s a baseball park, there are no bells and whistles that you may see from other baseball parks. the backdrop you get is fantastic but put the park out in the middle of nowhere and it’s still imo the best looking park in sports.

    do agree that the two deck approach looks similar to what the initial plan for cisco field were when those first images were released back almost 3 years ago, damn has it been that long?

  3. Thanks ML, really good job. I always have liked PNC ballpark, right up there with AT&T, I also beleive that the Rangers ballpark is a little under rated. The only good thing about being the last team, or next to last (Tampa Bay), is we have all the trial and error of everyone that has gone before us. Hopefuly we take all those experiences, and come up with the best ballpark in MLB, wheater it’s at Dirdon, or HT, or anywhere in the Bay Area, please oh baseball gods please.

  4. Nice tour, very interesting commentary. Makes me want to walk that bridge and take in a game.

    In response to the “garish orange” dig, I’ll forego my usual retorts about Charlie Finley and “Fort Knox Gold” and instead simply point out that the color of the seats doesn’t much matter when they’re full. (And with a new A’s stadium, perhaps they will be.)

  5. Has it ever been discussed why the Coliseum used orange seats in the 80s & 90s? Carbon grey seats would be fitting for the White Sox or Pirates, however they might not be practical after baking in direct sunlight.

  6. PNC is the best ballpark in baseball. I’m going to have to try to get back there. It would be nice to see it packed for a change.

  7. @xoot
    I have been to AT&T several times, to catch the A’s and Giants I am absolutely, green with envy. What a wonderful ballpark. I always joke with the Giants fans, that in order to see my team in a state of the art new ballpark, I have to cross the Bay Bridge and come to San Francisco to do it. Is interesting how that AT&T I believe, is actually closer to Downtown Oakland then the Coliseum is.

  8. @Brian: The Coliseum had that look when they were phasing out the original green seats in the early 80s. I also think that shotgun seat coloring looks pretty cool and I’d love to see it employeed at the A’s next ballpark.

  9. Nice review of PNC ML. I’ve yet to get there for a game or tour, but what I have seen of it does lead me to believe it’s one of the best parks on the game up there with Fenway, Wrigley, Petco Park and yes even the Giants hated venue.

  10. “If I’m going to pick one, it’d be PNC”. No surprise there, considering this site has seen much anti-SF commentary through the years.

    • @Reality Check – Yet another case of bias accusations instead of a debate the substance. Whatever hater.

  11. The appalling BALCO park. That’s why the A’s need the move to San Jose, or – if staying in Oakland, using the Coliseum City plan – no bayside copy of the gnats-park!

  12. Which ballpark is the “best” will always come down to personal opinion. That said, their ownership and the snobbish SF attitude aside, AT&T Park is right up there in the terms of the “best.” I haven’t been to any of the ballparks outside of the Bay Area, but based on photos and write ups, my personal favorite is Target Field; I love the design/architecture and it just seems to fit perfectly in downtown Minneapolis. Target Field is what I’d hope Cisco Field would strive to be. My other favorites include Petco Park as well as AT&T, PNC and Camden Yards.

  13. RM,
    Might seem like an odd observation, but PNC seems to have the feel of a AAA ballpark on steroids; with its two decks and sense of intimacy. I also say this because (again based on photos and write ups) my favorite minor league ballparks are Coca Cola Field in Buffalo, Auto Zone Ballpark in Memphis and TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha (although not a true minor league facility).

  14. @Tony D. Man I totaly forgot about Target feild, I have not been there, but it sure looks nice, I sure hope we get the chance to talk about our new ballpark one day.

  15. Great overview ML- i have only been on the outside of the park- beautiful setting– heading out on biz next week for several months and will be able to see Wrigley, Fenway, Camden, Kauffman and hopefully PNC. The right field of Camden with the old warehouse brick building reminds me a bit of the proposed Cisco Field colonnade in terms of scale. Amazing to think that the Rays might have a new ballpark before our A’s- I really really really can’t wait until bs retires-

  16. the rf design actually reminded me a bit of the warehouse at petco park down the lf line.

  17. My favorite parks are Camden Yards, PNC, Target Field, and New Yankee Stadium in that order.

  18. To be fair to the Giants, there was no way in hell they were going to install orange seats at the Phone Booth – the seats at Candlestick were orange as well, and the Giants went out of their way to make their new stadium the Un-Candlestick as much as humanly possible.

    I’m thinking that a MLB Family tour may be coming up. I’ve always had a deep and abiding hatred for everything Pittsburgh, but I must admit I’m intrigued by PNC.

  19. There could be some anti-Yankee bias here – because their $1.5 bil. ballpark isn’t on the list. One would think that the $1.5 bil. Yankee stadium would be a better venue than PNC Park ($250 mil. cost, I believe)

    • @duffer – I haven’t been to either of the new NY ballparks yet so I haven’t rendered an opinion on those. That should change in a month.

  20. It’s amazing, having been to so many of these parks now… I have yet to go to PNC, but on the West Coast I think you could have an honest debate about Safeco v. ATT v. Petco. There are great, unique things about all of them.

  21. duffer, I don’t think it’s anti-Yankee bias. By all accounts their new stadium is not that great. Its seats are distant from the field for a modern ballpark, particularly compared to the old Yankee Stadium. The first deck is divided by the largest moat in MLB which is a huge design flaw. The outfield seats are approximately 30-40% obstructed view thanks to the batters eye restaurant. The right field porch has been getting criticism for being too close to home since the place opened. I could go on but you get the idea. Yankee Stadium III isn’t terrible, but it’s not one of the best of the new generation either on any list I’ve seen including my own personal list.

  22. quick OT — sometime today mlb will file its motion to dismiss San Jose’s lawsuit. (The hearing on the motion won’t be until Oct. 4.)

  23. @Jeffrey regarding the Safeco vs. AT&T vs. PETCO

    That’s a tough one. They all have have great qualities. If the criteria is “which of these ballparks would I like the A’s to play in,” my choice would be PETCO by inches. PETCO’s upper deck hugs the field a bit closer than AT&T.

  24. I’ve been to Target Field. It looks great in pics, it’s got a lot of pluses, but once inside the seating bowl it’s so vertical on all sides it we felt hemmed in. If not for stadium signage we could have been in Anytown, USA. Probably the best they could do with a very crowded site. Of the 3 of us on our trip who have been to 20-25 of the current ones, none of us placed it on our personal Top 10. Maybe after a return visit it will grow on me (like Petco has.)

    PNC Park, on the other hand, was a Top 5 no-brainer for all of us (and everyone I’ve ever met who’s been there.) Few parks showcase the game and the city as well as PNC does.

  25. In person:
    1. Dodger 2. Camden 3. Fenway 4. AT&T 5. Angel 6. Oakland 7. Comerica 8. New Yankee 9. Petco

    From pictures:
    Best 5:1. PNC 2. Wrigley 3. Target 4. Coors 5. Kauffman
    Worst 5:1.Skydome 2. Tropicana 3. Chase 4. Nationals 5. Minute Maid

  26. Great write-up, ML. I’ve always thought of PNC Park as the best ballpark in major leagues; I mean, I might be a sucker for city skyline views, but how could anyone NOT love the view of downtown Pittsburgh looming beyond the outfield fence? It’s great that park is finally getting the winning team it deserves with the Pirates playing well. I hope the A’s use PNC as a model to follow with their new ballpark, wherever it may be.

    OT – The tarps for the Raiders are up at the Coliseum for the Friday’s preseason game against Cowboys. Nothing fancy, just black with a huge Raider logo as expected…

  27. RE: Raiders’ tarps on Mt. Davis:

    The universe sure knows how to twist that knife.

  28. The reason why Yankee stadium is in my top 5 is because on the two occasions I had really good seats behind home plate, and it was the company that I was with at the time I went to the games. My criteria for going to new ballparks are as follows: Did I enjoy myself, the stadium beer, friendly fans, stadium sightlines, bars/restaurants/parking near the stadium. Next year I plan on going to both NYC stadiums and check out the bleacher sections. Maybe my perspective of Yankee stadium will change.

    For anyone who gets a chance I do recommend PNC and Camden Yards. Camden Yards is still the best ballpark on the east coast.

  29. I agree that it takes more than one visit to fully get the feel of a ballpark. Some ballparks that I liked better after a few games were Fenway, Great American Ball Park, Miller Park and Citi Field…and there are some that I liked less after a few games, like Nationals Park, U.S. Cellular Field, and Yankee Stadium.

    I have always loved PNC Park though, for one reason and one reason alone…the view. I think the gold bridge crossing into downtown is absolutely the best possible backdrop for a ballpark. I love a lot of other things about PNC too, like the closeness of the upper level and the Forbes Field color seats, but that view just makes it.

    Is it the best? Well, Camden, Wrigley, Fenway and PNC are my top four, but I can never figure out the order! (Haven’t been to AT&T yet.)

  30. Camden is great too, but I hate how there is no view of the field from the concourse. The concourse opens to the outside. Beautiful park otherwise.
    I’d rank them like:
    PNC, AT&T, Wrigley, Camden, Fenway,
    Petco, Miller, Commerica,
    Dodger Std, Busch, Citizens Bank, Minute Maid,
    Ballpark at Arlington, Kauffman, Jacobs, Bank One,
    Great American, Nationals, New Comiskey,
    Angels, Skydome

    Still looking for Safeco, Coors, Target, NYs, Marlins and Turner Field.
    Holding off on Oakland and TB, until they get their new stadiums sorted out.

  31. I think the whole open-concourse thing is the most overrated ballpark criterion. First, if you’re waiting in line, you’ll have people walking between you and the game, so you can’t really watch the game anyway. Second, you’ll almost certainly have a terrible overhang to deal with. Third, usually it’s only the lower concourse that’s open anyway, and fourth, why aren’t you in your seat watching the game?

    I look at seat proximity to the field, lack of obstructions (which the new stadiums with their railings and weird stairways are actually pretty deficient in), view to the outside, ease of access, and exterior architectural flourishes as the structural components of a good stadium. Food, fans, and presentation are the intangible components. Open concourses aren’t even on my radar.

    • I 100% agree with that Brian…seeing the game from the concourse to me is not worth the upper level being 20 feet higher, especially since I am often priced out of the lower seats these days.

  32. It has little to do with the height of the upper deck. Its more of a question of where you want the restrooms and concessions. You can have the upper deck over hang in such a way that allows line of sight from the concourse to the pitcher/batter.

    I think Camden was done to open up the ballpark to the outside, looks great from the outside, but I prefer to have the concourse more connected to the game.

  33. I’ve thought about doing a post about the whole open-vs.-closed concourse concept. Maybe I’ll get to it over the weekend.

  34. I think it comes down to what you’re into when you go to the game. If you’re a blue collar fan who is there to pull for your team, I don’t think you would care too much about the open concourse…you’d prefer that the upper level seats where you’re likely sitting are closer to the action.

    On the other hand, if you just love the experience of the ballgame and you like to grab a good sandwich and a beer and walk around the ballpark and enjoy the visual, then you might prefer the open concourse and you probably don’t care where your seat is.

    Neither is right or wrong, but I think it does make a difference. Miller Park, Nationals Park and the new Yankee Stadium are particularly bad with seats being high up…the cheapest seats are ridiculously high. At least the Brewers don’t charge that much for those seats, but still.

  35. Height of the upper deck in a lot of those cases are more a product of press boxes and luxury suite presence.

  36. On another note as a fan, who has to line up to get food, sometimes taking over half an inning. If there aren’t a lot of LCD screens everywhere, I really like the concourse open to the field so I can still see/feel the action. I hate having to go back to my seat and ask, “what did i miss”, “who did what”.

  37. Hey nice post. I hope it’s alright that I shared it on my FB, if not, no
    problem just let me know and I’ll delete it. Regardless keep up the good work.

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