The Grand Tour, part three

Earlier installments of this series can be found here and here.

The weather wasn’t breaking up as we left Cincinnati. The rains held off, but clouds were legion, arrayed rank upon rank upon rank, stretching to the horizon and below. They slid past each other, all crossing at different speeds, as we drove.

It occurred to me that we might be traveling east at the speed of the weather front. There are cheerier thoughts after a night like the one we had just had.

The farm country of Ohio is just that, farm country. Not much ranching; few cows or horses. Our primary diversion was a deep store of baseball music Paul had brought along. He is a seriously eclectic music fan: this was his department.

Not long after crossing the border into Pennsylvania, baseball arrived on another front. We passed by Consol Energy Field, where the Washington Wild Things just happened to be playing a Saturday matinee. It was the seventh inning, the home team down 3-2. No action to see, just the fielders in their places … and then it was gone, hidden by the stands, falling into the distance.

What is there to say? It made my heart sing; it made everything groovy.

Our base in Pittsburgh was a Wyndham hotel that had until very recently been a Holiday Inn. Old signs were covered with canvases sporting the Wyndham name. The less said of parking there, the better, but we couldn’t beat the location. It was right on the edge of the University of Pittsburgh, and that put us in easy walking distance of some baseball relics. Or grave markers, if you still mourn the place.

An epitaph to history.

It’s a historical irony that Forbes Field opened in the middle of baseball season, and closed in the middle of baseball season. Construction began after the 1908 campaign, and the park was ready for a June 30, 1909 game against the defending league champion Cubs. (Can you imagine a construction that fast today?) Someone had a sense of history, because the last games at Forbes Field were also against the Cubs, a doubleheader sweep by the Pirates. After a long road trip and the All-Star break, Three Rivers Stadium was ready for them.

And then Forbes Field was torn down. Almost all of it.

Set back from Roberto Clemente Drive, running through what had been the outfield, a piece of the brick fence still remains. Some of the bricks are growing worn, less with time than from the slow erosion of hands touching them: higher bricks are all in fine condition. The paint on the fence posts is a dark, aged green, perhaps recently retouched. The distance markers are definitely being maintained, the white of “457 FT” at the left-center corner a brilliant white.

The wall at dead center still bears some of the ivy first planted there when the original wood fence was replaced in 1946. I thought at one point that Forbes had the ivy before Wrigley, but even with the Wrigley ivy debuting deep into the 1930s, it’s not so. Much of it was bare vines on that gray April afternoon, but here and there leaves were sprouting forth. It must be beautiful in the summer sun.

Beyond the bricks, inside a tall chain-link fence, is Mazeroski Field. Just a little diamond, with a couple kids and adults getting in some practice while we were there.

It’s not the only tribute to Bill Mazeroskiin the area. There’s a plaque commemorating his Series-winning home run by the sidewalk on Clemente Drive, portraying Maz in mid-career around the bases. It and the inscription nearby are wearing down faster than the bricks: it took some effort to read everything.

I’m not gonna reach that fly ball. Yogi didn’t have much of a chance, either.

Nearby, there’s a plaque honoring Barney Dreyfuss, the Pirates owner for the first third of the 20th century, without whom Forbes Field wouldn’t have existed. A line of bricks embedded in the sidewalk marks where the rest of the outfield wall had once stretched. Then there’s Posvar Hall, part of the university. Walk far enough down its hallways, and you will find a glassed-in home plate, the last one at Forbes Field, located right where it had originally anchored the diamond.

At least, that’s the story. Rumor is that the actual location is now inside a women’s restroom, which we did see nearby. Further rumor is that the original plate was stolen, and some other home plate substituted. Hard fact is that the “glass,” probably Lucite, covering home is scratched and starting to fog up. Glare from an overhead light onto a marked-up plate also contributes to making photography unrewarding.

It was a disappointing end to our pursuit of the relics of Forbes Field. If you’re ever in Pittsburgh, you’re advised to begin and end out of doors.

May I Have Your Autograph, Please?
The payoff of being polite.

Game 3: Saturday, April 20, 2013
Atlanta Braves at Pittsburgh Pirates
PNC Park, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Attendance: 29,313 (not announced at game)

The third ballpark for this statue. The Dutchman is still flying.

Paul wanted to go into the yard early, hoping for a chance to snag a batting practice ball. I had lent him a book written by legendary ball-hawk Zack Hample that included advice on getting major league baseballs, and he wanted to try out the ideas. Never mind that neither of us brought gloves on the trip. (I knew I’d be taking notes much of the time.) I had my own plans, to circumnavigate, not West Virginia this time, but PNC Park.

PNC has four baseball statues. Outside the home plate gate is Honus Wagner, his likeness transplanted from Forbes to Three Rivers to here. By the left-field pole is Willie Stargell; in left-center is Roberto Clemente. I walked along the gray Allegheny River beyond center and right, taking a few shots, and past the right-field corner met a familiar face and pose. Bill Mazeroski again, arms thrown wide in mid-stride around the bases, ignoring the little kids climbing his leg or looking up at his crotch.

But weren’t these placements wrong? Shouldn’t Clemente have been in right field? Shouldn’t Maz have his place in left-center, where his home run carried over Yogi Berra‘s head? But of course, I had just been to where Mazeroski’s home run really went out, two stadiums ago. Guess I won’t be doing a ballpark’s feng shui any time soon.

The entryways to PNC have escalators up to the main concourse level, with dark, exposed girders painted. It felt like being in a mass transit hub, like Penn Station. Given the blue-collar identity of the Steel City, it’s a fitting aesthetic.

The concourse goes foul pole to foul pole like Great American. It’s narrower than in Cincinnati, and I experienced a little bottle-necking, but a more open architecture toward the outside makes it feel more roomy. The seats are a dark blue, blending well with the entryways.

Paul was absent from our seats, though his stuff was in place. There had been no batting practice, so he was just exploring. I took my seat, halfway down to first base, looked around me, and had a revelation.

The Pittsburgh skyline, and right field leaning over your shoulder. Smaller may really be better.

PNC is a small ballpark, capacity under 40,000, but there is small and then there is intimate. PNC Park is intimate. The stands jog inward a fair distance from the foul poles, with the result that, from my seat nearly 300 feet away, right field felt close enough to reach out and touch. It was the luck of good seat placement, maybe, but that was a moment of pure marvel and joy. A couple of Yankee Stadiums have inspired my awe, but this was something even better.

I’m going to spoil the ending: PNC Park is the best baseball park I have ever visited. Perhaps if I could walk the Great Hall and the museum at new Yankee Stadium (as I didn’t have the time to do my one visit there), I would change my mind. For today, Pittsburgh wears the crown. And thanks to an improving team, the crowds are finally arriving to appreciate it. (I hope, I pray, I didn’t just jinx them. I’ve been known to do that.)

Comparing wieners: vendor hot dog ($3.25)
When a roving vendor walks by in the section just below me, sporting that price, I take the opportunity. We had eaten a good lunch on the road, so I didn’t need any monster franks that night. It came out warm and juicy from the steaming box, though it lost that pretty fast in the cool air. It lacked the character of my previous dogs, but for the price and the state of my stomach, it worked just fine.

The Pirates finally figured out a way to get us some loot. (Or should that be booty?) Forget failed doughnut giveaways and free pizzas we had to leave behind. This was Andrew McCutchen Bobblehead Night, and we arrived way too early for them to run out. Even the mascot, the Pirate Parrot, was in on the promotion. He was sporting dreadlocks that evening, and his jersey read “McClucken.”

Do parrots cluck? Should they have hired the San Diego Chicken instead for that joke? Can I stop asking ludicrous questions? No, no, and yes.

For the second night in a row, a children’s chorus performed the national anthem. That has to be much easier to arrange when it isn’t a school night.

Eventually, there was baseball. Pirates starter James McDonald inaugurated proceedings by striking out the entire Atlanta outfield, Upton, Heyward and Upton.. He managed to repeat this in the second, except for the outfield exclusivity. And except for the hit batter, long fly off Starling Marte‘s glove that was charitably ruled a double, and two walks that pushed Evan Gattis across the plate for a 1-0 Braves lead.

Paul Maholm was doing better. After a leadoff plunking of Marte, he had induced a double play, then set down the following seven Bucs. He had a no-hitter through three, and I knew better than to make any mention of it. Even if it wasn’t raining.

Well, it was a tiny bit. Just the slightest sprinkle, but it maintained the pattern. We’d had a bit of rain at McCormick Field, we’d gotten nicely drenched after the Weird Al concert, and you already know about Cincinnati. This was not a consistency I enjoyed. Neither was the cold: a little better than Cincy, but my feet were still chunks of ice by evening’s end.

Something I did enjoy was a display on the strip screens that I’ve never seen before at a ballpark: they were giving the horizontal and vertical break for individual pitches. PITCHf/x analytics hits the big time! Great to see a ballpark giving data like these to the fans in real time, even if I do wonder whether it could be information overload. Well, you don’t have to read the boards. You can always just watch the game.

Our neighbor behind us was a pleasant addition to the evening. We first got acquainted as Paul and I intervened to help him explain to a friend what on earth had happened in the Jean Segura play the previous night. Paul encapsulated it pretty well from the rulebook’s own words. Running from second to first will get you called out if you’re making a travesty of the game, or trying to confuse the defense. If you’re the one who’s confused, it’s A-okay.

The out-of-town scoreboard provided some added entertainment. Cleveland had rolled up 14 runs in the first two innings against, of course, Houston. The Astros actually closed to within 15-6 by the third, but Cleveland returned the margin to double figures with a three-run bomb by Jason Giambi. An even bigger surprise than the score was that Jason Giambi is still playing. I thought he’d become manager of the Rockies or something.

The Indians tacked on one in the fifth, and I gleefully predicted to my neighbor the imminent breaking of the scoreboard: it’s only configured to count up to 19 runs. So naturally, that was the last run scored in their game. Boooo!

Meanwhile, in the game we paid to watch, Dan Uggla left with a calf strain in the fourth. His successor at second was Ramiro Pena, such an anonymous replacement-level cog that I’m surprised he’s not starting for the Yankees. Oh, right: Cano.

McCutchen showed off his bobblehead-worthiness with a two-out double to dead center that broke up Maholm’s no-hitter after 3.2 innings. He then swiped third—with two outs!—on a pitch in the dirt that didn’t even permit a throw. Gaby Sanchez flied deep to center, in emulation of the honoree, but this one was caught to end the fourth.

The tension slowly ratcheted up. B.J. Upton drove one deep to left in the fifth, but Marte caught it head-high at the wall. In the bottom half, Russell Martin (starting at third that night) walked, and Neil Walker dropped a beautiful bunt down the first-base line, just beating it out. (Our third bunt hit in three games.) Maholm answered by striking out the next three men. Punch and counter-punch.

They pulled a variation of the T-shirt bazooka in mid-game, loading their guns with tightly wrapped hot dogs instead. Even well wrapped, that’s something you probably want to catch on the fly.

A silver slugger in his hands; a gold glove at his feet. Trying to tell us something, Andrew?

Pittsburgh would try again in the sixth. Marte walked, and took second on Tabata’s bunt-and-run. Up came Cutch again, seeking to add an “L” to his nickname. Hammering a pitch off the facade below the right-field seats for his second double and a tied game was a useful step in this direction.

His timing was off, though. Few will remember your game-tying shot when it’s followed up by a go-ahead bomb into the topiary in the batter’s eye. (They have some bushes trimmed to read “PIRATES.”) Gaby Sanchez hit that crusher, and it was 3-1 Pirates.

I have to mention the vendors again here. They had been coming at a good moderate pace, not overlapping badly as in Cincinnati. During this rally, though, one of them especially was leading cheers, even giving out high-fives after Sanchez’s artillery shot. Maybe this is peculiar to Pittsburgh. Maybe it’s just the one man. It’s not something I’ve seen much before. Not saying it’s bad, just saying it’s odd.

Atlanta’s reply was a mere ducksnort off the glove of a backing Sanchez, again charitably ruled a hit, a two-out single that went nowhere. Pittsburgh maintained the pressure with Michael McKenry‘s leadoff double down the line in left. McKenry’s pinch-runner would take third on a wild pitch to a bunting Clint Barmes—and then Barmes would fan on a pitch nearly as far outside. Pedro Alvarez, six for 52 on the season, got an intentional pass, to my shock. And it worked: Marte bounced into a 5-4-3 to end the seventh.

Justin Upton opened the Atlanta eighth by serving a single into right, but three grounders smothered the threat. Jordan Walden pitched for Atlanta in the bottom half, and he was a peculiar sight. He takes an odd hop off the rubber as he delivers his pitches. Maybe it’s meant to throw off batters’ timing. It certainly threw off one spectator who ended up writing about it.

Still 3-1 going into the ninth, Bucs closer Jason Grilli took the mound to bookend the game. By that I mean, remember how McDonald struck out the side to start the game? Grilli brought a reminder. He got them all swinging, including the golden sombrero for Juan Francisco. Big cheers in the stands; celebratory fireworks past center field. Our first home win of the tour!

It wasn’t a classic game—merely above average—but it had a great setting and some very good company, I was freezing a little less at the end, and I got a bobblehead. Our tour was on an upswing, with two more games to play.

Tomorrow: Queen Elizabeth comes to the ballpark, and no, it’s not The Naked Gun.

Future installments of this series will/can be found here and here.

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A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Glad you enjoyed your visit. I’ve wondered the same thing about the Clemente and Maz statues.

Your hot dog may have been decent, but you likely missed an opportunity to visit with Manny Sanguillen at his BBQ joint behind center field. I know a pulled-pork-and-pierogi sammich doesn’t SOUND all that good, but ….

Paul G.
Paul G.
Actually, a pulled-pork-and-pierogi sammich sounds delicious.  Mmm.  Pierogi.  And now for some of my random notes from this leg before I go eat something. The two guys behind us were a lot of fun.  One of them asked us to describe the exploits of wrong-way Segura, which we all agreed was more or less indescribable and required witnessing the event to do it proper justice.  Fortunately the iPhone revealed all.  Also, they did not have fond memories of Mr. Maholm’s tenure in Pittsburgh and were less than pleased that he did not melt down immediately, as I presume he was… Read more »

Could I possibly buy that mccutchen bobblehead?