Monday, August 6, 2007

Pittsburgh Road Trip

Though it's less than a three hour drive away from stately Shyster Manor, I had never been to PNC Park before. On Saturday I figured it was high time to remedy that, so my friend, co-Shyster, and occasional pinch-hitter Mark went to go see the Redlegs play the Pirates. Reds-Pirates is not exactly a thrilling match-up, but Mark's a Cincy fan, and even bad baseball is better than most things, so why the heck not?

Before I get to the game, allow me to make two observations:

1) If you're around six feet tall, pack about two bills on your frame, and want to maximize happiness while minimizing lethargy, please be advised that Columbus to Pittsburgh has now officially been pegged as a six-beer drive; and

2) There are worse places to dine before a ballgame than the Eat 'n Park in Kirwin Heights, Pennsylvania.

Anyway, the game.

PNC Park was rated number one by the folks a couple of years ago. And it is a nice park, with some good things going for it. As so many people have said, it has a nice view of the Pittsburgh skyline. It's cozy, clean, friendly, and easily accessible.

All of that said, I think the park is wildly overrated. Mark and I bought some scalped seats five rows up and just past the bag on the third base line, which gave us an amazing view, and should have made for an amazing game-going experience no matter how bad the performance of the teams before us. But it wasn't. Most folks laud the smaller size of the place, but the cozy confines translated into crappy legroom and too-close quarters, which was a problem I've never experienced in any of the newer parks. I expect it at Fenway, but a place as new as PNC has no excuse.

More broadly speaking, I think the smaller scale of PNC works against it in that, in many ways, it feels like an overgrown minor league park more than it feels like any major league stadium I've been to. Theoretically this could work -- intimacy is nice and the minors have their charms -- but when the quality of the team on the field is barely above AAA to begin with, as is the case with the Pirates these days, the quaintness gets overwhelmed by the feeling that you're paying major league prices to watch a minor league product. Call me crazy, but while the Cardinals or the Cubs or someone could pull this off, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds need the polished sheen and that electric, mildly-corporate hum of an unmistakably major league stadium to convince you that what you're watching is, in fact, major league baseball.

Final verdict on the stadium: Among the places I've been I'll rank it higher than Great American Ballpark, Miller, and all of the decommissioned cookie cutter places where I spent too much time in the 70s and 80s. Current places I prefer to PNC: AT&T, Camden Yards, Jacobs Field, Dodger Stadium, Angels Stadium, Wrigley, Petco, and Kauffman. Tiger Stadium remains the toppermost of the poppermost among the living and the dead.

The game? Eh, the less said the better. It was Matt Morris' first start following the head-scratcher of a trade that brought him to Pittsburgh. He gave up five runs (four earned) through six and a third, drew the game's first blood with a homer of his own in the third inning, and left the game with a tip of his cap to a standing ovation. They're really hungry in Pittsburgh.

The Reds got way more than they ever could have expected from Bobby Livingston who, despite going on three days rest, gave them a little over five innings of quality starting pitching only to see the bullpen cough up a three-run lead and eventually vulture an ugly win in extra innings.

There were a couple of highlights. Mike Stanton got out of a jam in the seventh inning on a double play and gave a hilarious, pathetic yet somehow majestic leg kick as the ball hit the first baseman's mitt to complete the twin killing. It was not unlike something you'd see from a fat guy picking up the seven pin to complete the spare during Thursday league night.

Moreover, watching Mark, a devoted Cincinnati fan, predict the exact time and nature of every Reds miscue and failure a moment or two before it actually happened was something to behold. He called Edwin Encarnacion's defensive miscues (ruled hits by a homer official scorer) as the ball came off the bat. He predicted Todd Coffey's gopher ball before the bullpen door was closed. There is far less rooting than there is resignation for your average Reds fan these days, and it was simultaneously exciting and depressing to witness.

Because it was a sloppy game on a humid night and because we had a nearly three hour drive home facing us, we left in the bottom of the seventh with the Pirates ahead, only to miss the Reds tie it up, lose the lead again, and then tie it up again in the ninth. We listened to the bottom of the ninth and the tenth innings on the radio heading out of town, somehow picking up the Reds broadcast on WLW from Cincinnati, and utterly convinced that the Pirates and the Reds deserved to be battling for last place in the NL Central.

Note: A couple of weeks ago, I threw some moderate praise Jeff Brantley's way, opining that, as a radio broadcaster, he was much better than an ESPN talking head. Based on his call of Saturday's tenth inning, however, I need to take some of that back. When Adam Dunn came to plate and made contact on a 1-2 pitch, Mark and I, based on Brantley's somnambulistic call, assumed he popped out meekly to shallow center. It was only after the crowd noise subsided and, presumably, Dunn had made it all the way around the bases, that Brantley noted for his radio audience that the ball was, in fact, hit over the fence. There's a place for mellow, and a place for laid back, but Brantley's performance was freakin' malpractice.

And thus the night endeth. Because I have toddlers, every morning has a 6:30 wake up call, so the drive home was powered by McDonald's coffee instead of Budweiser. My head hit the pillow back home a bit after 1AM, happy to have gone to even a bad baseball game, but even more happy that my rooting interest is easier to watch than the Reds and Pirates.

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