Thursday, June 9, 2011

How to Be a Met Fan In Pittsburgh - 2011 Edition

For the moment, I take a step back from Yankeedom and my hatred of the Red Sox, and do another of these roadtrip pieces. Unlike the recent Yankee trip to the West Coast, this one is actually doable by car. In fact, I'd recommend it that way.

The Mets wrap up a series in Milwaukee tonight and then head to Pittsburgh. Once upon a time – actually, twice, in 1973 and 1990 – this matchup mattered. These days, well, Mets ownership would love to have the Pirates’ financial stability, and Pirate fans would love it if their team had as much talent as the Mets.

Before You Go. Pittsburgh is at roughly the same latitude as New York City, so roughly the same weather can be expected. But, this weekend, “rough” is relative: Mid-80s in daylight, mid-60s at night, but thunderstorms are being predicted for both Friday and Saturday. Keeping hydrated won’t be critical, but you might want to bring an umbrella.

Getting There. I'm not going to kid you here: There’s only one way to do so, and that’s by car. You do not want to fly, because you’ll end up spending over a thousand bucks, and the airport is out in Imperial, Pennsylvania, near Coraopolis and Aliquippa - it’s almost as close to West Virginia and Ohio as it is to downtown.

You do not want to take the train, because the Amtrak schedule just doesn’t work. You do not want to take the bus, because the Greyhound schedule isn’t much better. The only sensible way is by car – especially if there’s more than one of you going and you can take turns drving.

It’s 373 miles from Times Square in Manhattan to downtown Pittsburgh, and 383 miles from Citi Field to PNC Park. (Yes, the naming rights to both are owned by banks. PNC’s service is so bad people say the letters stand for “People Never Count.”) This is far enough that, if you need to see all 3 games in a weekend series, and you have a standard Monday-to-Friday job, you’ll have to take Friday and Monday off. Better to skip the Friday night game, and leave early on Saturday morning (say, 8:00) so you can get there in time to get to a hotel and see the Saturday night game and leave right after the Sunday afternoon game and get home around midnight Sunday-into-Monday.

If you are driving, you’ll need to get on the New Jersey Turnpike. Take it to Exit 14, to Interstate 78. Follow I-78 west all the way through New Jersey, to Phillipsburg, and across the Delaware River into Easton, Pennsylvania. Continue west on I-78 until reaching Harrisburg. There, you will merge onto I-81. Take Exit 52 to U.S. Route 11, which will soon take you onto I-76. This is the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the nation’s first superhighway, opening in 1940.

You’ll be on it for another 3 hours – Pennsylvania is huge compared to a lot of Northeastern States. The political consultant James Carville, who got Bob Casey Sr., father of current U.S. Senator Bob Casey Jr., elected Governor in 1986, says, “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in the middle.” He wasn’t kidding: Between Philly and Pitt, it is very, very rural, hence the nickname “Pennsyltucky.” It certainly explains the State’s love of football: The Philadelphia Eagles, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Penn State and high school ball.

You’ll take the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Exit 57, the signs showing I-376 and U.S. 22 – the same Route 22 you might know from New Jersey, which I-78 was designed to replace – and the sign will say “Pittsburgh.” Check the photo:

There will be several exits on I-376, the Penn-Lincoln Parkway, into the city of Pittsburgh. Most likely, if your hotel (which I hope you’ve reserved before you left) is downtown, you’ll take Exit 71B, “Second Avenue.”

From anywhere in New York City, allow 6½ hours for the actual driving, though from North Jersey you might need “only” 6. I recommend at least 2 rest stops, preferably after crossing over into Pennsylvania around Easton, and probably around either Harrisburg or Breezewood. So the whole thing, assuming nothing goes wrong, will probably take about 8 hours.

If you’re willing to go against my advice, and deal with the headaches of the train and bus schedules, Pittsburgh’s Union Station (the locals usually call it Penn Station) is at 1100 Liberty Avenue, at 11th and Grant Streets, while the Greyhound station, newly renovated (the temporary one, which I had to use in 2007, please, don’t ask), is right across Liberty, at 55 11th Street.

With a long history, architectural diversity and a dramatic skyline with lots of skyscrapers, Pittsburgh looks like a much bigger city than it actually is. While the metropolitan area is home to 2.4 million people, the city proper has only 30600, having lost over half its population since the nearby steel mills, coal mines, and other factories closed starting in the 1970s.

The reduction of blue-collar jobs led people to take comfort in their sports teams, especially in the 1970s. The Pirates or the Steelers made the Playoffs every year in that decade, both did so in 4 years, and the University of Pittsburgh (or just "Pitt," though they don't like that nickname there) had an undefeated National Championship season in 1976. The Pirates won 2 World Series in the decade, the Steelers 4 Super Bowls, and 1979 was an annus mirabilis, in which the "Steel Curtain" won Super Bowl XIII in January, the "Bucs" (or "Buccos," or "Lumber Company," or "Family") won the World Series in October, and the Steelers then went on to win Super Bowl XIV the following January, with the Pirates' Willie Stargell and the Steelers' Terry Bradshaw being named Co-Sportsmen of the Year by Sports Illustrated and the city government advertising itself as the City of Champions.

While the loss of industry did mean a sharp, long-term decline, the financial and computer industries opened new doors, and Pittsburgh is very much a now and tomorrow city. And they love their sports, having won 14 World Championships in 19 trips to their sports’ finals -- and that doesn't count the 9 National Championships won by Pitt football, the Negro League Pennants won by the Homestead Grays (10) and the Pittsburgh Crawfords (4), or the 1968 ABA Championship won by the Pittsburgh Pipers.

Tickets. No problem. No problem at all. Despite having moved from Three Rivers, an artificially-turfed concrete doughnut, to a beautiful new ballpark with a view of Pittsburgh’s very sharp downtown skyline – maybe the best view any ballpark has – the Pirates do not draw well, mainly because they haven’t had a winning season, let alone made the Playoffs, since George Bush was President. I’m talking about the father, not the son. The team is currently averaging 20,242 per home game, an increase of about 300 per game over last season despite being a bit better on the field this year.

Their last winning season and Playoff berth was in 1992, when they won the National League Eastern Division before moving to the NL Central in 1994. They are one of 7 teams that have not won their current Division. Two of those, Florida and Colorado, have reached the World Series more recently than the Pirates, via the Wild Card route. So has Detroit, which won titles in their former Division. Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Washington (then in Montreal) have waited longer to reach the postseason. The Pirates’ last Pennant and World Series win was in the Carter Administration, in 1979, led by “Pops” Stargell and “The Family.” Of the teams that have actually won Pennants, only the Chicago Cubs have now waited longer to win another; of the teams that have actually won World Series, only the Cubs and the Cleveland Indians have longer droughts. (The Giants had a longer one, but they won the Series last season, so they’re off that hook.)

As a result of what is now a generation of ineptitude, you can walk up to the ticket window at PNC Park and buy pretty much any seat you can afford. The Pirates, even with a seating capacity of just 38,496, aren’t going to sell out. In fact, considering there’s less than 400 miles between New York and Pittsburgh, Met fans could “take over the ballpark.” The Pirates are also a cheap date compared to most teams: Even the Infield Box seats, Sections 109 to 124, will set you back only $32.

PNC Park is not a multipurpose facility, it’s a baseball-specific stadium. Every seat has sufficient width, legroom and alignment to view a game in comfort. Behind you will be concession stands that are plentiful and varied, restrooms that are clean and not beset by noxious fumes, and no 2-inning-long lines at either. In front of you are informative and attractive scoreboards and a nice, natural-grass field, instead of the hideous pale-green carpet at Three Rivers, one of the most foul-looking rugs in sports (even in fair territory). I don’t know how the Pirates and Steelers, between them, won 6 World Championships on the stuff: How could they look at that turf and not get sick?

Going In. From most of downtown, PNC Park is within a mile’s walk, crossing the 6th Street Bridge, now the Roberto Clemente Bridge, over the Allegheny River, shortly before it joins with the Monongahela River to form the Ohio River – hence the name of the former Pittsburgh sports facility, Three Rivers Stadium. There are local buses (including the Number 14) that go from downtown to the ballpark. Pittsburgh does have a subway, but it doesn’t go to the ballpark, although the Wood Street Station comes within 6 blocks (counting the river as a “block”).

Behind the park’s first-base stands, you’ll see the Fort Duquesne Bridge – reflecting the original French name of the city before the British took it in the French & Indian War of the 1750s, and renamed it Fort Pitt after their Prime Minister, William Pitt the Elder, and before the Americans renamed it Pittsburgh – and beyond that, the new home of the Steelers and Pitt football, Heinz Field. In between Heinz and the bridge is a parking lot where Three Rivers Stadium stood from 1970 to 2000. Roughly between the site of Three Rivers and PNC Park, including the northern end of the Fort Duquesne Bridge, was the site of Exposition Park, where the Pirates played from 1891 to 1909.

Four statues are outside the ballpark. Honus Wagner, the Pirate star of 1900 to 1917, still usually considered the greatest shortstop who ever lived (yes, even ahead of such modern heroes as Cal Ripken and Derek Jeter), originally had a statue outside Forbes Field, and it was moved to Three Rivers and then to PNC Park. Roberto Clemente, legendary right fielder from 1955 until his death in a plane crash in 1972, had a statue dedicated outside Three Rivers, and it, too, was moved to PNC Park. Willie Stargell, the first baseman of 1962 to 1982, had his statue dedicated at Opening Day of PNC Park, April 9, 2001 – but died that very morning from a long-term illness, having thrown out the first ball at the Three Rivers finale the fall before. And a statue of Bill Mazeroski, second baseman of 1956 to 1972, was dedicated in honor of the 50th Anniversary of him doing… something. (Unlike Yankee Fans who are old enough to remember the 1960 World Series, that home run he hit doesn’t bother me much, so I can joke about it.) A monument to former owner Barney Dreyfuss used to sit in center field at Forbes Field, and was moved to the concourse at Three Rivers and then to PNC Park.

Food. Pittsburgh is a city of many ethnicities, and most of them love to eat food that really isn’t good for you: Irish, Italian, Polish, Greek, and African-Americans with Soul Food and Barbecue. (Yes, I did mean to capitalize those last two. They deserve it.) Reflecting this, a “Tastes of Pittsburgh” series of stands is on the main concourse, including Primanti Brothers sandwiches. Meat, cheese, hand-cut French fries, tomatoes and cole slaw. All together between slices of Italian bread.

Like several other ballparks, such as Baltimore with Boog Powell and Philadelphia with Greg Luzinski, the Pirates have one of their retired greats holding court in right field (on “the Riverwalk”) at a barbecue stand named for him, Manny’s BBQ. This is Manny Sanguillen, 1970s catcher. They have Dippin Dots and Rita’s Italian Ice. They have a food court named after their favorite-son fat man, Stargell: Pops’ Plaza. They have another food court called Smorgasburgh, including a steak sandwich stand called Quaker Steak and Lube. Another bonus of PNC Park is that they let you bring your own food in – but why would you, with all those choices available?

Team History Displays. Aside from the statues outside the park, the Pirates have displays honoring their titles. They’ve won 9 National League Pennants, in 1901, 1902, 1903, 1909, 1925, 1927, 1960, 1971 and 1979. They’ve won 5 World Series, in 1909, 1925, 1960, 1971 and 1979.

They do not have a team Hall of Fame, but they do have a display honoring their 9 retired numbers. Wagner played before numbers were worn, but as a coach he wore Number 33. The other statue honorees have also had their numbers retired: Mazeroski 9, Clemente 21 and Stargell 8. (In honor of Clemente’s number, the wall in right field, his former position, is 21 feet high, a sort of mini-“Green Monster.”) Harold “Pie” Traynor, third baseman 1920 to 1934, Number 20; Paul Waner, right field 1926 to 1940, Number 11 (his brother, fellow Hall-of-Famer Lloyd Waner, a center fielder, has not been honored with the retirement of his Number 10); Billy Meyer, manager 1948 to 1952, Number 1; Ralph Kiner, left fielder 1946 to 1953 and Met broadcaster since 1962, Number 4; Danny Murtaugh, manager on and off between 1957 and 1976, Number 40. Jackie Robinson’s Number 42, honored throughout baseball, is also displayed. And, as mentioned, the Barney Dreyfuss Monument survives and rests on the concourse.

This season, the Pirates are wearing a memorial patch on their right sleeves: A black Number 7 inside a gold star (reminiscent of the Stargell Stars) for Chuck Tanner, manager of the 1979 “Family,” who died last year. They should retire his number.

Stuff. There are plenty of pirate-themed novelty items, including hats, bandanas, eye patches and foam swords. The late-1970s retro caps, resembling 19th Century caps, are also sold, although not with the “Stargell Stars” that Pops put on them in the “Family” years.

There is, as yet, no World Series highlight film collection focusing on the Pirates (1909 and 1925 were before they had official films, but they could have packaged 1960, 1971 and 1979), and there's no Essential Games of the Pittsburgh Pirates/Three Rivers Stadium DVD collection. They do have the recovered TV broadcast of Game 7 of the '60 Series as part of MLB Networks' Baseball's Greatest Games series, and a DVD collection focusing on the '79 Series (1 disc for each game plus 1 with extras).

During the Game. If you were a Cleveland Browns fan, or (a little less so) a Cincinnati Bengals fan, or (a further bit less so) a Baltimore Ravens fan going into Heinz Field to face the Steelers, you might be in a bit of trouble. If you were a Philadelphia Flyers fan going into the Consol Energy Center to face the Penguins, you might face some anger. (Then again, pretty much everybody hates the Flyers.) But as a Met fan going into PNC Park, you’ll be fine. You can wear your Met gear at PNC without fear of drunken bums physically hassling you.

While the Pirates spoiled the Mets' home openers at both the Polo Grounds in 1962 and Shea Stadium in 1964, and the two teams went down to the wire in the NL East races of 1973 (Mets beat 'em out by 2½ games) and 1990 (Pirates won by 4 games), neither team has ever considered the other its greatest rival. Met fans have had far more contentious relationships with the Braves and Cubs, and both teams with the Phillies and Reds.

(Since the Cleveland Indians are in the American League, Pittsburgh doesn’t have an NBA team and Cleveland doesn’t have an NHL team, the Steelers-Browns dynamic doesn’t cross over into any other sports, the way Yankees-Red Sox becomes Jets-Patriots or Knicks-Celtics or Rangers-Bruins – or Mets-Phillies becomes Giants-Eagles or Rangers-Flyers. And, being put a separate Conference, let alone Division, and being mostly terrible since coming into existence, Ohio’s NHL team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, doesn’t generate much heat from Penguin fans. Even Penn State-Ohio State isn’t that big a rivalry. Pitt-Penn State is another story, as is Pitt-West Virginia, “the Backyard Brawl.”)

And since the Mets and Bucs (or Buccos, both short for Buccaneers) have been in different divisions since 1994, and there’s been no serious chance of a postseason meeting in all that time, the only thing Pirate fans are going to get upset about is if you start a “Let’s Go Mets!” chant in their yard. But they’re not going to hurt you.

Just don’t say anything bad about the Steelers, or Mario Lemieux, and you should be fine. And, for God’s sake (not to mention that of its inventor, the late Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope), do NOT mock or deface The Terrible Towel, that great symbol of Steelerdom. You might not see any at a Pirates game (though you may here a stray chant of "Here we go, Steelers, here we go!" -- it's been known to happen at Pirates, Penguins and Pitt football games), but they take that particular item very seriously, even pointing out that other NFL teams have lost after mocking it, leading to the phrase “The Curse of the Terrible Towel.”

The Pirates have a mascot, the Pirate Parrot. But, due to one of the predecessor suit-wearers having been involved in the Pittsburgh drug trials of the mid-1980s, it is understandable that they tend not to celebrate the character as much as the Phillies celebrate their Phanatic, or the Orioles their Bird, or even the Red Sox their Wally the Green Monster.

The Mets haven’t run an Airplane Race on their video board for years, but, just as the Yankees have The Great City Subway Race, the Milwaukee Brewers the Sausage Race, and the Washington Nationals the Racing Presidents, the Pirates have a between-innings feature called the Great Pierogi Race. The characters are Cheese Chester, Sauerkraut Saul, Oliver Onion and Jalapeno Hannah (who is not the only female character in any of the “ballpark races” -- the mascots race each other in Cincinnati, and sometimes Rosie Red wins). There was once a Potato Pete, but they traded him for Oliver Onion (and possibly for a flavor to be named later). As with “Teddy Roosevelt” in Washington, there was a joke that Sauerkraut Saul never won, but this (literally) running gag has been dropped.

The Pirates will play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch, but they do not seem to have an additional song, the way the Mets do with “Lazy Mary,” the Orioles with “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” and others. While there are several music legends native to the Pittsburgh area – Perry Como, Bobby Vinton, Lou Christie, the Dell-Vikings, the Vogues – there doesn’t seem to be a particular song that the special-effects people choose, although Christie’s “Lightning Strikes” could be appropriate, and "Blue Moon," a song often reworked by English soccer fans (sometimes obscenely so), was done in doo-wop fashion by the Pittsburgh group the Marcels in 1961.

After the Game. There are attractions near PNC Park, but most of these are museums, such as the one dedicated to native Pittsburgher Andy Warhol. (The next bridge over from the Clemente is the Andy Warhol Bridge. As far as I know, Warhol never painted a portrait of Clemente or was interested in baseball.)

South of downtown, across the Monongahela River on the South Shore – or, they say in Pittsburghese, the Sou’side – is Station Square, an indoor and outdoor shopping, dining and entertainment complex. This is a popular gathering place, although as New Yorkers you’ll be hopelessly outnumbered. You might be better off returning to your hotel and getting a bite or a drink there. When I first visited Pittsburgh in 2000 (I saw the Pirates hit 4 homers at Three Rivers but lose to the Cards thanks to a steroid-aided mammoth blast by Mark McGwire), there was a restaurant with a Pittsburgh Sports Hall of Fame at Station Square, but as far as I can tell it is no longer there.

I searched the Internet, but could not find any bars in the Pittsburgh area that cater to New Yorkers. Usually, I can at least find something that welcomes Giant or Jet fans on their gamedays, but I guess the Steelers are so ingrained in Western Pennsylvania culture that establishing an outpost for “foreign fans” is anathema to them. (Anathema? Didn’t Rocky Graziano knock him out in Buffalo? No, wait, that what Quinella.)

Sidelights. If you have time, check out these places:

* Senator John Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman Street at 12th Street, a couple of minutes’ walk from Union/Penn Station and Greyhound. It includes the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, open daily from 10 AM to 5 PM. (Senator Heinz, of the condiment-making family, was the first husband of Teresa Heinz Kerry, who nearly became First Lady in 2004.)

* Forbes Quadrangle, intersection of Forbes Avenue and Bouquet Street. This set of buildings, part of the University of Pittsburgh campus, was the site of Forbes Field, home of the Pirates from 1909 to 1970 and the Steelers from 1933 to 1963. Included on the site is the last standing remnant of Forbes Field, part of the outfield wall, with ivy still growing on it. (Wrigley Field in Chicago wasn’t the only one.) Where the wall stops, you’ll see a little brick path, and eventually you’ll come to a plaque that shows where the ball hit by Bill Mazeroski crossed over the fence to win the 1960 World Series. Home plate has been preserved, in Posvar Hall, although it’s not quite in its original location. An urban legend says that, if it was, it would now be in a ladies’ restroom. This isn’t quite the case, but it’s still at roughly the same place.

If you’ve ever seen the picture of Mazeroski in mid-swing, you’ll recognize the Carnegie Museum & Library in the background, and it is still there as well. If you’ve ever seen a picture of a Gothic-looking tower over the third-base stands, that’s the Cathedral of Learning, the centerpiece of UP (or “Pitt”), and it’s still there as well. A portion of the wall, including the 406-foot marker that can be seen with the Mazeroski ball going over it, was moved to Three Rivers and now to PNC Park. Pick up the Number 71 bus at 5th Avenue at Ross Street, and it will take you down 5th Avenue to Oakland Avenue. From there, it’s a 2-minute walk to the Quadrangle. Look for Wesley W. Posvar Hall.

* Petersen Events Center, at Terrace Street and Sutherland Drive. The home arena for Pitt basketball, it was built on the site of Pitt Stadium, where they played their football games from 1925 to 1999, and where the Steelers played part-time starting in 1958 and full-time starting in 1964 until 1969. Part-time from 1970 to 1999, and full-time in 2000, Pitt shared Three Rivers with the Steelers, and they’ve shared Heinz Field since 2001. Pitt Stadium was home to such legends as Jock Sutherland, Marshall “Biggie” Goldberg, Mike Ditka and Tony Dorsett. If you’re a Giants fan, this is where they played the Steelers on September 20, 1964, and Y.A. Tittle got clobbered by John Baker, resulting in that famous picture of him kneeling, with blood streaming down his bald head, providing a symbolic end to the Giants’ glory days of Frank Gifford, Sam Huff and quarterbacks Charlie Conerly and Tittle. The Petersen Center is a 5-minute walk from Forbes Quadrangle.

* Civic Arena, between Bedford Avenue, Crawford Street, Centre Avenue and Washington Place. The official mailing address is 66 Mario Lemieux Place. Built in 1961 for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, it had a retractable roof before additional seating made retraction impossible. It opened in 1961, and hosted the American Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Hornets from then until 1967, and then the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins until 2010. With the Penguins moving to a new arena, it is no longer the oldest arena in the NHL – believe it or not, the building we once called “the New Madison Square Garden Center” is. Nicknamed the Igloo, this building was officially known as the Mellon Arena from 1999 to 2010, when the naming rights expired, and it is officially the Civic Arena again. The Pittsburgh Pipers, later renamed the Condors, played there, and won the first ABA Championship in 1968, led by Brooklyn native Connie Hawkins. The Beatles played here on September 14, 1964. Elvis Presley played here on June 25 & 26, 1973 and December 31, 1976.

The building’s fate is undecided, due to attempts to have it declared a National Historic Landmark as yet undetermined. One rumor is that it will be destroyed in a controlled detonation for the next Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.

* Consol Energy Center, 1001 5th Avenue. By a weird twist of events, it officially opened the day I first posted this, August 18, 2010, for a concert by former Beatle Paul McCartney. It will seat 18,087 for Penguins and other hockey games, including the 2013 NCAA Championships (a.k.a. the Frozen Four); and 19,000 for basketball, for college tournaments and, in the unlikely event the NBA returns to Pittsburgh, the pros. The Pens moved in last October, and, with this new arena in place, are more secure in Pittsburgh than, perhaps, they have ever been. At least 3 times, they almost moved, the last being the most dire: If the new arena had not been approved, they would have moved to Kansas City, which has a new arena.


Pittsburgh is a terrific city that loves its sports, and PNC Park one of the best of the new ballparks. This weekend, the Friday and Saturday night games are scheduled for 7:05, and the Sunday game for 1:35.

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