Over the years I've watched major leaguers in action at 60 ballparks: 39 regular season, 21 spring training. Fenway Park, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, will always be emotionally No. 1 for me: I grew up there. But the best big league ballyard in America is Pittsburgh's PNC Park.
Why? Ballparks should work for fans, so good sight lines, proximity to the action, and even the width of concourses are important. Ballparks should also work for players, which means checking out sun fields at different times and examining the guts of a ballpark: locker rooms, batting cages, videotape and X-ray rooms, etc.
Why do fans love PNC? Let me count the ways:
The field itself, like many others built during the past 20 years, has outfield walls of different heights and foul poles at different lengths from home plate. That's a vast improvement over the perfectly symmetrical and boring modernist stadia of the 1960s, but PNC is more than postmodernist plucking from thin air: For example, the 21-foot-high right field fence commemorates the career of Pittsburgh's greatest right fielder, Roberto Clemente, who wore number 21.
The park works even for fans without stuffed wallets. A two-deck design-most new ballparks with big-bucks suite levels have more decks-leaves the highest seat only 88 feet from the field. I called the park's designer, David Greusel (see "All-star architecture"), and asked about the intentionality of this kindness to average fans: "Absolutely ... and the city views get better as you get higher up in the stadium."
Seattle's Safeco Field has Puget Sound views, and Denver's Coors Field in Denver offers a Rocky Mountain high, but the city views PNC offers are even more dynamic, with smaller buildings leading to skyscrapers. The standard ballpark lighting configuration would have partially blocked the views, but Greusel moved two light towers to the sides.
The PNC outfield fences and bleachers nearly parallel elements of Pittsburgh just beyond the walls. The Roberto Clemente Bridge forms a strong diagonal that extends from the left field bleachers. The center field mirrors a big stone piling on which one of the towers on the suspension bridge stands. The line of the right field stands nearly matches the line of a wall on the far side of the river.
Why do players like PNC? Among the reasons:
Players complain about cramped facilities at Fenway, but PNC under the stands has cavernous clubhouses, a videotape room, doctor and X-ray facilities, and a media interview room with an optimistic 84 seats that will be full only if the Pirates make it to post-season play for the first time since 1992.
The conventional field orientation has the foul line from home plate to third base heading straight north. The goal is to make sure that the first baseman will never be blinded by the sun as he gets throws from the other infielders, but that can leave right fielders (as at Fenway Park) staring into the sun at fly balls. At PNC, the line from home to first base goes straight south, which makes left field the only potential sun field-but my press pass allowed me to check out left field at several times, and only 6 p.m. might be tough. Games almost never are going at 6 p.m.
The distances to the outfield walls are just right to give neither pitchers nor hitters the edge. Center field at 399 feet is close enough that long straightaway shots will become home runs, but the right and left field power alleys at 375 and 389 feet are far enough back to prevent PNC from becoming a homer-happy haven. Greusel said, "We worked through the outfield dimensions in excruciating detail to make them fair."
Greusel mentioned several aesthetic aspects he had to fight for. Pirates management expected the ballpark to be red brick, like Baltimore's Camden yards and many others, but Greusel wanted to tie PNC to Pittsburgh's limestone civil buildings. He wanted a ballpark on an urban grid, rather than plopped down in a sea of parking lot asphalt, and he wanted the steel components to be dark blue, in a tribute to Pittsburgh's old Forbes Field, rather than Pittsburgh bridge yellow.
Happily, Greusel won those battles.
Greusel also designed Houston's Minute Maid Park, which is good but not great-because even a great architect cannot control the weather. Minute Maid fits well with its urban environment, highlighted by old Union Station. It has nice touches: a 30-degree upside slope in centerfield, a left field metal scoreboard against which balls clang, and a replica of a 19th century locomotive that runs for 800 feet along the left field wall when an Astro hits a home run. But Houston's muggy climate made a roof essential, and baseball should not be an inside game. The roof does retract, but ushers said it stays in place for the whole game through most of the season, rain or shine.