Sunday, August 9, 2009

Pittsburgh, PNC, and Pujols

There isn't much to be said for a Red Sox team that's alternating between shaky and complete free fall. This week, my dad and I celebrated my birthday a little early (it's supposed to be at the end of September) by taking a trip to Pittsburgh. Yes, I said Pittsburgh. I told dad I wanted to see a game with him in a park I hadn't visited yet. High on the list of MLB venues I've wanted to see was PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the gorgeous home of the woeful Bucs.

Before you make fun of Pittsburgh, I have to ask: have you been there in the past 10 years? It's a remarkably beautiful and fun city. The architecture is more varied and interesting than most eastern cities. With the steel industry long gone, the air is clean and downtown is vibrant and very walkable. We stayed at the Omni William Penn, which is the city's best, most opulent grande dame hotel. I visited Pittsburgh a couple years back for work, and not only did I enjoy my time at Carnegie Mellon (one of the best schools you'll find anywhere), but I was blown away by the city, and vowed to return. There are vistas from iconic spots like the Mt. Washington neighborhood, where you get a commanding view that can't be described.

We visited the Carnegie Museum of Art, across the street from the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning.

Friday night, we walked across the Roberto Clemente Bridge to PNC. Many ballparks now have statues of the local patron saint out front somewhere. Fenway has Ted Williams, PacBell/AT&T has Willie Mays, Detroit has Ty Cobb, and Turner Field has Hammerin' Hank and Phil Neikro. Well, in Pittsburgh, it's the great Roberto Clemente.

PNC is a sort of knockoff of Camden Yards in Baltimore in some ways. You enter through the centerfield gate, a la Eutaw Street. The first view of the field is flat out beautiful.

Unlike Baltimore, where you're in the shadow of a big brick warehouse, at PNC you're walking down a concourse that parallels the Allegheny River. Given the atmospherics of the ballpark, though, it feels a little like McCovey Cove in San Francisco. Camden Yards has Boog's BBQ, and PNC has a BBQ grill named after their old catcher Manny Sanguillen. Dad described the park itself as being "the anti-Fenway". He's not wrong. In Fenway, everything is hunched forward, crowded toward the field. At PNC, it feels open and expansive, looking outward, as if you're encouraged to recline.

It's a good thing the ballpark is so beautiful, since the team is pitiful. They were playing the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards boast one of the better starters in the league in Chris Carpenter, who started Friday night. They also have the best all around player in the game in Albert Pujols. Sir Albert is being protected in the lineup by Matt Holliday, who's the hottest hitter on the planet right now. Just to make the Pirates feel good, Carpenter spotted them a 4-2 lead before St. Louis eased past and won 6-4. The game was never in doubt. There was even a highlight for Red Sox fans. The great Julio Lugo led off the game with a clean single for St. Louis, then fell asleep at first base and was picked off.

Dad and I had seats just 10 rows from the right field line. Those tickets cost (Red Sox fans please stop reading here) $26 apiece. The memorable moment of the game happened about 30-40 feet away from us in the bottom of the 7th inning. A fan in the first row down the right field line reached over the railing to snag a foul ball hit near him, and flipped over onto his neck/head. The first person to reach him was Albert Pujols. What ensued was a 15-20 minute delay to tend to the fan who, people were afraid, may have just been very seriously and perhaps even catastrophically injured. Trainers from both teams, doctors, security personnel and, I read later, even Pirates front office staff, appeared at the man's side to assist. Through that entire time, Pujols never left the man's side. He held the man's hand, spoke to him, soothed him, and when the fan/patient had his head and neck braced and was loaded onto the stretcher, Pujols was still right there. He took the time to comfort the man's son, who was riding on the cart to the ambulance that would take the man to the hospital. Remember, we were in Pittsburgh, not St. Louis. In spite of that, Pujols was right there the whole time while all other players kept their distance, as they normally would.

During the game, Albert had a very quiet 3-5 with a run scored. He's a legitimate triple crown threat again and is a certain first ballot Hall of Famer whenever he decides he's had enough of tormenting National League pitching. This past Friday night I saw what Allbert Pujols is really made of. For that reason alone I'm glad we made the trip to Pittsburgh.

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