Since March of 2014, the Toronto Blue Jays have played the final two games of their Spring Training at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Although I’ve been a die-hard Jays fan all of my life, and live closer to Montreal than to Toronto, I didn’t really consider hitting up the series in 2014, 2015 or 2016.
Lately, though, as I get some travel plans figured out for this season, I’ve had baseball travel on the brain — and that led me to make a late decision to attend the March 31 Blue Jays game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. I had a busy day planned for April 1, which meant that I’d need to drive to Montreal in the afternoon, take in the game, and then drive home immediately afterward — getting in at around 2 a.m. Not an ideal scenario, I know, but baseball is baseball. And March baseball is definitely a welcome sight, even if the forecast was calling for six inches of snow that day.
I didn’t have to twist my brother’s arm too hard to get him to accompany me, so I made plans to meet him in Ottawa shortly before noon and make the two-hour drive together. If you’ve read this blog for some time, you might recall that Phil and I have attended games together a handful of times over the years. The most memorable was two summers ago, when we took his three-year-old son to his first baseball game in Ottawa. Phil has also traveled to Cleveland with me in 2011 and Toronto in 2012.
A few days before the game, we bought a pair of tickets in the front row of the upper deck on the third base side for $24, which is expensive enough for the upper deck, but affordable for the rarity of the occasion. As our trip approached, I found myself getting increasingly pumped to see “The Big O,” which would become my 13th different major league stadium and my 64th different stadium in total. I was exciting to thoroughly evaluate Olympic Stadium. As you probably know, there’s a push in Montreal for MLB baseball to return to the city, and I was interested in seeing what shape the stadium would be in.
When we got to Montreal, our first stop was Schwartz’s, which is arguably the city’s most famous smoked meat deli. It’s the type of place that routinely has people lined up down the street at peak times, but we when arrived a little before 3 p.m., we had no trouble getting a seat at the bar. Schwartz’s is truly an old-school eatery — it’s been around since 1928 and it doesn’t look as though the interior has changed much over the years. It’s got a bar running down the right side of the restaurant and tables are crammed along the left side. It’s the sort of place that you have to turn sideways when walking down the row between the bar and tables.
I’d done some advance research about what to order, and the common recommendation I read online was a smoked meat sandwich, fries, dill pickle and a cherry soda, so that’s what we each ordered. You’ll also see a couple hot banana peppers, because why not?
The entire meal was certainly impressive, but not cheap. With a tip, lunch for the two of us was a couple bucks short of $50, which is a little much for a sandwich lunch. That said, the smoked meat was as good as I’ve ever eaten, so I’d advise checking out Schwartz’s if you’re ever visiting Montreal.
After lunch, we made the short drive over to Olympic Stadium, where we opted to park under the stadium for $20. I find that when I’m visiting a stadium for the first time, even things like the parking are a thrill — it’s fun to anticipate the stadium as you make your way from the parking lot to the gates, and that was definitely my mindset here.
Unfortunately, before we reached the gates, we went through the first of several major disappointments that contributed to making my Olympic Stadium experience a real letdown. I’ll say, for starters, that I don’t have an emotional attachment to Olympic Stadium. I wasn’t an Expos fan growing up and I never visited the Big O prior to this trip. I can understand that Expos fans might be sentimental about visiting this stadium and view it differently than me, but I’m simply reporting my observations as a first-time visitor. And, frankly, I wanted to like it. I wanted to tell you that the Big O seemed ready for an MLB club. That it’d be a prime attraction for baseball fans from Canada and the U.S. But I can’t, because that wouldn’t be true.
The first of those disappointments hit me like a slap in the face as we exited the parking garage. It was a sign telling me not only that backpacks were prohibited, but also that cameras weren’t allowed into the stadium. I wish this were a joke. In all my travels, I’ve never encountered problems taking my backpack into a stadium, and certainly have never come across a no-camera rule. Then again, what kind of madman shows up at a sporting event and wants to snap a few photos?
The rule might seem like no big deal, but for what I do, this was majorly bad news. I carry a DSLR camera, two lenses, and a whole host of GoPro equipment with me to capture the scene at each stadium I visit, and this would be the first time I’d ever step foot in a stadium without at least a camera. Thankfully, I was carrying my iPod with me, which means that all of the photos you’ll see throughout this post are from it.
Even though I was hopping mad, I was able to find the humor in this sign, which told me that I’d be in the clear if I were only wearing a “sac banane:”
Unfortunately, though, my fanny pack was tucked away safely at home in anticipation of my next trip by air.
The walkway from the parking garage to the stadium opened into a large room that was absolutely packed with people, as the gates to the actual stadium hadn’t opened yet. I wanted to take a walk around outside for a bit, so we fought our way through the throng of people and out into the chilly Montreal air.
There’s little doubt that the Big O is the most unique-looking stadium I’ve ever seen, so I needed a shot of myself in front of this
alien spacecraft structure:
I normally like to spend a long time outside each stadium when I visit, but the combination of snow flurries in the air, challenging sightlines for photos and still being supremely miffed about the asinine backpack/camera rule, we wrapped up our outside tour and headed inside — but not before a weird trip through the security queue.
I was surprised to see no metal detectors in use at Olympic Stadium, given that they’re mandatory in the major leagues and many minor league parks use them now, too. Instead, we just walked past a table, where a guard gave people the stink eye and made them stop if he didn’t like of their jib. Fortunately, our jibs must’ve been all right, because we breezed through the “checkpoint,” got our tickets scanned and made a beeline for the seating bowl:
Despite my earlier annoyances, I was glad to be there and anxious to check out the stadium — and its weird yellowish hue that I remember from Expos TV broadcasts. We snapped a quick photo from the above spot …
… before making a plan to head back to the concourse to walk around for a bit. First, though, I had to take this photo to show you the bizarre shape of the seats:
That’s right — just one armrest per person. Although, I must admit that despite their weird shape, they were comfier than expected.
From the concourse, we were able to see part of the old Olympic park from the ’76 games. In the following shot, you can see a bunch of flags and the Olympic rings over on the left side:
(Of course, it would’ve been nice to take the above photo with my DLSR so that I could zoom in a bit. I’d say that I’m not bitter, but I clearly am.)
The walk around the concourse was interesting, let’s just say. Near home plate, the crowds were thick, but the farther away we got, the concourse was completely empty. See what I mean?
This next photo makes it look as though we’d sneaked somewhere off limits, but I can assure you that wasn’t the case:
After we’d walked through the deserted concourse for a bit, we set our course toward the left field seats. My brother had never snagged a ball at a baseball game, so we thought it’d be fun to hang out for a bit of batting practice, despite leaving our gloves in the car because of the no-backpack rule. The Pirates were hitting plenty of balls into the left field seats, but few that were super close to us. I would’ve potentially had a play on one line drive home run had I been wearing my glove, but I wasn’t going to reach out and risk a broken finger. My brother meanwhile, was showcasing a casual approach to baseball snagging with his hands in his pockets:
In about 10 minutes, we’d failed to snag anything, so we decided to continue our tour. When we left the outfield seats, we got a view that you don’t characteristically see at stadiums — we were way behind the outfield seats, but not anywhere off-limits:
Weird and cool, huh?
Next, we rode an escalator up to the upper deck, where we checked out our seats for the game. They offered this view:
Since batting practice was still on, and my brother was still interested in trying for a ball, we elected to visit the right field seats. They weren’t as full as those in left field, and we’d noticed a fair number of balls being hit that way earlier. So, after a quick stop behind home plate to take this panorama …
… we made our way through yet another deserted concourse toward the right field corner. I should note that the game wasn’t sparsely attended. The game had a posted attendance of 43,180 — it’s just that Olympic Stadium has such a unique layout, and it’s so huge, that you can walk stretches of the concourse without running into anyone — or seeing anyone, for that matter. Here’s how the concourse looked in the upper deck on our way to right field:
When we made it to the seats, I estimated that BP was nearly done. My brother quickly headed to a spot along the fence, while I stood in the aisle about half a dozen rows back and, again, just missed a ball that I would’ve tried for had I been wearing a glove. A moment later, I caught my brother waving at a player and then, to my delight, I saw him adjusting his body for an incoming ball. There were plenty of fans around, but he’s 6’2″ and I knew he’d be able to snag whatever was tossed close. Sure enough, he snatched a toss-up from a Pirates pitcher to snag his first ball:
I had to borrow it for a second, of course, to snap this photo — and you’ll notice that it’s an official 2017 Spring Training ball, complete with the Florida logo:
A moment later, my brother was snapping his own photo to share via text with his wife:
Sure enough, BP concluded about three minutes later, but not before my brother checked which player tossed him the ball. The player turned out to be right-handed pitcher Montana DuRapau, who has since been assigned to Double-A Altoona. (I visited Altoona back in 2012, and you can read about that visit here.) I recognized DuRapau’s name from a few years back. I’d seen him pitch in 2014 when when he was a member of the Short-Season A Jamestown Jammers. I was at the Jammers’ last game in history — the team relocated that off-season — and I included a photo of DuRapau in my blog post about that visit.
Before we left the right field seats, I couldn’t help notice how filthy things were. Look how gross the seats were:
I mean, I don’t need to be able to eat off stadium seats, but I also expect some degree of cleanliness. From the lowest levels of the minor leagues up to the major leagues, you’ll always see ushers feverishly wiping down seats with rags, but that obviously hadn’t happened here in a long, long time. It doesn’t exactly send a message of a stadium being ready to host an MLB team, does it?
Shortly before first pitch, we grabbed a pair of seats behind the right field foul pole to watch the pregame festivities. A number of old Montreal Expos were being honored, highlighted by an appearance from recent hall of fame inductee Tim Raines, who was driven around the field in a cart. This is the best picture I could get:
We watched the first inning from the outfield, and then decided to head up to the upper deck to grab some food and take our seats. Sounds simple, right? Well, apparently not.
First of all, the food prices were ridiculous. Plain, run-of-the-mill hot dogs were $6.25. That would make a hot dog at the Big O the most expensive of any park in the big leagues, and nearly $2 higher than the MLB average price of $4.50. There were no price breaks if you bought combination meals, either — a hot dog, fries and a bottled drink would ring up to $16.25, which was the cost of the three items bought separately. A 355 mL can of Corona? A whopping $11.75! There’s no better way to welcome baseball back to Montreal than by gouging fans at the concessions.
I skipped dinner out of principle; I certainly don’t mind paying high prices if the food seems worth it, but the food quality wasn’t exactly enticing. Around the hot dog stands, there was an off-putting smell of old grease in the air. My brother and I grabbed a couple bottled soft drinks as a dinner substitute and headed to the stands — and were quickly barred from entering because we were carrying bottles. You know, the ones we’d just paid $10 for at the concession stand 10 feet away:
Turns out that you can’t take bottles into the seats, but there weren’t any signs to this effect. Another stadium first for me. Normally, if stadiums are worried about fans throwing bottles, concession workers remove the cap when you buy a bottled drink. You’re then free to carry the bottle wherever you want. Or, you can simply get your soda in a cup.
A semi-apologetic guard sent us back out to the concourse and pointed us in the direction of a concession stand from which we could get cups, fill them with our drinks and go to our seats.
Soft drinks in cups = OK.
Soft drinks in bottles = not OK.
We explained our predicament to the concession employee who conveniently forgot how to speak English. And, when we attempt to break it down to him again, he turned his back and walked away. Awesome.
So, we did what anyone should do when confronted with a stupid rule — we broke it. We jammed our bottles in our pockets and took our seats, where we took clandestine sips like teens sneaking around a bottle of rum at a high school prom.
Having to sneak our sips of soda might seem silly, but it was pretty tame compared to other things we encountered in the upper deck.
- A “fan” one section to our right was holding up a homemade sign that simply featured the F-word.
- Fans in front of us were sharing the contents of a whiskey bottle in plain sight of security.
- There was so much cigarette smoke wafting through the upper deck that I had a sore throat by the time we left. And, yes, Olympic Stadium is a non-smoking venue.
It was a bit like the wild west up there. And, hilariously, security was all over us for our bottles, but apparently had no problem with the above issues.
Still, all these issues didn’t prevent us from enjoying watching the actual game. Our seats gave us a nice view of the field, which you can see here in panoramic form:
We also had a good view of the interesting setup beyond the left field fence:
Those are the stands that we’d previously visited, but you’ll also notice the two teams’ bullpens surrounded by some makeshift light stands. The batting cages were positioned behind the batter’s eye — you’ll see a small opening through which you can see some turf, a home plate and the batter’s boxes.
We spent most of the game in our seats and switched to a higher, emptier row midway through just for a little more leg room. The game ended in a tie — another ballpark first for me — and we joined the other 40,000+ fans exiting the stadium through a congested area that looked like this:
That hallway was more congested than Fenway Park when I visited, for the record.
So, to summarize:
- A ridiculous no camera and no bag policy.
- Filthy seats.
- Overpriced, low-quality food.
- Inability to take bottled drinks into the stands.
- No enforcement of rules in the upper deck.
Any one of these issues on its own might be easy to shrug off, but for a stadium that would supposedly want to do its best to look impressive in order to drum up interest in baseball returning to Montreal, the Big O fell majorly short. It’s like having a job interview scheduled and deciding to show up without showering or combing your hair and wearing a stained shirt.
In any case, if baseball ever returns to Montreal, another few hundred million dollars will need to be sunk into Olympic Stadium to get it up to par — which will help to keep the stadium right near the top of the list of the most expensive stadiums ever built. (There are conflicting reports as to the exact number, but more than $1 billion has been sunk into the Big O between its construction and ongoing maintenance over the years.)
I’m glad I had the opportunity to check out Olympic Stadium, but I’m in no rush to return. I think it’s the first stadium I’ve ever felt this way about, and that’s saying something.
Spending two days in the same city is always a blast, so after a great first day in Pittsburgh, I was excited to rise early on August 30 and get my second day underway. The Pirates were once again hosting the Rockies at PNC Park, but unlike a day before, the game was an afternoon game. This is the best possible scenario for baseball road trippers — you get to experience the park both at night and during the afternoon on subsequent days.
I took a look out my hotel window as soon as I got up and saw that the weather looked perfect over downtown Pittsburgh, which was a good way to start my day:
So, I packed up quickly and headed out in search of adventure. As usual, I wanted to get into the ballpark as soon as the gates opened, but being up early meant that I had a good chance to explore some of the sights around the ballpark, including Point State Park, which is the spot where the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela rivers meet. It’s also the place with the giant fountain that you often see on TV broadcasts when you’re watching the Pirates. For a quiet Sunday morning, there was lots to check out at this tourist-friendly park, and I’ll be sharing some photos and anecdotes in an upcoming off-season blog post.
For now, though, I’ll share this shot of PNC Park taken from the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, which I walked along to Point State Park:
And here’s a shot of me on the trail with the ballpark in the background:
I spent a couple hours playing tourist before retracing my steps, crossing the Roberto Clemente Bridge and getting in line to enter PNC Park. As soon as I got inside, I went straight down to field level on the Rockies side where I planned to get an autograph or two. As I waited, I watched pitcher Yohan Flande do some jogging back and forth. I positioned myself directly in front of him and shot a bunch of photos, including this one:
It was sort of a funny moment — I shot photos for several minutes, and he silently ran toward me, then away from me, and then back toward me. He never acknowledged me with a nod or anything — not that you’d expect him to — but did sort of quizzically look at me a few times. I wonder if he was questioning why the heck I was standing there shooting photo after photo.
After Flande left, I gathered with some other fans to watch the soon-to-be-retired A.J. Burnett chatting with three members of the Rockies and teammate Jeff Locke:
It was cool to see Locke in person in the major leagues; I previously saw him pitch with the Double-A Altoona Curve way back in June of 2011 while visiting the Harrisburg Senators. You can see a photo of him from that day here.
Soon enough, Colorado reliever Christian Friedrich approached where I was standing and began signing autographs. He was a first-round pick in 2008, taken three spots ahead of 2015 MLB all-star Gerrit Cole. I normally don’t like getting autographs on tickets, but I didn’t have anything else handy, so I handed him my ticket from yesterday’s game and got it signed:
After I’d received the autographed and tucked it safely away in my backpack, I shot this panorama from field level:
If you look carefully, you can actually see Friedrich signing on the far left.
Before leaving the area in search of something to eat that would technically play the role of my breakfast, I took a shot of the out-of-town scoreboard:
While the scoreboard itself is cool, take a look at the area directly above where it says “National League” and “American League.” This is the viewing area that I mentioned in my previous post and also referenced when I wrote about visiting PNC Park last season. It’s a great spot to enjoy the game and while the first row is reserved for wheelchairs, you can often enjoy an inning or two standing against the concrete wall. If you plan on visiting PNC Park, make it a priority to watch some of the game from this spot if you can.
My quest for some food led me to the Quaker Steak & Lube concession stand near Section 110. I often eat at the QS&L stand at Rogers Centre in Toronto and had some delicious onion rings at the PNC Park location during my visit last August.
Amusingly enough, those onion rings served as my breakfast during that 2014 Sunday matinee game. Now, almost exactly a year to the day later, I was standing in line to buy chicken wings that was serve as breakfast. Apparently, my eating habits have not improved.
As for the wings, they weren’t Quaker Steak & Lube’s best effort. In fact, I’d say they were the worst QS&L wings I’ve eaten at a ballpark. Dry, not flavorable and only slightly above room temperature are three drawbacks to chicken wings in my book. Nevertheless, here they are:
As you might’ve noticed from the background of the chicken wings picture, I’d eaten in the upper deck on the first base side. Once I finished eating, I realized that I could see my hotel, the Hampton Inn & Suites Pittsburgh-Downtown, from where I sat — which makes sense, I suppose, given that I could see PNC Park from my hotel room! Here’s a shot that shows the hotel and a bunch of Pittsburgh’s iconic bridges:
As first pitch approached, I went off in search of some more food, given that the chicken wings didn’t really satisfy. My quest took me down to the Riverwalk area and, in particular, the Rita’s Italian Ice concession stand. I’m a big fan of this sort of icy frozen treat, and I ordered the black cherry flavor:
I’m pleased to report it was delicious and included several actual black cherry chunks; I’m slightly embarrassed to report that this sugar-laden snack was technically part of my breakfast.
Part of my priority for this visit was to watch the game from various vantage points that I hadn’t visited a day earlier. As I walked toward a cool area you’ll see in just a minute, I stopped to take this shot of the Roberto Clemente statue and the area around it:
The statue is directly outside the gates, as you can see, but I think this photo does a good job of showing just how close the Clemente Bridge is to the park’s gates. As you can see, the bridge and the gates are just a few steps apart.
(Also, there appears to be a real-life pirate at the bottom of the photo.)
After taking this shot, I cut through the air conditioned Hall of Fame Club, which is located behind the left field seats. This area is impressive — it’s an upscale eatery with a view of the field and an extensive bar and menu, but it’s also open to anyone with a ticket. Whereas some upscale spots in MLB parks aren’t accessible, this one is definitely fun for everyone to check out. Directly outside the Hall of Fame Club sits a standing-room area, which is where I stood to watch the game’s opening innings with this view:
You don’t get the downtown Pittsburgh skyline from this spot, but I think you’ll agree that the view is outstanding.
I next watched some of the game from this spot on the third base side of home plate:
The overhang limits your full view of the city’s skyline, but it’s easy enough to see if you simply duck a little. After a couple more innings in this spot, I watched a little from the Riverwalk and then set off for another few laps around beautiful PNC Park to take in the sights. Many of the shots I took during my walk were similar to those I showed in my last blog post, so I won’t duplicate them here.
When the game wrapped up, I made the short walk back to the Hampton Inn & Suites Pittsburgh-Downtown:
As you might have read in my previous post, this hotel is awesome for baseball fans visiting Pittsburgh. Its close proximity to PNC Park means you can comfortably walk to and from the game and won’t have to fuss over parking. There are a number of key tourist attractions, including those that I visited before the game, within an easy walk from the hotel.
The rooms are awesomely spacious, too — here’s a shot of just part of my suite:
I’m not sure when I’ll be back in Pittsburgh, but I do know that when it comes time to book my hotel room, I won’t hesitate to contact the Hampton Inn for a third time.
Next up, I’ll have a bunch of posts about my outstanding trip to Texas!
After spending August 28 with the independent Washington Wild Things, it was time to take a step up to the big leagues with a trip to Pittsburgh for a pair of Pirates games. I had the chance to visit the Steel City last season and loved PNC Park, so it was a no brainer to return again this year. I stayed in the same hotel as last year, too, and you can read more about that awesome experience later in this post.
Since Washington is on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, I got to the city well before my 3 p.m. hotel check-in time and the 7 p.m. Pirates game, so I spent a few hours at the Senator John Heinz History Center, a Smithsonian-affiliated museum that also features the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum and is located directly across the street from my hotel. I took a ton of pictures during my visit and will be sharing them in an off-season post.
When I got into my hotel room, I took the following photo that shows the great view out one of my room’s windows:
The tall stadium lights you see close to the center of the image are, you guessed it, PNC Park. If you think the view looks familiar, you’re right! My hotel room view was virtually identical last season. In fact, I might have been staying in the exact same room.
After relaxing for a bit, I packed up my camera stuff and began the short walk over to PNC Park. The route between the hotel and the ballpark takes you right along the edge of the Allegheny River on a picturesque pathway that looks like this:
Part of the path was flooded during my visit in 2014, so it was nice to be able to walk the length of the route this time. Once I’d walked for a few minutes, I could clearly see the PNC Park sign, framed below the Roberto Clemente Bridge, which is closed to vehicles and used by pedestrians on Pirates game days:
As I did last year, I crossed the bridge by walking right down the center line …
… but this year, I noticed a cool detail on the images painted on the bike lanes — the cyclist is wearing a Pirates cap, Clemente’s #21 jersey and old-school stirrups:
I got to the park about an hour before the gates opened and the crowd, as expected, was bananas. It was Bill Mazeroski statue giveaway day, which meant that fans were lining up very early to ensure they got their hands on the keepsake. I wasn’t too worried about getting in line right away. I knew that I’d be among the first 10,000 fans to enter PNC Park, which meant I’d get a statue whether I was at the start of the line or toward the end of it.
So, once I picked up my ticket …
… I walked around to the home plate entrance to take this panorama that shows the Honus Wagner statue and the ballpark behind it:
As you can see, the crowds in this area were pretty minor. That’s because the park’s Riverwalk entrance, which is located adjacent to the Roberto Clemente Bridge, opens 30 minutes before all the other gates in the park. After shooting these photos, I walked toward the river, where there’s a Mazeroski statue that many fans gather around:
After shooting this photo and taking a brief look at the river, I lined up at the right field gate and was only about a dozen people from the head of the line:
Within a few minutes, the line was growing and I noticed the guy directly behind me was randomly munching on a chicken wing. I figured he’d maybe carried it from a nearby sports bar, but I was downright confused when he finished it and mysteriously produced another one. Since he was right behind me, I couldn’t blatantly turn around to eye up where the wings were coming from, but he certainly wasn’t holding a take-out container. My guess was that he had them stashed in a grocery bag he was carrying, and they kept coming out one or another over the next 15 minutes or so. A short while later, the eating stopped and his wife arrived … with a giant container of chicken wings in her hands. I wasn’t invited to their feast, for the record.
When the gates opened a short while later, I took this quick shot of my boxed statue …
… before making a beeline for the seats in right-center so I could watch a few minutes of batting practice with this perfect view:
Next, I visited the Chevrolet kiosk where I filled out a questionnaire in order to receive this bag, which I’ll probably give away over the off-season in some sort of contest:
It took a while to get the bag, given the crazy crowds at PNC Park. With the Pirates doing so well, it seemed like half the city of Pittsburgh was in attendance. While the Riverwalk wasn’t hugely crowed, this is what the main concourse looked like:
I s-l-o-w-l-y made my way through the crowd until I made it over to the rotunda in left field, where I climbed to the top and shot this panorama:
By this time, the pre-game festivities were starting and they were special. The Pirates were honoring their 1960 World Series team, which meant that Mazeroski and several of his teammates were in attendance. Although I was far from home plate, I could comfortably see the baseball legends gathered on the field …
… and due to my location on the rotunda, I also had a great view of the video board, which loomed next to me on my left. After first pitch, I watched a little bit of the game from the rapidly filling rotunda before heading back to the Riverwalk in search of something to eat. First, I snapped this panorama of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline:
If you’re not familiar with PNC Park, perhaps its biggest appeal is the magnificent view of the city it provides. Whenever you walk on the side of the park closest to the river, you’ll always see fans standing and shooting photos of the view. It’s definitely an awesome feature.
I wanted to find something to eat along the Riverwalk area, simply because it wasn’t as crowded and I figured I might be able to find a bench to sit down while I ate. My choice was a plate of Riverwalk fries, which is a serving of fries topped with cheese sauce, bacon bits, chives and sour cream:
Although I’m not a fan of the fake stadium cheese, the meal was tasty. The fries were actually really good, which sort of surprised me. The toppings were substantial and, overall, the meal was definitely filling. If you’re a fry lover, I definitely recommend checking this out during your next visit to PNC Park.
By the time I’d finished eating, the sun was starting to set. That’s one thing about ballgames in late August — you don’t have a lot of time to take photos with the daylight. I spent an inning or two watching the action, and then returned to the Riverwalk to hang out. I was amused to notice that even though I couldn’t see the game from where I was standing, it was a blast to just hang out on the Riverwalk and watch the boats, skyline and anything else that caught my eye, while also following the game on the nearby TV screens — and I certainly wasn’t the only person taking this approach. Still, as a baseball fan, I could only stay away from the on-field action for so long, and soon found myself standing in the viewing area above the scoreboard in right field. The front part of this section is reserved for fans in wheelchairs, but others tend to grab a standing spot against the wall and can enjoy a great view of the action. Here was my view:
Once I’d enjoyed this area for a bit, want to guess where I went? If you picked the Riverwalk, you win! I often find that it’s a challenge to take decent nighttime photographs, so I wanted to use the perfect view to fiddle with my camera’s settings and find something that would work. I’ll spare you all the super-dark and washed-out images that I went through until I was able to get shots like this one:
By the way, the Riverwalk area I keep talking about? Well, it looked like this during my visit:
Despite the appeal of this cool area, I climbed up to the upper deck where I had a great view of the game. I sort of snuck toward the edge of the seating area to take a series of photos but was quickly spotted by an usher. I prepared to be told to scram, but instead I was pleasantly surprised with how he addressed me: “Spend all the time you want,” he said. “In fact, why don’t you stand in my spot?” He pointed to the little alcove on the end of the section that he’d previously been occupying and I thanked him profusely. Since I run into crabby ushers more than I’d like, I was thrilled with how friendly this guy was. I explained that I’d come a long way to visit PNC Park and that I appreciated him letting me shoot from this angle. “Don’t mention it,” he said. “This is your park.”
This outstanding vantage point allowed me to shoot a bunch of photos, including my beloved Riverwalk from above:
A panorama of the park from way up high:
And the crowded rotunda, where I’d stood earlier:
I spent the remainder of the game basically repeating the pattern I’d enjoyed since the start of my visit — some time on the rotunda, some time on the Riverwalk and some time spent simply wandering around and enjoying the sights.
When the game wrapped up, I was excited to get back to my hotel, the Hampton Inn & Suites Pittsburgh-Downtown. As I said earlier, I stayed at this hotel when I visited Pittsburgh last season, and it was so perfect that I was definitely excited to visit again. Since I stayed for two nights this time, I’ll be sharing some details about the hotel in this post and my next post, but let’s start with the location. The hotel is one mile from PNC Park, which is a perfect walking distance before and after the game — and I can assure you that I was comfortably back in my hotel room before many fans were on the road heading home. The hotel also doesn’t charge for parking, which is extremely rare among downtown hotels and a huge perk if you’re looking for ideal accommodations close to PNC Park.
Here’s a shot of the hotel taken earlier in the day while it was still bright out:
And here’s a shot of my room, which had a sofa and an ottoman, desk, king-sized bed and a bunch of other great features:
Need more reasons to pick this hotel for your next baseball trip? It’s one of the top Pittsburgh hotels on TripAdvisor, has a great fitness center and indoor pool (which I enjoyed the following day of my visit), free Wi-Fi, complimentary breakfast and more. One of the other intangibles is the great view. I could see PNC Park out my window and also had a perfect vantage point of the city’s downtown skyline. I used my GoPro the following night to shoot this time-lapse video of night falling over the city:
My day in Pittsburgh seemed to go very quickly, but the good news is that I’d get to enjoy another day seeing the Pirates in action, exploring the city on foot and hanging out in my hotel. I’ll have that blog post up soon!
My bags are packed and I’m just about ready to hit the road. But first, I’m excited to share the schedule for my week-long baseball road trip that begins this morning.
Once I publish this post, I’ll be loading my car and driving to Auburn, NY, to watch the Auburn Doubledays in action against the Mahoning Valley Scrappers at Falcon Park. I visited this New York-Penn League ballpark on my very first trip for The Ballpark Guide, back in 2010, and I’m excited to return again. It’ll be a great place to start my trip.
On the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 25, I’ll drive to Cleveland where I’ll have to fortune of visiting Progressive Field as a guest of the Indians at the #TribeLive experience. It’s an updated version of the old Indians Social Suite, which I visited back in 2013. This time, I’ll be closer to field level and the entire visit promises to be exciting.
Because one day at an MLB park is never enough, I’m heading back to Progressive Field on Wednesday, Aug. 26. This time, I’ll have a regular ticket and will enjoy walking around the park and checking out all the new scenery from the off-season renovations.
I normally don’t schedule off-days on my baseball trips, but I’m taking off Thursday, Aug. 27, which will help me catch up with some blogging. I’m going to be spending the day in Cleveland, so I expect to get up to some fun touristy thing(s) that I’ll likely blog about. Any suggestions? Leave them below in the comments section. I’m thinking maybe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, but we’ll see.
Friday, Aug. 28 is possibly up in the air. I’d originally planned to be in Washington, PA, to see my friend Jeremy Nowak play with his Evansville Otters teammates against the Washington Wild Things, just as I did last year around this time. As of last week, however, Jeremy is now a member of the Frontier League’s Joliet Slammers (where he’s hitting .333 with 10 RBIs in six games) so he won’t be in Washington. Unfortunately, that means I won’t get to see Jeremy this season, which will be the first time I’ve not seen him dating back to a streak that began in 2011. Anyway, Washington’s ballpark was beautiful and I really enjoyed my time there last year, so I might go to the game anyway. Or, I might find something else to do. In any case, I’ll be tweeting about my decision and blogging about wherever I end up.
On the morning of Saturday, Aug. 29, I’ll drive to Pittsburgh for the first of two Pirates games at beautiful PNC Park. I visited PNC Park last season but I’m excited to get back there again. I’ll see the Pirates in action both games against the Colorado Rockies. I’m also pumped to get to explore the city a little. I didn’t have much time during my last visit, but this time I’ll have the chance to do some sightseeing. Again, I’m open to any suggestions you want to throw my way.
As usual, I’ll be tweeting along the way and blogging as well.
Off I go!
When I woke up on the morning of August 31 for my second day in Pittsburgh, there wasn’t much time to waste. The Pirates were hosting the Cincinnati Reds with a 1 p.m. start time, which meant I wanted to get to PNC Park by 10:30 a.m. I packed up my stuff, checked out of my hotel on the edge of the city and drove straight to my next hotel, the Hampton Inn & Suites Pittsburgh-Downtown. It was still too early to check in, but I was lucky enough to park my car for free at the hotel and walk a few blocks over to PNC Park. The hotel stay was outstanding, and I’ll have lots more about it later in this blog post.
It was absolutely pouring, and I figured there’d be no chance the game would be played at all. Still, I figured a soggy day wandering around the park would be more than all right, so I climbed out of my car and ducked into the rainy morning. From the edge of the hotel’s parking lot, I could see the yellow of the Roberto Clemente Bridge and, beyond it, PNC Park:
Several minutes later, I was standing on the center line of the bridge, as I had a day before:
I entered the ballpark a short while later and saw, as you might expect, that the infield was covered with the tarp. No surprise there:
The steady rain made me not too interested in standing in the seating area getting soaked, so I moved indoors to the Rivertowne Brewing Hall of Fame Club, which is found above the bleachers in left-center field. This spot is an enormous indoor bar and eatery that is open to all fans. It was packed during much of my visit to PNC Park the day before, but wasn’t too crowded during this rainy day. Apparently, I was so happy to be out of the rain that I completely neglected to take a photo inside the club area, so you’ll have to take my word that I was there.
I killed some time in this area and then checked out the team shop before walking down to field level to enjoy this scene:
Sure, the tarp is a buzz kill, but the overall view is one of the best you’ll see in baseball. The cold, dreary day called for something hot to eat, and I’d spied a Quaker Steak & Lube concession stand during my first visit to PNC Park and decided to check it out. I’ve often said that the chicken wings at the Quaker Steak & Lube in Toronto’s Rogers Centre are among my all-time favorite ballpark eats, but I wanted to try something different this time. I’ve often been tempted by the onion rings, so I bought an order with blue cheese dip and dug in:
The rings were delicious — thick, hot and a good onion to batter ratio. The dip wasn’t very good, so I’d definitely try ranch or another flavor next time. If you like onion rings, though, give these a shot at any QS&L location. They look pretty perfect, don’t they?
Soon enough, the rain disappeared and the Pirates miraculously announced the game was expected to start on time. By now, fans were beginning to take their seats, but the crowd was light enough that I was able to
sneak walk casually into the park’s famous seats in right field. This section is small to avoid blocking the city’s skyline, so it’s a coveted ticket for Pirates games. The ushers are vigilant about restricting access during the game, but I was able to hang out in the area for a few minutes to take this panorama, which you can click to enlarge:
After leaving the area, I walked the length of the Riverwalk and over to the corner in left, where I took the long walk up this spiral ramp:
Think the climb might’ve been dizzying? It wasn’t, but looking down at the escalators was:
After spending the next little while just walking around PNC Park’s various levels and taking in the sights, I went back down to the main level and found a spot to stand to watch the game. Like a day earlier, I’d bought a standing room ticket. The dreary day, however, meant I had no problem getting a front-row spot along the railing on the third base side. From here, I had an unobstructed view to the field … unless you think this little fella, resting on a nearby wheelchair, was blocking my view:
My pictures of the action at home plate are only so-so, but I had a blast watching guys like Billy Hamilton:
If you follow my blog closely, you might remember that I saw Hamilton in Triple-A last summer as a member of the Louisville Bats. You can read about that ballpark visit here, if you’re interested.
Once I’d watched a couple innings from this spot, I was on the move again. It’s not that I can’t stand still — it’s that it’s always too tempting to explore a new ballpark, rather than just hang out in the same spot for the entire game. During each lap of the park, I couldn’t resist taking a look down to the river and over the water to the impressive city skyline. At one point, I noticed something on the water that you just don’t see every day:
I eventually returned to a spot on the third base side and snapped pictures like this one of Pirates starter Francisco Liriano:
As I watched him work, keeping an eye on the ribbon board behind home plate to watch his pitch speed, I noticed something I’ve never seen at a single one of the 50-plus parks I’ve visited since 2010. Take a look at this next photo and you’ll see not only the pitch speed, but also the ball’s horizontal break and vertical break:
Pretty cool, huh? Of course, the baseball nerd in me had fun watching for off-speed pitches and quickly guessing the break before the data appeared in front of me. Has anyone encountered other parks that provide this data? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below.
I’ve often said in the past how I love the speed element of baseball, so it was definitely a thrill to see Hamilton in person again. The next time he was up, I positioned myself to the third base side of home and watched as he flew up the base line on a routine ground out. His speed was absolutely incredible, and I shot a series of photos that I’ve made into this gif:
After beating the Reds 3-2 a day earlier, the Pirates fell by the same score in a game that saw Cincy starter Johnny Cueto, who I captured earlier in the game during this bunt attempt, win his 16th of the season:
As fans filed out of PNC Park toward their cars, I was excited to avoid the post-game traffic jam and, instead, take a short walk to my hotel, the Hampton Inn & Suites Pittsburgh-Downtown. The hotel is just one mile from the ballpark and an easy walk. It’s totally perfect for baseball fans visiting Pittsburgh — or, really, anyone who enjoys staying downtown and being able to walk to various locations. In addition to its close proximity to PNC Park, the hotel is also within walking distance to Heinz Field, the University of Pittsburgh, a downtown convention center and the Senator John Heinz History Center, a museum that is located directly across the street. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get to visit it, but it looked outstanding.) Speaking of the hotel’s location, a huge perk is that guests get free parking. In all my traveling, I can’t recall another true downtown hotel that has this benefit.
The hotel staff knew of my arrival, and kindly gave me a welcome gift bag loaded with snacks upon checking in. That was the first big surprise. The other? Seeing this sign in the elevator — in particular, the part I’ve pointed out with the red arrow — on the way up to my room:
Wowsers! Did I just say “wowsers?” I sure did.
I was lucky to get a corner suite on an upper floor of the hotel; given the room’s location, it really felt as though I had the best room in the hotel. The view was spectacular — from one window, I could see the river, the yellow bridges and even PNC Park in the distance:
And from the other, I had a great view of the city’s downtown, which I photographed early in the evening …
… and again at night:
The view wasn’t the only amazing thing about my room. The room itself was perfect — it was a suite, so it was extremely spacious and had a kitchen area, desk, couch, king-sized bed and more. Check out this shot …
… and this one to see what I mean:
The Hampton Inn & Suites Pittsburgh-Downtown is an outstanding choice if you’ve visiting the Steel City. Beyond the perks I’ve already listed, the hotel features free Wi-Fi, free breakfast, a business center, fitness center, indoor pool and more. From these amenities to its ideal location to its free parking to its awesome rooms, you’ll be glad to hang your Pirates hat (or the hat of whatever team you root for) here.
Two more ballpark experiences from my road trip are coming up! Next one: The end of an era in Jamestown, New York.
Any time I talk to baseball fans about the parks they’ve visited, it doesn’t take long before Pittsburgh’s PNC Park is mentioned as a favorite. I’ve been trying to add PNC Park to the list of the parks I’ve visited for the last few years, but I’ve never managed to sync my travel schedule with the Pirates’ home schedule. This year, however, everything worked out perfectly.
After an awesome day in Rochester, I drove about 4.5 hours to Pittsburgh, getting to the Steel City about three hours before the 4 p.m. game. I parked in a parking tower across the Roberto Clemente Bridge from PNC Park and, as I entered the structure, I could hear a security guard’s radio crackle with the message, “No more cars.” That meant I’d have a heck of a time finding a parking spot; after driving around for way too long, another guard directed me to park in a non-spot on the upper level of the structure. I wasn’t crazy about leaving my car in an area that it might get towed, but I quickly forgot about this problem when I stepped out and had this exciting view:
Just about perfect, right?
The view from where I stood was incredible. Here’s what it looks like as a panorama, which you can click to expand:
In addition to the ballpark and Pittsburgh’s iconic series of bridges, you can also see Heinz Field, home of the Steelers, on the left. After a couple minutes of descending the stairs to get to street level, the Clemente Bridge once again had a prominent spot in front of me:
This bridge is closed to vehicles on game days, which makes for one of the best approaches to any MLB park you can find. Leave your car, take a stroll over the bridge and enjoy the view, and a few minutes later, you’re standing at the gates of an outstanding ballpark. As I set out across the bridge, I noticed most pedestrians were sticking to the sidewalk. I couldn’t resist walking right down the center line, where I had this view:
I saw a plaque honoring Clemente …
… and a few minutes later, I’d picked up my ticket at will call and paused to take this photograph:
As usual, I set out to take a walk around the perimeter of the park, and it didn’t take long to see a pile of cool things. Musician Gavin DeGraw was set to play a postgame concert, and I could see the band’s gear stored behind PNC Park:
The North Shore Trail, which runs between the ballpark and the Allegheny River, is one of the best “neighborhood” features you’ll ever see in all of baseball. It’s absolutely beautiful — full of baseball fans and boaters. (And so many people drinking beer while floating on inner tubes in the water.) In fact, boaters moor their vessels along the trail and tailgate before and after Pirates games. It’s a really fun place to be, and here’s what the scene looks like:
No visit to PNC Park is complete without spending some time on the trail. It’s the perfect place to get pumped up for your eventual entry into the ballpark and the game ahead. Although it was about a million degrees and sunny, and I was excited to get to the park itself, I couldn’t resist taking a few laps up and down the trail. The view of the city’s skyline is absolutely spectacular, as you can see here:
After quite a bit of walking and a few dozen photos later, I was ready to get inside the ballpark — but it wasn’t open yet. The team shop was, though, and I took advantage of the air conditioning and went inside. MLB team shops are always impressive, and the one at PNC Field was no different. The special touch? Pirates-colored flooring:
I spent some time touring the two-level shop as much for a reprieve from the heat as for browsing the Pirates gear, but I soon headed outside again to spend more time walking around before the gates opened. I know you’re probably curious to see the inside of PNC Park,and we’re almost there. First though, here are a few more photos of the scene outside the gates. Here’s a plaque recognizing the 1903 World Series:
A look at some of the boats docked along the trail:
And Heinz Field, which was hosting a University of Pittsburgh football game against Delaware:
When the center field gates opened, I entered the park and expected to begin my sightseeing. What I didn’t realize, however, is that these gates open into a an area called the Riverwalk, and then you have to wait another short period of time for the rest of the park to open. No worries, though — the Riverwalk area is fun to explore and is loaded with concession stands. It’s the area of the park you often see during TV broadcasts — the one with the giant PNC Park sign:
I wandered the length of the Riverwalk a couple times and, before long, it was time for the gates the to rest of PNC Park to open. When they opened, I found myself in a semi-covered behind the seats in right-center, so I quickly made my way through the crowd and got out to the bleachers where I had this amazing view:
I wasn’t interested in getting a ball during BP. I just sat for a few minutes atop the bleachers and enjoyed the view. Soon enough, however, I was on the move again and decided to take my journey skyward. I followed the curved ramp toward the upper deck, pausing along the way to snap this shot that shows the bleachers I’d previously visited, the video board, the bullpens and the river with the city skyline in the background:
Once I made it to the upper deck, I made a beeline for the seats behind home plate so that I could capture one of the most iconic views in baseball. Ready? Ta-da!
I absolutely love a ballpark that offers an impressive view of the city beyond, and I’ve had the fortune of enjoying repeat visits to parks with comparable views over the years, like Cleveland’s Progressive Field and Detroit’s Comerica Park. Do you have a favorite ballpark view? Feel free to leave a comment at the end of this post.
Before I left the spot behind home plate, I took a series of photos to build this huge panorama …
… and then snapped this close-up shot of the team’s World Series banners directly behind me:
As I stood and enjoyed the view, I realized that I could see the parking garage at which I’d left my car. I switched to my zoom lens, adjusted the focus and, sure enough, there was my car!
(See what I meant about the lot being absolutely packed?)
Although I was eager to get back down to the 100 Level concourse to explore the park, it was pretty cool being up here with this vantage point. I slowly made my way over toward the right field corner and snapped this shot that shows a few neat things:
First, we’ve got the statue of Bill Mazeroski on the left side of the image, depicted after hitting his iconic home run during the 1960 World Series; the white tent in the center is covering the musical instruments I noticed earlier; and how about the boat dropping people off? Can you think of a better way to get to a ballgame?
While I was in this spot, I took a shot that illustrates a couple areas in the park I’ve already mentioned:
See the structure to the left of the bleachers and video board? That’s the giant ramp I climbed to get to the upper deck. And the concrete area running along the right side of the photo? That’s the Riverwalk, as you might’ve guessed.
Next, I descended to the main concourse to begin checking things out. My first step was Legacy Square, an informative spot that honors the Pittsburgh area’s rich Negro Leagues history with a series of statues and plaques. Here’s one of “Cool Papa” Bell, for example:
I browsed the area for several minutes and decided to return later on to read all the plaques in detail. In the meantime, I was anxious to continue my trek. The next spot I visited was the small seating section inside the right field scoreboard, that you often see on TV. Here’s what the view looks like, and I can certainly attest that this is one of the neatest spots to see a game in all of baseball:
It was still a short time before first pitch, but I was ready to get my eat on. My number one food priority for visiting PNC Park was to grab a sandwich from the Primanti Brothers concession. Primanti, of course, is a Pittsburgh specialty with several locations around the city. The premise to these sandwiches, if you haven’t heard of them, if that they’re an all-in-one, if you will. The sandwich is loaded with your meat of choice — I got roast beef — but is also stacked with coleslaw and french fries. Sound excessive? Sure is! Here’s a look at mine:
And how was it, you might ask? Well, it didn’t exactly blow me away. I can understand the appeal of loading a sandwich with the side ingredients — I’m all for food gimmickry — but the coleslaw only served to make the beef and fries instantly cold. Also, the meat’s flavor wasn’t much to write home about, and the whole thing was pretty doughy.
First pitch was fast approaching by the time I finished my unsatisfying sandwich, so I made my way back down to the main level to find a spot to hang out. I’d bought a standing room only ticket for the game, and while this type of ticket is great on the wallet, it’s always a challenge to find a suitable spot from which to watch the game. I found a ramp in center that had this view …
… and got settled in to enjoy the first few innings. A moment later, however, I noticed a guard nixing the similar plans of other fans to my left, and knew he’d make his way over to me in just a matter of time. I decided to go all National Geographic photojournalist and take this photo, pretending to be immersed in my work with the hope he’d pass by:
It didn’t fool him, however, and given the horrible threat I was apparently posing by standing in the area, I was encouraged to find somewhere else to be. So, where to go? Well, I found a great spot on the concourse behind home plate where I had this view:
I decided that I’d done enough walking for the day, and with another game at PNC Park less than 24 hours away, I knew I’d have another day to explore the park. So, I spent much of the game standing in this perfect location. This spot gave me an awesome view of two home runs — a first-inning blast by Pittsburgh’s Neil Walker and a fourth-inning shot by Cincy’s Todd Frazier. Walker’s three-run shot was all the offense Pittsburgh got and needed. The Buccos won 3-2 to help them inch closer to the playoffs.
Although I’d had a great day at the ballpark, I was exhausted and couldn’t wait to get to my hotel. I’d booked a pair of Pittsburgh hotels for my two nights in the city, and up first was the Hyatt Place Pittsburgh Airport, located just 11 miles from PNC Park. I’ve stayed at Hyatt Place hotels a few times in MLB cities — Cleveland and Philadelphia come to mind immediately, and they always deliver. Big time. Here’s the front of the hotel:
The Hyatt Place Pittsburgh Airport was awesome. I was impressed with how quickly the 11-mile drive passed, and even more impressed with how friendly everyone was at the front desk when I checked in. After dropping off my luggage, I made a short drive to a nearby/enormous retail area to buy some dinner and snacks for the evening. The hotel is smack dab in the middle of a part of Pittsburgh that you can find everything, from restaurants to supermarkets to malls, and so on. Needing something a little healthier than my lunch at the ballpark, I grabbed a gigantic salad at a nearby Panera Bread location, and absolutely crashed when I got back to my room.
I love the room layout at Hyatt Place hotels — every room is suite style — a living room area with a sectional couch, desk area, kitchenette and then a separate bedroom. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love the 42-inch TV that swivels so you can watch it in the living room or bedroom:
The king-sized bed was super comfy and I love how it’s separate from the rest of the room:
I definitely recommend this hotel if you’re visiting Pittsburgh to see the Pirates — or if you’re in the Steel City for any other reason. In addition to the perks I already mentioned, it’s near other attractions such as the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Sandcastle Water Park and, of course, the airport. It has business center, indoor pool and offers complimentary breakfast, as well as free Wi-Fi and free parking.
Up next, another great day at PNC Park and another great hotel!