Just over two months after my first visit to western Pennsylvania with my brother Tim and two friends, I went back to the Keystone State, this time with my wife. Our anniversary was Friday, we both had a three-day weekend for Labor Day, and the free Pirates tickets I won in June were burning a hole in my pocket, so we each took a couple extra days off and planned a trip. She originally wanted to go to Amish country and see the sights, but I vetoed that plan as too expensive. So she opted for Plan B: two nights in Philadelphia, followed by a trip to Pittsburgh to see the Pirates.
Now, we try to keep it loose around here when it comes to the topics we cover. Generally, if something is even tangentially related to minor league baseball, it has a shot. But I’m pretty sure that there is no possible way to connect our time in the City of Brotherly Love, which was mostly spent touring historic sites, to the Bus Leagues. So I’m not going to bore you with those stories.
Okay, I’m not going to bore you much.
In fact, I’ll just do bullet points on some of the interesting stuff so we can get through this quickly and get to the Pirates stuff. I know that’s what you care about.
— We played it by ear in terms of a departure time and didn’t get on the road until about noon on Friday. Little did we realize at the time that our route, as planned by VZ Navigator, took us through the Bronx. We hit New York at about 4:30, just in time for bumper-to-bumper, Friday afternoon, rush hour traffic. Never again, I tell you. Never again.
— To get to our hotel in Philadelphia, we had to drive down a cobblestone road. My wife thought this was the coolest thing ever; all I could think of was the fact that parts were probably falling off the car from all the shaking.
— I come from a small town of about 5,000 people and have never lived in a city with a population of more than 90,000. Let’s just say that Philadelphia (population 1.4 million, plus tourists) was just a bit overwhelming, even for a short stay. Big city living is definitely not for me.
— We ate dinner at the Hard Rock Café on Saturday night and were served by a waiter who resembled, in spirit if not in looks, Vince from “Employee of the Month.” It’s like he watched the movie and decided, “You know, that dude has it together. I’m gonna act like that from now on.” I bet he drives an ’81 Honda.
— If you go to Philly for the historic attractions, make sure to visit the National Constitution Center first, then move on to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. We did it the other way around, and while Independence Hall was amazing, the NCC was the place that really got me fired up with some good old-fashioned, “Proud to be an American” feelings. It would’ve been awesome to bring that patriotism into Independence Hall with me, rather than going in right off the street.
— I loved the interactive nature of the displays in the NCC, but two things rubbed me the wrong way: one, some of the information needed to be proofread: New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s first name was misspelled in one area, and another exhibit featured an apocryphal story about Muhammad Ali throwing his Olympic medal in the river after being denied service at a restaurant (pretty sure that story was made up at the time and has since been proven false); and two, no pictures allowed, which was too bad because there was an absolutely outstanding exhibit featuring statues of Declaration of Independence signers. (I did make my wife turn on the camera to snap the picture you see above; it was just too cool.)
— Didn’t get to see the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, the Second Bank of the United States (a pity, since it was right across the street from our hotel), or Citizens Bank Park. Maybe next time. I did, however, get pictures of the Rocky statue and the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
And that, friends, was Philadelphia.
We left the Omni Hotel early on Sunday morning and proceeded west on I-76. The nice thing was that we were on 76 for 270 miles, which was good because I hate having to worry about changing roadways and which lane am I supposed to be in and that type of stuff. On the other hand, it sucked because we were on 76 for 270 miles. That’s almost five hours. And there were tunnels.
(They have signs leading up to the tunnels to prepare travelers for entry. One of them said, “Remove Sunglasses,” which made sense to me because you don’t want drivers wearing shades inside a dark tunnel. My wife didn’t see it that way, instead taking it as a sign that the state of Pennsylvania was trying to impede here personal freedoms, which led to her yelling loudly at one point, “Stop telling me what to do, Pennsylvania!”)
We got to Pittsburgh at about noon, parked at our hotel right across the street from PNC Park, and walked over to take a look around before the 1:30 game. From reading up online, I realized that there were a bunch of things we had missed in June and I wanted to make sure I saw them on this trip. The highest priorities were the statues of Willie Stargell and Honus Wagner. We’d seen Roberto Clemente’s outside the centerfield gates, but had never crossed paths with Pops and Hans. Also, there was supposedly a statue of Ralph Kiner inside, just outside Section 135. This would have been really cool to see, if we could have found Section 135. Alas, Kiner was not meant to be.
What we did see as we came through the gate on the third base side was even cooler. We had been unable to find Stargell and Wagner right away, which was sort of disappointing. Immediately inside the gate, however, was a statue of Josh Gibson. Further investigation revealed more Negro League greats – Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson, Satchel Paige. It was unexpected because nothing I had read had mentioned this area, but I wasn’t complaining. Just one more thing that the people who designed PNC Park did right.
On our way up to our seats, we saw the famous prize wheel that was really the reason we were there in the first place. My wife wanted to take her chances at winning a visor, so of course we waited in line to spin it again. She didn’t get what she wanted – it landed on a Willie Stargell plate (with a sticker on it that says it may be poisonous to food). For my turn, I gave it a whirl…and ended up on the square for free tickets. There’s no way I’m traveling from Pittsburgh to New Hampshire three times in less than three months, so…somebody else will get to enjoy a Pirates game this month. Two’s my limit.
Our seats for this game were in the infield grandstand, on the 300-level, which provided an even better view than I could have imagined:
If someone wants me to believe that this is not the most beautiful ballpark in America, they’re going to have to convince me. Outstanding.
Also outstanding was the way St. Louis centerfielder Colby Rasmus covered all that ground out there. I know ballpark crowds aren’t the best judge of fly ball depth, but there were at least three or four times where a batter hit one deep, a roar went up from the crowd, and Rasmus just cruised back and handled the play effortlessly. He also came very close to throwing a runner out at the plate, playing a line drive in front of him and uncorking a great throw that was just a second or two late.
Rasmus’s counterpart and fellow top prospect-turned-rookie Andrew McCutchen had a good day as well, finishing 2-5 with two runs scored and coming about as close as Rasmus to gunning someone down at home. He was also one of the players featured in a video Q&A on the scoreboard in between innings. The question was, “What would you do if you were president?” A few different players gave the usual answers – “lower taxes” is the one I remember – but McCutchen got on the screen and started laughing. “Oh, man,” he said,” Can I just sit back in the Oval Office, put my hands back, be like, man, president.”
I think Andrew McCutchen might be awesome.
Oh, and one of those runs? The game-winner, scored when he came around from second on Garrett Jones’ drive into the left-center field gap with one out in the bottom of the ninth, a ball that Rasmus wasn’t able to outrun. McCutchen crossed the plate with the Pirates’ second run of the inning, erasing a lead the Cardinals had gained on a Rick Ankiel homer in the top half, and immediately impressed me again when he led the charge to meet and celebrate Jones near second base.
I think Andrew McCutchen might be one of my favorite players.
The Pirates had lost eight straight leading up to that game and were merely postponing the loss that would give them a record seventeenth consecutive losing season, but for that moment, they might as well have been Little Leaguers celebrating after a big, well-earned win. It was nice to see them display such heart in a game that meant relatively nothing in the grand scheme of things.
A few other notes from the game: Pirates broadcaster Steve Blass started throwing hats from the booth into the stands late in the game – a lady in the row behind me dove for one, missed, and I had to catch her; Neil Walker picked up his first major league hit in the eighth inning; my wife got a sunburn – on one side of her body; I’ve seen the Pirates play twice this year, and Paul Maholm has started both games.
On our way out, I took a few more pictures of the Negro League statues (it had been too sunny earlier to get good ones) before we went out the left field gate to see the Willie Stargell statue. It was just as impressive as Clemente (which we saw from a distance but didn’t visit up close):
I tried to get a picture of just the statue, but it was a madhouse. Even while these kids were posing, a father was getting ready to jump in and take a picture with his daughter. So, I get a picture of Pops with a couple of random kids.
After I took my pictures, we walked the hundred yards back to our hotel to relax for awhile before going out for dinner and finding the Wagner statue. We decided to go to Jerome Bettis Grille 36, mainly because it was within easy walking distance.
We had to wait for about fifteen minutes for a table, but it was well worth it. The waiter was friendly, the food delicious, and the atmosphere good. As my wife said, “I like that it’s Jerome Bettis’ place, but it’s not like, ‘Look at me, look at me.’ It’s not showy.” And it was inexpensive, too, which was a big deal because cash was running low by that point. The only thing I noticed that might be worth criticizing was the service – a table of six people next to us had their food brought out over a period of about ten minutes, so some people were eating while others sat and watched. Our waiter said that when it gets really busy, the kitchen can have a hard time keeping up. Really, though, the food was so good that it didn’t matter. I would’ve waited.
On our way back to the hotel, we asked a guy at a valet booth about the remains of Three Rivers Stadium. He pointed back in the direction from which we had come, where Heinz Field loomed, and said, “Well, there’s that parking lot over there, and they left up one of the gates.” He went on to tell us a little bit about the demolition – Heinz Field was built so close that they had to take special precautions when Three Rivers came down – and answered a question I had about Forbes Field (home plate is still located in one of the buildings on Pitt’s campus), and we were on our way again.
And then, finally, Honus Wagner. He was literally parked right in front of the main entrance to the ballpark, smaller than the other two but higher because he is on a pedestal. The picture came out a little darker than I would’ve liked, but tell me this doesn’t look cool:
With that, the sightseeing portion of our trip essentially came to a close. We went back to the hotel, passed out by 9:30, and slept for about nine hours in preparation for the ten hour drive home on Monday. It was a long drive, fortunately light on traffic (we specifically avoided New York City and its traffic), and absolutely nothing of note happened.