Saturday, August 27, 2011

PNC=Panoramic Nonpareil Cityscape

After hearing for many years about the splendors of PNC Park in Pittsburgh, I finally got there last weekend. My friend and former Hall of Fame colleague Russell Wolinsky wanted to make the pilgrimage, which was enough to persuade me to join him there on one of the three days I visited the ballpark I'd been told was even more beautiful than whatever they're calling that place in San Francisco these days.

Russell and I managed to buy tickets separately online in the same row for Monday's twi-night doubleheader between the Pirates and the Brewers. As a bonus, I went to the Saturday and Sunday games with my Reds, stayed with a college friend I hadn't seen since last century, and planned an encore visit to the remnants of the left-center field wall from Forbes Field, which ought to have a statue in front of it of Yogi Berra gazing helplessly up at the spot where Bill Mazeroski's Series-ending home run sailed into immortality on October 13, 1960.

Let me cut to the bottom line: if you haven't been to PNC Park, get there! Don't wait for the Pirates to be contenders; though all four games I attended were close and mostly well-played, the ballgame is not the chief attraction. Simply sitting in any seat in the park and taking in the spectacular views beyond the outfield walls is a breathtaking experience you cannot get anywhere else. I lived in the Bay Area when the park first known as Pacific Bell Park opened in 2000. I went to twenty or so games there before moving to Cooperstown in 2002, and it's fantastic. No major league park, including PNC, has a more attractive perimeter. Take the walkway past McCovey Cove to the McCovey statue, stroll along the concourse past right field where you can duck into an enclosure and watch part of the game for free, circle around past the marina and the looming Bay Bridge, and complete the circuit by admiring the statue of Willie Mays in front of the main entrance and the statues of Orlando Cepeda and high-kicking Juan Marichal near the Lefty O'Doul Bridge in the right-field corner.

As terrific as the views were at Pac Bell, I found that the best views from inside the park were in the worst seats for watching the game, out in the upper deck in right field, where you could look down at the fans in boats waiting for a Barry Bonds blast into the cove, and enjoy the best angle on the marina and the bridge. But you didn't have that great a view of the game. That's the best thing about PNC: you can get similar views from out in right field of the bridges on the Allegheny River, but the most spectacular views are from the seats that are also closest to the baseball action. And they're about as cheap as you can find for prime seats these days; Russell and I sat in the grandstand one section over from home plate for $27. For my first game, I splurged on a box seat seven rows up from the first-base dugout. It cost a mere $35; the same seat at Fenway Park would cost $135, and it would be at least twice that sum at Yankee Stadium.

Let's talk about the views at PNC. Better yet, let's look at them. Here are some of the photos I took:

Notice how the colors of the buildings change depending on the amount of sunlight. The top photo was taken at twilight, the middle one on a cloudy early afternoon, and the bottom one around 5 PM. They appear to be right beyond the outfield fences, though the yellow bridge reminds us that the Allegheny River lies in between. That's the Roberto Clemente Bridge, a footbridge leading to a downtown area that has undergone decades of renewal. A century ago this city was dubbed "Smoketown," but that is thankfully just a factoid from the distance past now. Here's a better image of the Clemente Bridge, with The Great One's statue and yours truly:

I saw four close games in three days on this trip, all decided in the late innings, the Pirates splitting two games over the weekend with the Reds, and dividing a pair with the Brewers in a rare twinight doubleheader. One player I particularly wanted to see was the Reds' flamethrowing lefty, Aroldis Chapman. He entered a tie game on Saturday and gave up two runs, taking the loss, but not before I got this striking image of a 98mph pitch that for him is almost a change-up:

I saw a lot of good baseball in Pittsburgh, except for one recurring theme. Since it's one hobby horse I haven't carried on about in my blog before, this is the time. It concerns sacrifice bunts by position players. I thought Bill James proved back in the 1980s that the sacrifice bunt was a self-defeating strategy, and the explanation seems pretty simple. If you have a runner at first base with nobody out, you have a better chance of scoring (and of scoring more runs when you do score) than you do with a runner at second base and one out. The same is true with any combination of runners; if you give up an out, you reduce your odds of scoring, even if you've advanced the runner(s). The obvious conclusion is that you should only ask your weak-hitting pitcher to sacrifice, not your professional hitters.

Apparently Clint Hurdle and Dusty Baker haven't gotten the message, because I watched them demonstrate the futility of asking hitters to bunt. Two instances occurred in the first game I went to, and a third in the doubleheader, which made me think that these managers would have been more comfortable in 1911 than in 2011. In the bottom of the fourth inning, trailing 1-0, the Pirates had runners on first and second with nobody out. Up came Neil Walker, one of the two best hitters in the lineup. He bunted. Let's say the bunt works and moves the runners to second and third. The next hitter was Brandon Wood, hitting about .210, and following him was Ronnie Cedeno, another weak hitter. So the guy who was on pace for 90+ RBI tried to bunt over two runners. Does that make any kind of sense? In the fourth inning of a 1-0 game?

Walker popped up the bunt and the pitcher caught it easily. Wood struck out, but Cedeno singled in one run before the rally fizzled. In the next inning, Walker came up with runners on first and second with one out, and he singled in a run. In fact, the failed sacrifice attempt was the only out he made in the game; he went 3-for-4 with a pair of RBI singles. But Clint Hurdle felt it was more important in the fourth inning of a 1-0 game to take the bat out of Walker's hands. No wonder the Pirates are near the bottom of the barrel in runs scored this season.

What happened in the seventh inning turned my stomach. Trailing 3-2, the Reds started the inning with a single and an RBI double, tying the game. Up came Paul Janish, like Brandon Wood a player for whom the term "professional hitter" might be a stretch, sporting a .220 career average. So I could almost see why Dusty Baker asked him to bunt the first pitch. He bunted foul. On deck was a pinch-hitter for the pitcher, so give Janish a chance to bunt the runner to third. When Baker had him bunt the second pitch, I had to wonder. Janish isn't a pull hitter, and the least he should be able to do is tap a little ground ball to the right side that would move the runner to third. He might even get a base hit.

Two things should be mentioned at this point, two things about baseball in recent years that most observers (especially the ex-players doing commentary) have concluded: bunting "skill" has deteriorated, and pitchers keep getting worse at fielding bunts. So a bunt in fair territory isn't automatically conceding an out. Just as a .200 hitter's little ground ball to the right side might find the hole and become a base hit, so might the bunt halfway to the mound get misplayed into runners on first and third. So I could almost see why Baker asked Janish to bunt twice. Of course, Janish merely proved that he wasn't up to that task.

So what happened on the 0-2 pitch? Janish tried to bunt again! And he popped it up right to the pitcher. I almost chewed up my scorecard when I saw that. Did Baker think Janish was no better than a pitcher with a .115 batting average? Did he have so little faith that Janish could make enough contact by swinging to move the runner over? He had managed a double and a single the night before. Way to stoke his confidence, Dusty! Bunting on an 0-2 pitch with nobody out! Baker got what he deserved. The Reds didn't score that inning, and the Pirates got the winning runs off Chapman in the bottom of the inning when that guy Walker came up with runners on first and second and one out, and singled in the deciding run.

Skip ahead to Monday and the second game of the doubleheader with the Brewers. The Brewers stormed to an 8-1 victory in the opener (it was 2-0 after seven innings), giving them a 9-0 record against the Pirates this season. When Corey Hart opened the nightcap with a home run, I'm sure the hometown fans thought, "here we go again." But the Pirates held tough, and it was a 2-2 game going to the bottom of the seventh inning. The Pirates got the first two men on base, and here came rookie third baseman Josh Harrison, who had tripled and singled in the first game and was hitting about .260. You know Hurdle asked him to bunt the first pitch, and you also know that he fouled it off. The pitcher was Zack Greinke, a tough righty with a wicked curve, so let's give Harrison a chance to sacrifice.

You probably know what happened on the second pitch. Another signal to sacrifice, and another foul ball. At some point, doesn't the manager have to say, "okay, kid, let's see what you can do," and give him a chance to hit? Isn't that what a young team like the Pirates is about--giving young players a chance to do something right? Is playing for one run even the best option for the home team in a tie game in the seventh inning against a high-powered offense? Well, Hurdle, possibly having learned a lesson about the futility of asking a hitter in 2011 to lay down a sacrifice, decided to let Harrison swing away.

Greinke threw a wicked curve that broke low and away out of the strike zone. Harrison chased it with a flailing hack--and sent a dying quail into short left field that went for a double, scoring the go-ahead run. From that point, the Pirates proceeded to put together their biggest rally of the season, a seven-run outburst that allowed them to cruise to the victory. That's all it took. Give a "professional" hitter (no matter how raw or helpless he looks, he's still getting paid $300,000+ to swing the bat in the major leagues) a chance to hit. Something good might happen. Imagine asking your shortstop to bunt an 0-2 pitch with nobody out in the seventh inning of a tie game!

That was the only ugly thing I saw in three days at spectacular PNC Park.


Mad Guru said...

Concerning the sacrifice and knowledge of it, my 11 year old son was playing right field in his Little League playoffs this past spring and the opposing team tried to lay down a bunt. My son yells from right field "Bunting never works". Words of wisdom right there.

cheeseblab said...

You are just the latest of many to urge me to get to PNC, and dammit, I'm just going to have to figure out how to do so. The Iron City holds a lot of great memories for me: first place I saw Elvis Costello live, first place I racked up an unconscionable level of credit card debt (stereo equipment), first place I snagged a big-league foul ball. You're right: I need a road trip.

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