Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The 10 Best Things About Pittsburgh: #1

#1 PNC Park. When I was a kid, I saw my first big league game in Three Rivers Stadium. It was the stadium of the future; a giant mass of concrete with the fans kept far away from the playing field. But I loved it. For less than $10, I could ride the bus there and back, get a ticket, a coke and a hot dog. Three Rivers was cold and sterile. I went to other horrid stadiums and parks too; the Kingdome in Seattle (Like watching baseball in a bomb shelter), Exhibition Stadium in Toronto (called the Mistake By The Lake), and Municipal Stadium in Baltimore (I think the filth and rust held the iron girders together). I thought this was how baseball was supposed to be.

I must admit that that changed after a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Let me make this clear, I never was an Orioles fan, but I liked Cal Ripken and it was the only game in town). It's a really nice park an the first of the "new' parks. It has personality. After the Nationals came to DC, it was back to the giant concrete monstrosity, RFK Stadium, to watch baseball. It had the architecture of Three Rivers, the cold impersonality of the Kingdome, and the distance from the field of Exhibition Stadium. But at least we had baseball in DC.

It seemed that every summer that we travelled back to Pittsburgh, the Pirates were out of town that week, plus I don't think that Nancy thought that sitting at a ball game for three hours was high on the priority list. Since living in Pittsburgh, I end up driving by PNC Park a couple of times a week. All winter, I'd sneak peeks into it as I drove by trying to get a feel for the place. I was determined to take our older son to a few games this year.

Last week we along with a friend went to our first game. It was beautiful! Our seats were just past 3rd base, probably about 170 feet back from the foul line. The first thing you notice is the view of downtown Pittsburgh laid out behind the outfield wall. Then you notice the light towers which are based on the towers from old Forbes Field, a unique feature of PNC Park. And the players were right there. You are so close, you fell as though you are part of the game. I felt like Robert Redford might walk out of the dugout in his New York Knights uniform at any moment. I imagine that this was how baseball was meant to be watched.

And the Pirates won the game; which I must admit, was a pleasant surprise.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The 10 Best Things About Pittsburgh: #2

#2 The Strip District. "The Strip" is not Pittsburgh's premiere gentlemen's club nor is it any other seedy, smoke-filled establishment where woman disrobe. The Strip is a neighborhood bordered by the Allegheny River and Liberty Avenue from 11th through 33rd streets in Pittsburgh. In the early 19th century, the Strip District was home to many mills and factories as its location along the Allegheny River made for easy transportation of goods and shipping of raw materials. The H.J. Heinz Company, famous ketchup and condiment manufacturer is located here.

The shipping infrastructure built around the manufacturing companies lead to The Strip becoming a vibrant network of wholesalers—mostly fresh produce, meat, and poultry dealers. Soon auction houses rose around the wholesale warehouses and many restaurants and grocery stores were built to feed hungry shift workers at any hour of the day. By the 1920s The Strip District was the economic center of Pittsburgh.

Today in the Strip District there are still several wholesalers and produce dealers. Today many of the abandoned warehouses have been renovated into small specialty shops, restaurants, night clubs, and bars. The area has developed into a historic market district with many ethnic food purveyers, some art studios, antique dealers, unique boutiques and other such businesses setting up shop where trains once delivered produce by the ton. The Strip District comes alive primarily on weekends during the summer months when street vendors are selling their wares, the open-air farmer's markets are in full swing.

One of my favorite places is the world famous Primanti Bros. restaurant. There's no need to order fries and cole slaw with your sandwich; they already come on your sandwich. I remember going to The Strip with my brother when I was a kid and getting one and feeling all grown up. I spent many a night after a Sigma Nu party sobering up, I mean grabbing a late night snack there during my college years. After not having one for nearly 20 years while living in Virginia, I took my wife there. Iwas so excited. We waited in line for about 40 minutes; we ordered a couple of the #2 Best Selling Cheese Steaks; I waited for her reaction to the wonderfulness of this sandwich. It never came. I was devastated! She didn't like it!

So I was all a flutter when attending a Pirates game this past weekend when she said she'd give them another try. Luckily, PNC Park has a Primanti Bros. right behind home plate. OK, I've got to give her credit for trying again, but she had the same reaction. To be fair, the ones at PNC aren't as good as the ones in The Strip; or could it be they just tasted better at 4 a.m. after a party with my fraternity brothers and a few CMU and Duquesne co-eds?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The 10 Best Things About Pittsburgh: #3

#3 "We Are Fam-a-lee". OK, when I was a kid during the Pirates '79 season, they played that gawd awful song "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge ad nauseum! I hated it then, I hate it now. Pittsburgh was never a "disco" town, yet during that year Pittsburgh lost it's collective marbles and that song became everyone's favorite; except mine. I remember sitting at game 5 of the '79 World Series with my best friend at the time John V. John was into Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet and Led Zeppelin, yet even he swayed to that disco beat. I was not alone though. The twenty or thirty Baltimore Oriole's fans who sat in our section also sat there scowling when that song came on; mostly.

So what does this have to do with the "best" of Pittsburgh? Even though I despise the song, Pittsburghers really are kind of a family. Pittsburghers for the most part are not a class-conscious group. That's part of the blue-collar ethos that still lingers as part of this area's culture. Pittsburghers don't like conspicuous displays of upper-class status and pretensions. Trends aeren't as important here, at least once you are over 30. Pittsburghers genuinely like each other despite social and economic differences. I see it every time I stop for coffee, go to the grocery store or see a show. We are family.