The Pittsburgh Pirates held their home opener at PNC Park on April 12th. First pitch was scheduled for 4:12 PM, a deliberately specific start time that sought to establish hometown Yinzer synergy with the 4/12 game date and Pittsburgh’s 412 area code. I had been eagerly anticipating opening day since I hadn’t attended a Pirates home opener since 2019. When I saw the crowds thronging to the stadium I realized that I was not alone: the pandemic-wrought disruptions of the past two seasons meant that no one had been able to enjoy a proper opening day game in Pittsburgh for three years. It was also a gorgeous afternoon with ideal weather for taking in a baseball game, considerably warmer than the chill and windy conditions during the 2019 home opener.
In addition to the return of a full capacity home opener this opening day game was also the debut of numerous new additions and renovations that were made to PNC Park during the offseason. Dubbed “fan experience enhancements,” these changes not only included the usual change up of concession offerings but also some significant alterations to the physical spaces of the ballpark itself. The physical modifications were made in coordination with Janet Marie Smith, a ballpark designer who’s overseen similar projects at Baltimore’s Camden Yards as well as Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium. During press previews of the renovations Smith described PNC as “one of the most iconic ballparks in the U.S.” and described some of the changing fan behaviors and expectations that the additions aim to accommodate.
The new stadium features are encountered before even entering the ballpark. New commemorative monuments have been installed along the riverwalk that separates PNC Park from the Allegheny in the form of oversized baseball sculptures featuring the names of notable players and hall-of-famers. The monuments not only recognize storied players from throughout the Pirates long history but also include players from Pittsburgh’s most prominent Negro Leagues teams, namely the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords.
I’ve previously written about Negro Leagues commemoration at PNC Park, and my chapter in the Urban Communication Reader Vol. IV focuses on various failures or frustrations of memorializing the history of Black baseball in Pittsburgh (one of the significant examples from PNC Park being the former Legacy Square installation). With this history in mind I appreciated the new (and ostensibly permanent) commemorative markers that honor this legacy. Yet amongst these welcome efforts the Pirates organization once again found frustration in its attempts at Negro Leagues memorialization when a large bobblehead-style statue of a Black baseball player was rejected prior to its installation in PNC Park. After images of the statue appeared online some social media users remarked that the likeness evoked legacies of racist caricatures.
Aside from the baseball monuments the Pirates also installed large sculptures of retired player numbers along the rampway that connects the riverwalk to the northern terminus of the Clemente bridge and PNC Park’s Center Field Gate.
Speaking of the Center Field Gate, visitors entering PNC Park through this portal will almost immediately encounter the most significant physical alterations to the space of the ballpark. The areas around the outfield have been substantially renovated to feature new seating areas, hightop tables with patio umbrellas, and two new concession stations. In addition to providing great new spaces for watching the field these areas also open up new vistas of the ballpark.
In the area that previously housed a small, standalone security outpost building there is a brand new bar concession (sponsored by Fatheads Brewery, which also hosts one of my go-to South Side spots).
As the name suggests, the Fathead’s Bullpen Bar also features an extended drink rail directly overlooking the bullpen. I think this is an especially neat addition, as previously the area above the bullpen was rather heavily policed by the resident security staff who often shooed away peering fans. It’s a nice addition that affords a wholly unique perspective for watching the game yet I have to imagine that this privileged position will regularly feature “spirited” patrons heckling hometeam and visiting relief pitchers alike.
The outward-facing side of the Bullpen bar is festooned with Pirates banners and features the same stellar city views that this part of the ballpark has always provided.
Also in this outfield area is Manny’s BBQ, which is not a new concession but rather a longtime favorite for food offerings at PNC. Nevertheless, it did receive some updates including oversized reproductions of baseball cards from throughout the career of the restaurant’s namesake Manny Sanguillén. I had often heard that Manny himself could sometimes be found manning the stand, but this opening day visit was the first time I actually witnessed such an occurrence. In the photo below you can see Manny in the lower left corner greeting fans beneath some of the new baseball card features.
There are new commemorative and decorative installations throughout the ballpark, such as these vintage-style Pirates pennants and “Let’s Go Bucs” signage.
Some additional commemorative features are still in the works, as evident by the “coming soon” banner along this new Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame wall.
The game ended shortly before sunset, and the long shadows and suffused light on this opening day made me think of the final game of the previous season last October.
As we were informed last year, the Roberto Clemente Bridge is currently closed for renovations and will remain inaccessible for the remainder of this season. While the bridge itself may not officially be part of the ballpark, it is an indelible feature of the overall PNC Park panorama and common accessway to the stadium. As such, traversing the bridge is closely connected to the entire game day experience for many visitors. On my way to the game I took the T to the North Side station (something I hadn’t done in years). When leaving I joined the crowds crossing the 7th Street Andy Warhol Bridge. While adjusting to this detour I wondered about the fate of another iconic feature of a Pirates home game experience: the “Sax Man,” AKA Reggie Howze, the Hill District native who has been playing saxophone on the Clemente Bridge before and after Pirates games since 1998. To my delight, Mr. Howze was indeed posted up on the sister bridge providing exit music for the departing fans.