Thursday, July 2, 2009

Day 2 Baseball Trip - Pittsburgh -Chicago

I am sorry that these postings are behind schedule. It was very difficult writing my blog considering the amount of time we had to spend on the road and how late we got into our hotels. So this has now become a day by day past history log of each day of the trip.

Day 2 started at the Comfort Inn Pittsburgh East hotel. After a warm, tasty breakfast and a dip in the very large indoor pool, we decided to head to the Pittsburgh Zoo, a place I took my family to last year. However, Tieff and I decided to do something before our tour of the zoo. Tailgate with some Mike's Lemonades! Hey, its the only way to prep for the shark exhibit!

The Pittsburgh Zoo is a very underrated, interactive (as Tieff puts it) zoo. The main attractions are the African jungle and the aquarium that's part of the zoo, which contains the shark exhibit and penguins. We started with the snow leopard and tiger exhibits and worked our way around the zoo. You can get a lot closer to the animals at the Pittsburgh Zoo than say the Bronx Zoo. See the tiger picture to the left of this for further proof.

At the zoo, we noticed a lot of Chicago Cubs fans who made the trip from the Windy City to the Steel City. In fact, the running joke at the bears exhibit was that the grizzly bear should be named "Ditka". The other running joke was after seeing the Grant Zebras at the zoo, Tieff and I kept running the joke "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb? Grant's Zebras!" I know...booo!

As for the Pittsburgh Zoo, you can spend a good part of the day at the zoo if you are with your family, like I did last year. It's one of the real jewels of Pittsburgh, along with the national aviary. After I complete a day to day log of this baseball trip, I will follow it up with suggestions for day trips to each of the baseball cities/ballparks I visited.

So after two or so hours at the Pittsburgh Zoo, we headed to PNC park for the game between the Pirates and the Chicago Cubs. As you can see from the picture to the left, PNC Park is basically in downtown Pittsburgh right across from the Roberto Clemente bridge. To me, the ballpark features the best centerfield backdrop view of any ballpark I have ever seen.

PNC is also very intimate. It seats 38,396 and it feels that way. You are very close to the action and there is little in the way of foul territory. This was my second game at PNC. The first game was last summer with my Uncle Elmer (who lives right outside Pittsburgh in Glenshaw) and my oldest son Matthew. For that game we sat on the first base line, parallel to first base. For this game against the Cubs, as you can see above, we sat behind home plate. I paid $27.00 per ticket for these seats which I only got a few weeks ago (of course I had to pay the awful Ticketmaster event fee as well - it's how they make their money). There was a reason why I was able to get seats like this only a few weeks in advance and I will get to that shortly.

Sadly there weren't a lot of people here at this game, which became the theme for a lot of the games I went to on this trip. The economy has really hit older cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati the hardest. Old steel and factory cities that rely heavily on manufacturing and industry. Pittsburgh seems to be one of the hardest hit. There were only 15,000 in attendance at this game and it was mostly Cubs fans. The usher for our section warned me that there wasn't going to be too many people in attendance tonight.

$27 a ticket seems incredibly reasonable for someone like me from New York who is used to paying $60 a seat for games in the rightfield corner with a limited view for a non-premium tiered Mets game (meaning it would have been more watching the Dodgers play the Mets than the Marlins game I attended). In fact, where we were sitting at PNC would have cost at least 15-20 times more at Citi Field.

But there are several reasons why I was able to get great seats for this game and the Thursday Mets-Pirates game. The cost of living in Pittsburgh is much less than New York, thus the average salary a Pittsburgh resident makes is much less as well. So the Pirates have priced their seats accordingly. Also, the Pirates have not had a winning season in over seventeen years and they are on pace to make it eighteen this year. The Pirates haven't won over 70 games since 2004.

It's sad to see because the Pirates were once one of the most dominant teams in baseball. In fact from 1969-1979, the Pirates finished first in the National League East Division six times and won two World Series (1971 and 1979), thanks to guys like Hall of Famer Willie Stargell (whose bronze statue at the park is shown above).

And their team's payroll is one of the lowest in baseball. In the past 18 months, they have traded away reasonably priced players such as Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, and most recently Nate McLouth, who they signed to a three year, fifteen million dollar deal in February. McLouth was traded to the Braves for three prospects, a common theme in all the recent Pirates trades.

In fact, we got to see a little irony at this game on Monday night. The Pirates left fielder Monday night was Nyjer Morgan, a fast left handed hitting left fielder who led the Pirates in steals. It was the last game I saw Morgan play for the Pirates. On Wednesday, the Pirates stupidly traded Morgan to the Washington Nationals for the enigmatic (and also currently hurt) Lastings Milledge and "The Wild Thing", Joel Hanrahan. The Pirates players were very outspoken in the media against the trade.

In fact at the Nationals game on Friday night , we talked to a rabid Nationals fan who commented "I guess the Pirates saw something in Hanrahan that we hadn't seen in the first sixty games." Ouch!. So two thirds of the Pirates starting outfield at the start of the season, Morgan and McLouth, are now gone. Ah the genius of Neal Huntington. Huntington seems to have followed in the footsteps of Dave Littlefield and Cam Bonifay, the two previous general managers of the Pirates who were equally inept.

As for the game itself, well it was not surprising that the Pirates offense which once boasted two all stars in Bay and McLouth, is now so anemic. They managed only one run against the Cubs Rich Harden who struck out nine in seven innings. Of course, genius me forgot to move Harden up in my CBS Sportsline league (I also did that with Randy Wells two nights later -duh). Zach Duke, the Pirates ace, pitched well giving up only three runs in seven innings but he got no support from the Pirate lineup. The Pirates had nine hits, but outside of Andy LaRoche's double, they were for the most part soft hits.

The Cubs got their runs on a solo homer from the suddenly powerful Ryan Theriot, a RBI double from Milton Bradley and a RBI single from light hitting Andres Blanco. The Pirates scored their lone run on a Jack Wilson groundout. Final, 3-1 Cubs as Kevin Gregg closed the Buccos out in the ninth for the save.

We left PNC for another hotel in Pittsburgh that Tieff thought was closer to Cleveland. Turned out it was only six miles away from our other hotel. LOL. I left that night wondering when the Pirates would be successful again. They seem to be hamstrung with a tight payroll, a lousy general manager in Huntington and a rough economy that has hit Pittsburgh hard.

It's truly a shame to see only 15,000 in what I consider the most beautiful baseball park in America. But I knew I would get to see it again on Thursday when the Buccos take on the Mets. Now it was off to Cleveland, where again I got to see a once proud franchise having fallen on hard times. Details to come.

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