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Pirates How to make new park the place to be

Sunday, April 15, 2001

By Bob Smizik, Post-Gazette Sports Columnist

There is a buzz around the opening of PNC Park that is far greater than, but still mindful of, the days before and immediately after the opening of Three Rivers Stadium. Hard to believe after all the criticism it took over its 30-year existence, but when it opened in the summer of 1970,Three Rivers was seen as a new beginning for baseball in Pittsburgh.

 

It wasn't, as is well known. Instead, almost from the day it opened, Three Rivers became a focal point of criticism. It was too hard to get to, too hard to get out of. The seats were bad, the prices were high, the parking was outrageous.

Although the Pirates had one of the best teams in baseball throughout most of the 1970s, attendance never rose above 1.5 million. By modern standards, with 2 million barely more than acceptable in many cities and 3 million the norm with some franchises, those numbers seem to defy belief.

The year after the Pirates won the World Series in 1971 -- the second year of Three Rivers Stadium's existence -- attendance fell. This on a team with Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski. It fell again the next year and the year after that -- despite the Pirates winning a division title.

Clearly, Three Rivers did not jump-start a new era in Pirates baseball.

It's seems preposterous to suggest PNC Park won't be a significant benefit to the franchise, but history has been known to repeat itself.

To make certain that it doesn't, here's a list of what should be done to keep baseball successful and PNC Park humming for the remainder of this decade and beyond.

Develop the area:

People want to have fun when they go to a sporting event. And the fun must be more than just the action on the field. They want a party, not just a ball game. There must be things to do and places to go on the North Side to keep people happy and in a party mood. If Three Rivers taught us anything, it's that acres of parking spaces don't excite the paying customers.

There are big plans for North Shore development, but, of course, there were such plans for Three Rivers Stadium, too.

There need to be bars, restaurants, perhaps a hotel and attractions that will draw people to the area even when the team isn't doing well or when the opposition is especially lackluster.

The Roberto Clemente Bridge, the main artery from downtown to PNC Park, needs to be part of the action. What ever it takes to make people want to walk from town to the stadium needs to be done on the bridge, which will be closed to vehicular traffic on game days.

Change the image of the players:

Most baseball players are decent fellows, who you'd be happy to have as a neighbor. But too many bad apples -- Gary Sheffield, Frank Thomas, Rickey Henderson and the like -- create a perception that players are jerks. The team needs to let the public get to know the players and the players have to be willing to join in the venture.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the Steelers is their players are perceived, correctly so, as good guys who appreciate their situation and work hard to maintain it.

Make getting in and getting out as painless as possible:

Three Rivers received horrible word-of-mouth reviews because people coming to and leaving Pirates games were often caught in traffic jams. Any time more than 30,000 people congregate in a small area, there will be traffic problems. The Pirates and the city have to do better.

Developing the area will keep some people around after the game, lessening the chances of traffic tie-ups. Same for before the game if people come early to have their dinner at PNC Park or a nearby restaurant.

Parking does not look promising and that's not good. People must be educated about where to park and the fact they might have a 10 or 15-minute walk from their car. If they know in advance, it lessens the aggravation.

Listen to the people:

There will be tremendous feedback in the early days. Much of it will be complaints and some of it will be justified. The Pirates have to react to fan unhappiness to keep them coming back.

Put a good team on the field:

This is most important. The Pirates have shown early signs of being willing to spend money to make their team better. They have to learn to spend it a little more wisely. Sometimes it's better to put money into scouting and development than it is into the pocket of a free-agent.

The farm system -- the lifeblood of every team -- must be improved. It has been absolutely dreadful for the better part of the past decade. The Pirates can't exist on free-agent signings. There are indications the farm system is becoming more productive, but progress must be monitored closely and changes made quickly if necessary.

PNC can work, it should work. It can be the beginning of a new and better era for the Pirates and the region. But it won't happen automatically. The tremendous effort put into generating public support, financing and building the stadium were only the beginning. There's much hard work to be done but the results can make it all more than worth the effort.


Next: Things on the North Shore are developing

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