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Pirates Fans will see a different brand of baseball

Players face new challenges at PNC Park

Sunday, April 15, 2001

By Robert Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

It's like meeting a new heartthrob. There is an instant physical attraction, and you can't wait to discover more about this charming personality. But as with any new love interest, you'll need more time to find out what she's really like.

Introducing PNC Park and its grass field, short foul lines and intriguing proximity to the Allegheny River. Its spacious outfield likely will produce more triples and will require fielders to be fleet of foot. The distances from home plate to the outfield fences seem fair but beg the question of how much of a factor the wind will be. Foul territory is sparse and the pretty limestone wall behind home plate could send wild pitches careening every which way.

No more symmetrical, generic layout like Three Rivers Stadium. This is a one-of-a-kind diamond with idiosyncrasies waiting to be discovered, a real baseball park that looks small -- certainly less spacious than Forbes Field -- but one that should provide a real showcase for baseball.

One of the universal charms of baseball is that the field has a part in the way the game unfolds. Hockey rinks and football fields have set dimensions; real baseball parks have individual personalities and play a role in how the games turn out.

The first time the players toured the construction site in November, when the grass carpet had been laid but had not yet taken root, center fielder Adrian Brown heard it from his teammates: "A.B., you'd better be in shape to run down some balls."

Standing in a concrete shell that is now the Pirates dugout on the third base side, Brown gazed out to the gaps with the look of a kid staring into a candy store window.

"There's a lot of room out there," Brown said. "Time will tell, but it looks like a lot of ground to cover."

PNC is 325 feet down the left field line, which swings out quickly to 389 feet in the gap. There's a cranny in left center that forms the deepest part of the ballpark at 410 feet, and a ball hit there could do a lot of tricks. Straight-away center field is 399 feet, which cozies back in to a 375-foot power alley in right center and then back to 320 feet down the right field line.

It has fences that don't confine because the city skyline is the outfield backdrop. Conversely, a person looking at the park from Stanwix Street and Fort Duquesne Boulevard, Downtown, might feel like he's inside the park. The left field fence is six-feet high, which will make for some interesting interplay with the fans. In center, the wall is 10 feet. And in right, it's 21 -- a tribute to Roberto Clemente, whose name adorns the bridge leading to the ballpark's front door on Federal Street.

"The gaps are so big, I think you're going to see a lot more triples," left fielder Brian Giles said after getting his first impression. "The detail work is unbelievable. When all is said and done, I think it's going to be exciting."

A ball will have to carry more than 450 feet to clear the right field wall and the Riverwalk behind the stands to splash into the Allegheny River. Will there be boaters racing to retrieve balls, a la McCovey Cove outside of Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco?

"That's a long way. To hit one out there (in the water), you'd have to hit a bomb," said Giles, who maybe hit three or four of his 35 home runs that far last year.

The ballpark has elements of Wrigley Field and Camden Yards, but it was designed specifically for the Pirates. Major input came from General Manager Cam Bonifay, who is partial to the National League game that requires foot speed, arm strength and athleticism over the American League power game played out in hitters' parks.

"It's not a banger's box, so to speak," Bonifay said. "You're going to have to have somebody who can run the ball down. I gave our hitters a little sweetener down the corners. If you really turned on it, you've got a short corner, but you still have to hit the ball out in the gaps. I didn't want to make it too unfair for our pitching staff."

But don't think for a moment the pitchers haven't checked out those foul line dimensions while imagining Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. digging into the clay of the batter's box.

"You don't want to let anybody pull the ball," said pitcher Todd Ritchie.

Nobody's going to know until the weather warms in May how the ball will carry, especially with the wind an unknown factor in an open setting, but finding out about the corner porches won't be a mystery for long.

"Early in the season, you have to pitch inside," said reliever Jose Silva.

"It maybe can go either way on whether it's going to be a hitter's ballpark or a pitcher's park. The big thing that will tell the story is how the wind blows. We're going to have to learn as we go along. But I think it's going to be true," pitcher Jason Schmidt said.

The Pirates commissioned a wind study in 1999 that determined that prevailing winds blow up the Allegheny River from behind the ballpark in the direction of Downtown. On the compass, the playing field is oriented the same as the old one at Three Rivers Stadium, but the enclosed bowl caught the winds out of the northwest and blew them back toward the plate, so there never was much of a jet stream heading out.

"I think you're going to see a lot more carry," said outfielder John Vander Wal. "But we won't know until we take batting practice a few times."

It's true that the ballpark has been shoehorned onto its site, borrowing a bit from the river and from the old General Robinson Street right of way. The snugness makes it seems tight, but nobody expects it to become Ten Run, uh, Enron Field in Houston.

"It looks pretty short," said first base coach Tommy Sandt. "The people in Houston didn't think Enron would play that short either."

The closeness of the stands to the field is another concern for pitchers. There won't be a lot of room to catch foul balls, certainly not as much room as in, say, Dodger Stadium. Pirates batters estimate it could mean as many as 10 fewer outs per season for them.

"I like foul territory," said Schmidt.

Closer Mike Williams likes a generous foul territory but said it will be the same for both sides.

"They've got to play in it too. I'm not going to pitch any different," Williams said.

Starter Kris Benson likes the tight design because it will make him feel like he's right on top of the hitters, but stingy foul lines might mean pitchers will throw an extra five or six pitches a game.

The biggest change for the players and the fans will be the playing surface of Kentucky sports grasses. For the pitchers, the switch from the artificial surface of Three Rivers to the real turf of PNC Park will be a plus.

"We're all sinker-ball pitchers, so we get a lot of ground balls," Benson said. "Balls that scooted through last year will be scooped up."

Manager Lloyd McClendon said the Pirates will have some input to give to groundskeeper Luke Yoder on how high the grass should be cut.

"I think grass makes us a better defensive club," he said. "It slows the game down. I wish we would have had a slower infield last year. It's hard to play on Astroturf. It's built for speed. We don't have blazing speed. I'm just happy to be on that type of surface. Physically, it should help players like Kevin Young, Pat Meares and Mike Benjamin, who likes to dive and throw his body around."

First baseman Kevin Young says he's glad to be on natural turf.

"That's 81 games off artificial turf. It'll be good for my knees," he said. "Turf is not good for the body. Baseball is meant to be played in a park, not a stadium."

Bill Mazeroski played at Forbes Field and moved to Three Rivers. He never cared for artificial grass.

"I hated turf," Maz said.

Mike Benjamin said there will be fewer base hits on grass, but he likes the natural stuff too. "Guys with bad knees and bad backs hate turf."

He also said it would help aesthetically. PNC Park is built strictly for baseball, so there won't be any of those unsightly outlines of the yard lines and numbers painted on the turf for football.

One of the unique features of the park could be how the ball bounces behind home plate.

While Wrigley Field's signature sight is the smooth-faced red brick wall as a backdrop, the area behind home plate is mortared with the same yellow Minnesota limestone that graces PNC Park's exterior. But the limestone isn't smooth. It has all kinds of angles on its face, which is the first thing Jason Kendall noticed after he signed his contract extension. When a round ball strikes an irregular surface, it could create chaos.

"If the ball gets by me, it'll be like pinball. I'll have to use my video game skills back there," Kendall said. "I don't know whose idea it was. We'll have to figure out a way to use it to our advantage."

The idea came from the mind of Steve Greenberg, the Pirates vice president of new ballpark development who is always looking for ways to jazz up the game with entertainment. When someone suggested smoothing out the face of the backdrop, Greenberg said: "Over my dead body."

All of the quirks and idiosyncracies are what's part of the home-field advantage because the Pirates will get to know the place more intimately than anybody else. And it's the players who are taking ownership of the place, at least in a competitive sense.

"It's going to be our house, we don't have to share it with the Steelers," said Rich Loiselle. "We don't want people coming in here and embarrassing us."

Which brings up an element that can't be known by looking at blueprints or an empty arena. This is the most intimate major league ballpark ever built. It puts the fans right on top of the action and will make them part of the game, which McClendon hopes to use to his advantage.

The first time he led his troops onto the battlefield, back on a dreary November day, McClendon gathered them in the outfield and gazed back at a seating bowl that was just naked concrete. While baseball is at its purest when there's hardly anybody around on a sandlot, it is meant to be played in front of a packed house on the major league level.

"Take a look around. It's going to be a full house every night," he told them, creating an image that is the antithesis of too many charmless, empty days at Three Rivers.

And just like he motivates his players, McClendon has a message for the partisans.

"We can't do this without our fans. I'm hoping they'll be our 10th man, so to speak," McClendon said.

"I want our fans to be alive, to be relentless, to really be on top of the other team. There's nothing I'd like more for the other team to say, 'Damn, we have to come to Pittsburgh in front of all those screaming fans.' That could be the biggest factor of all."

Next: More than a green cathedral

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