Behind the Scenes in the Ballparks of the MAJOR LEAGUE

A version of this story appeared in Pennsylvania Magazine , www.pa-mag.com

 

BASEBALL STADIUM TOURS

PNC PARK- PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Big league baseball teams NEVER use brand new baseballs in a game. They’re too shiny to play with. They must first be rubbed with a special variety of New Jersey muck that resembles cold cream and chocolate pudding. It de-slicks the balls yet leaves them soft and not black. It is a family recipe discovered by baseball player, Lena Blackburn back in 1938. Its whereabouts (gathered via little boat) are unknown. Barrels of this mud are shipped to every major league, minor league, most independent leagues and many colleges every year for nearly three quarters of a century.

I find this fact amazing, which I learn, along with a stadium load of other fascinating things, as I tour the Pittsburgh Pirates’ PNC PARK. Ballpark behind-the-scenes tours have become extremely popular in the last years. All major league venues offer them, year round, nearly every day. They are affordable and provide fans (even those who are not die-hard fans) a fascinating glimpse into this very American favorite pastime.  

The first thing that snags your attention before you even set foot in the park proper are  the magnificent statues of legendary Pirates’ players: Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell who guard the park’s perimeter. Dramatic angles and exciting poses invite you want to view the art from every side and make tons of photos.  

Pittsburgh’s PNC PARK replaced the historic Three Rivers Stadium which served Pittsburgh sports fans for 30 years. They were fighting for space at Three Rivers so they wanted to create a more comfortable space where both teams could hang out- as in 20,000 square feet! Here at PNC PARK, there is a hospital staff on duty- an orthopedic surgeon, and X-ray technician.

“There is nothing you could want as a baseball player – it is all here,” our guide informs us. 

She shows us the swim house, and the pitching machine that throws velocity so the pitchers can practice. There’s also videotaping at different angles so the players can watch themselves on replay. We file into the Press Box where 30 members of the press are connected to the internet producing stories as the game is being played.

Out in the dugout, our guide shares fun tidbits about the baseball players like the fact that they are all superstitious- they will never let their bats cross when they’re not in use. They believe it creates terrible luck; and the fact that the park purchases 55 gallons of sunflower seeds, a traditional munching snack of the players. She also tells us that thirty-one baseballs have made it into the Allegheny River which is clearly visible just beyond the ballpark. It is 4,435 feet from home plate to the river.

The grass is being mowed as we tour. Sometimes, it is actually cut twice on game day, our guide informs us. The optimum height is 1 1/8 inch. Five blends of Kentucky Bluegrass make up the special grass mixture.

The PNC Park was designed and placed here to “dress up the North Shore,” of Pittsburgh. All sorts of venues moved in afterwards and there are even plans for a subway, bringing fans across the river underground. The nearby Roberto Clemente Bridge closes down half an hour before and after the game so patrons can safely walk to and from the game from center city.

The view from the upper echelon of the ballpark is spectacular with the city skyline, the rivers and the bridges marching across the horizon of downtown Pittsburgh. It was designed to fit snugly within the existing city grid. The only thing that would make the whole scene better, is a packed ballpark cheering the Pittsburgh Pirates on. We’ll have to return another time for that but the tour did what it was supposed to do- inform and educate us, and get us cranked to see a live game next time we are in the neighborhood!   

 CITIZENS BANK PARK – PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

As I hang my arms over the rail and gaze out over Citizens Bank Park from the player’s dug out, it is easy to imagine being one of the Philadelphia Phillies. The huge, 43,000+ seat stadium stretches around me, empty except for a few workers and we folks on this stadium tour. To a baseball fan, I am in a sanctuary, on hallowed ground. But even to someone who is not a Phillie Phanatic, being here on this behind-the-scenes tour is very intriguing. Stadium tours are much more popular than I expected, with over 27,300 already taking the tour this year in Philadelphia- the highest yet.  

From here, we can watch the field being mowed, using a funky machine that looks like a snow blower. The pitcher’s mound is also being resurfaced. We are told by our guide that each pitcher will make a divet, or a hole with his foot right in the clay dirt by the plate. On this spot, he will brace his foot and push against the plate, thereby transferring his energy into his throwing arm. That is the first thing a pitcher will do when as gets into position. And every pitcher’s divet is different. Our guide also points out that on the batter’s deck, there is a neutral space behind the pitcher, where no fans are located, so the batter can see the white baseball coming at him. If you were to draw a line directly from the batter’s sight- it is called “straight away center.”

We are warned repeatedly as we exit the dugout, “DO NOT TOUCH THE GRASS. Do not go near it.” We look on it as consecrated ground as we walk down the warning track. The warning track, we learn, is an area right before the fence- the stadium boundary. A ball approaching this area is a warning to the outfielder who is trying to catch it, that it could very well result in being a home run. 

Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004 after historic Veteran’s Stadium was imploded. Veteran’s Stadium served Philadelphia’s baseball team for 35 years. Before that, it was Connie Mack Stadium. Philadelphia did the Green thing too, by recycling 400,000 cubic yards of dirt, which was held at the Navy Yard. When building Citizens Bank Park, 400,000 cubic yards of dirt were excavated to make way for the Phillies playing field, which is located 20 feet below street level. That dirt was held at the Navy Yard, and then later returned to fill in the giant hole created when Veterans Stadium was imploded.

Each stadium has their sweet little details that make it unique to that particular city and team. For instance, here at Citizens Bank Park, there is a massive Liberty Bell suspended high above Center Field that sways and rings its clapper when the Phillies hit a home run or at the end of the game if they win. The 50’high X 35’wide bell with its neon edges that light up and pulsate, is suspended 100 ft. above street level .

It is very interesting to see how the upper crust enjoys a baseball game. In their corporate suites with extra wide padded seats, climate controlled indoor viewing, servers, full bar, the finest gourmet food…as opposed to a standing room only seat for $17. It is marvelous that the man on the street can enjoy a professional baseball game as well and have it be completely affordable.

On this tour, we get to travel through the Umpire’s Tunnel way- his private hallway that goes directly to the dugout. Other tour highlights include the Connie Mack stadium model, the Scoreboard (PhanaVision) Operating Room, Hall of Fame Club display cases of historic uniforms dating back to 1883, and the Media Room where press conferences are held, new players are signed up, and post-game news conferences are held.

We see the dressing room of the furry, fun-loving ambassador of Phillies baseball, the Phillie Phanatic, the only one with a hot tub and an extra-large washing machine for his costume. There’s The Star dressing room, also located in the basement of the ballpark, used for the singer of the National Anthem. Here they can practice in peace and be soundproof. There are Braille plaques by every door frame, stating what that particularly room is, EXCEPT for the umpires lounge. “They are supposed to be able to see,” our guide laughs. 

Ashburn Alley is another ballpark attraction where spectators can observe both teams taking batting practice before a game as well as more artwork, in the form of a 10-foot high sculpture of Philly baseball hero, Richie Ashburn. Down Memory Lane, visitors can follow an illustrated history of Philadelphia baseball as well as view bronze plaques of the players in the Wall of Fame.

What makes Citizens Bank Park “Not Your Typical Ballpark,” is the extensive art that graces the ballpark, designed to honor the City of brotherly Love and its rich baseball tradition. One of the most fantastic things about the city of Philadelphia is they REALLY support their local artists- so much so that every newly constructed building  MUST incorporate art. The program was commissioned by the Phillies and approved by the Philadelphia Art Commission and includes works of various media and styles by a diverse group of local artists. 

Local artist, Dick Perez researched more than 700 photographs of amazing moments in baseball history to create 33 oil paintings of Hall of Fame players. Other artists painted murals, tile mosaics, statues, and a unique terrazzo floor design of thirty-one Phillies Alumni in action poses. This beautiful artwork comes as a surprise, in a structure where you expect to encounter mostly cold steel. 

http://philadelphia.phillies.mlb.com/phi/ballpark/tours/index.jsp

Tours are offered year round! During the season, on non-game days, tours are offered Monday through Saturday at 10:30 a.m. On game days, tours are offered Monday through Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. In the offseason, tours are offered Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10:30 a.m. Tours are not available on Sundays, major holidays, or days when the Phillies have an afternoon game.

Tickets are $10 for adults, $6 for children (3-14 years) and senior citizens.

Call 215-218-5360 for more information.

ATTENDING A GAME

Being on a behind-the-scenes stadium tour just gets you cranked to actually be in the stadium when it is full, attending a game. Almost everyone wears jerseys with their favorite player’s names embroidered on it. In Philadelphia, red is the color of choice. There are people clapping, cheering, singing along, and doing a lot of smiling. There is lots of eating going on too- vendors jogging up and down the stairways toting huge containers of iced beers…hot dogs, Cracker Jack.

To experience tens of thousands of people who are HAPPY is highly unusual. It is a joy just to move amongst this type of crowd, no matter how packed. People act polite, even if in other situations they forget to be. A baseball game seems to bring out the good and the joyful in people.  Team spirit is huge and it seems to swell people’s hearts. For this reason alone, it is worth coming to a game, but make sure you schedule a stadium tour first and hear “the rest of the story.”

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