Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sometimes They Get Things Right

First off, this isn’t really a ‘baseball’ post… it’s about the live, ‘in-park’ experience.  You needn’t be a sports fan to appreciate.

As you may recall, I went to a couple of Pirates games in Pittsburgh last month and had a wonderful time at PNC Park.  At the time, an idea for a post came into my head, besides the usual travelogue.

The Pirates haven’t sniffed .500 ball since 1992; they’ve owned the worst record in baseball ever since.  Hence, they’ve been on the receiving end of a great deal of criticism regarding their baseball operations.  And I have no quibble with that… they teams they’ve put together have stunk up the joint.

BUT, I think it’s time to give them credit for what they’ve done right, which is provide an entertaining in-game experience and a beautiful, forward-thinking park in which to have it.

Sitcom Kelly and I just went to Camden Yards last night to see the Orioles and Reds.  Now, let me put this out there right off the bat.  I love going to Camden Yards.  It’s a great facility and I always have a good time.  But they’re getting lazy.  Ideas that seem like common sense elsewhere are overlooked right here.  They seem to be content with relying on tradition rather than bothering with improvement or innovation.  It’s too bad.

So while I’m going to do a lot of ‘compare and contrast’, it’s not meant to be a slap at the Orioles as much as a pat on the back for the Buccos organization.

There’s no argument that Camden Yards ushered in the era of new ‘retro’ stadiums.  Many of the stadiums that came afterwards followed their example.  But that’s no reason that Camden Yards can’t adapt and improve.  And it all starts before you even walk in.

Both the Pirates and Orioles have a deep history filled with revered stars.  The Pirates celebrate them with beautiful statues, like this.
Walking up to this statue fills me with awe and reverence, with memories of my hero’s exploits filling my head.

Here’s what the Orioles do:

Numbers.  Statues of freakin’ numbers!  Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken (whose numbers are pictured above) deserve better.  It’s just so antiseptic and soulless.  But they do have one statue though… of Babe freakin’ Ruth!  I don’t care if he WAS born here, it’s just not right.  He’s a Yankee and we don’t cotton to no Yankees ‘round these parts.

PNC Park also has a tribute to the local Negro League teams of old.
Legacy Square celebrates the history of the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, both of whom played in the Pittsburgh area.

PNC goes out of its way to occupy kids.  They have a nice playground behind the outfield walls.  The Orioles have a moon-bounce and a pitching booth, but that’s it.  Most ball clubs have a ‘kids club,’ like the Pirates and Orioles do.  The Orioles are content to discount some upper deck seats and send a package of tchotchkies with membership.  The Pirates put some serious rewards in play… they offer kids the opportunity to take the field with the players.  When I was there, before the game they had kids run out to the appropriate field positions and wait for their professional counterparts.  They the pros ran out, stood with the kids, and gave them autographs.  One kid went out and stood with the Pirates Parrot mascot.

I don’t know if they do that for every game, but the idea is brilliant and costs the team nothing.  But ask those kids if they’ll ever forget that experience.

Speaking of the mascots, both Baltimore and Pittsburgh have good ones.  Baltimore has the Oriole bird, who does the usual mascot things, like going through the crowd, posing with kids and fans, and leading cheers.  I haven’t been inside the park early enough lately, but I also like when they pull a kid or two out of the stands during warm-ups to play wiffleball with the Oriole Bird. 

If they did more things like that, it would be a step up.  Because the Pirate Parrot does all of than and then some.  Like leading the T-Shirt Gun crew to shoot T-shirts all over the stadium. 

I know that’s not new, but it doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.  Why not shoot some T-shirts around Camden Yards?  Afraid of liability?  The owner’s a freaking high-price lawyer.  Too cheap to pop for the T-shirts?  Get sponsors.  Or pony up… the AL East is not the place for cheapskates.

In my opinion, PNC Park has the greatest view in baseball.
Between the bridges and the incredible architecture of the downtown buildings, it’s a view that takes your breath away.

Camden Yards used to have a decent view, right up until they built the Eyesore Hilton.
The Eyesore Hilton dominates the view from behind home plate and the entire first base side.

Only if you sit in the right place on the 3rd base side, do you have a chance to see in the gap between the Eyesore Hilton and the Warehouse, and catch a glimpse of the 5-Bars Towers.
Not exactly awe-inspiring.  And I really have to start learning the names of these buildings.

While we’re talking about the facilities, let’s talk scoreboards.  Both clubs have similar scoreboard setups, but the difference is how they use them.  One thing that just blew me away is that all the Pirates game graphics look like they’re written on old parchment, like the credits of a Harry Potter movie.

This plays into the whole “Pirate” theme, that they carry on throughout the game, using Pirate ships and various scalawags and scoundrels on the board.  They also use the ‘parchment’ graphics on the digital scoreboard rings around the deck.  It’s imaginative and eye-catching.  Plus, they have a number to send text messages to and put them on the scoreboard rings.  Again, that’s not new, but they still don’t do it in Baltimore.

All ballparks have a graphic where they give you the speed of each pitch and what type pitch it is.  The Pirates take that one step further and give you the degree that the ball breaks, both vertically and horizontally.  I’ve never seen this anywhere else and I think it’s a phenomenal idea.  It really gives you a good idea of the movement of the ball.

I think the most advanced thing the Orioles do with the scoreboard is the hot dog race (and the crab shuffle). 
This was last night’s hot dog race, in this case, the hot dogs rode dinosaurs.  Usually they just hop along and you root for ketchup, mustard of relish.  Yawn.

In Pittsburgh and many other ballparks, they have these things race on the field.  In Pittsburgh they use perogies.  Milwaukee uses sausages.  DC uses ex-Presidents.  Whatever… it shows engagement with the audience, rather than just telling them to watch TV.
How can you not be amused by running pierogies? (pic from ifpierogiescouldtalk.blogspot.com)

After the race, the pierogies then went up into the crowd to interact.  I do admit, however, if I was trying to watch the game and those big old pierogies were blocking my view, I’d probably get pretty steamed and take a bite.

Sitcom Kelly actually wrote in to the Orioles, asking them to consider live hot dog races rather than the scoreboard version.  They responded that people like the scoreboard version. 

Sure, and people like staying in the Motel 6, until they experience a Hyatt or Marriott for the first time.  Ignorance and inertia is not a good reason not to innovate. 

My biggest beef with the scoreboard in Camden Yards is their use of replays.  The Pirates show a replay of every single play, from strikeout to ground out to grand slam.  Everything, for both teams.

The Orioles only show replays that favor the Orioles and they don’t even show all of those.  Last night an Oriole stole a base and they didn’t even bother to replay it.  And if it’s a big play that ends an inning, forget it.  They’re too busy getting to the next scoreboard-related between-inning clip package.

Another crime is that when they DO show a replay, they show it in the smaller of the two screens rather than the giant one on top.  WTF?  No love for those in the nosebleeds?  (Look at either of the 2 scoreboard pics above to see what I’m talking about.)

As I said, all the between-inning activity in Baltimore comes from scoreboard clips.  They do the usual stuff like the Kiss-Cam, guessing the year (based on music, sports and pop culture clues), Fan of the Game, etc.  Same old… 

In Pittsburgh, they really engage the crowd.  They have a guy with a mic and camera and they interview fans, play games for cool prizes and generally cover the crowd from within the crowd.  That’s how you should use a scoreboard.  It’s a great idea!

Best idea I’ve ever seen at a ballpark comes from Cincinnati, where they have a live band set up to play in the corner of the outfield. 

Why not?  It’s fun and it’s lively.  They also have contests to have the crowd text-vote for which song the band should play next.  That’s thinking outside the park.

Of course, I have to talk about the food.  Let me just say for one that the food at PNC was stellar.  I had a mushroom and Swiss cheeseburger that was outstanding… restaurant quality, even.  Both PNC and Camden Yards have the requisite jock-owned BBQ place.

Camden Yards has Boog’s BBQ, where you can get a roast beef sandwich and often press the flesh with former Oriole Boog Powell.
My buddy Rik telling Boog how much he used to hate him, when the O’s played against his Tigers.

Roast beef sandwich there is $10, and is pretty good.

PNC offers Manny Sanguillen’s BBQ.  I wish I had a picture but I forgot to take one.  But I got his $8.00 pulled pork sandwich and it was terrific.  Worth every cent.  Manny also sits out to greet the fans, and always with the big smile that made him famous in The Burgh.

One thing Baltimore does get right is that they let you bring in food  and non-alcoholic drinks from outside.  Consequently, there is always a slew of people on the approach to the park, hawking dogs, brats, burgers, chicken, peanuts and cold drinks.  I always stop there on my way in.

As for the price of beer, it’s a push.  It’s always too expensive at the game.  16 oz beer runs $7.50 for the usual suspects, a little more for imports or microbrews.  The big news in B’more this year is that they were bringing in National Bohemian.  Natty Boh is to Baltimore what Iron City is to Pittsburgh.  Natty Boh is known for being the cheap beer, but not at Camden Yards, where they charge the same price for it as they do the other Miller, Bud and Coors offerings.  Bad form.  Do they think people drink that shitty beer because it tastes good?  Geez, take a buck or two off the price, for cryin’ out loud.

Sitcom Kelly and I usually hit a nearby bar before the game and get out drink on there, on the cheap.  Then once inside, just nurse another beer or two for the ambiance.
Bluz and Sitcom Kelly, as she puts her beer where her mouth his, before she had to dash home and feed the hockey players residing in the Pit in her basement.

 So that’s my rundown.  I’m sorry if I drifted into Orioles-bashing; that really wasn’t my intent.  I want to congratulate the Pirates on the things they get right, even if it’s not ‘assembling a high-quality baseball team’ (at least until lately… we’ll see).  It just happens that my biggest base of comparison is what I see so often at Camden Yards.  I realize it’s a small sample, so tell me… what ideas have you seen at ballparks that other teams should adopt?  What ideas or activities really need to go?

20 comments:

  1. "antiseptic and soulless", "ignorance and inertia"
    This apt quartet describes your Camden Yards scene better than pictures. Soulless ignorance and antiseptic inertia fit the heroes' numbered stones. They look like a cemetary.
    With a total lack of imagination and energy, this park will fade into oblivion except for the diehard fans who still revere Babe Ruth.
    And his statue is the only thing Baltimore ever did for him.

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  2. Mary Ann,
    Camden Yards was groundbreaking when it was built, but they've been resting on their laurels ever since. They need to step it up and get into the 21st century. They replaced their scoreboard a couple years ago, but still don't utilize it properly, if you ask me. Show the goddamned replays!!

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  3. Sounds like Camden Yards needs a new marketing department. They've become complacent because they are banking on tradition and don't want to spend any money.

    And I have to admit, I laughed over the big green parrot being the mascot for the Pirates. I'm surprised they don't have a swashbuckler out there!

    Our minor league team here does $1 beer and hotdog nights which are always a big hit!

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  4. Jessica,
    They use the Pirate guy a lot on the scoreboard, but I'd rather they use a guy in a parrot costume, than some schmo running around with a fake sword and eye patch. With only one eye, he might poke someone ELSE'S eye out.

    The minor leagues always seem to come up with the best promotions and gimmicks... I think they have to try harder because by definition, it's not the highest caliber of a sporting event.

    When I went to the last Toledo Mudhens game, they had events going on at every inning change. They'd have whole families out there competing against each other in races, trivia and stuff. Plus the T-shirt guns too.

    I used to go to a lot of minor league hockey too, and they did the same stuff. In fact, I got on the ice on 2 occasions, for various competitions. And they also did the T-shirt gun.

    There's no reason more major league clubs can't do this kind of stuff.

    Oh, last note... MANY years ago, when I still lived on Ohio, the Mudhens used to have dime beer nights... Holy crap, was that ever a night... They didn't keep THAT going very long...

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  5. What did Sitcom Kelly ever do to you to miss up her picture. Miller Lite over her face? Also They do the same thing at the Ratbirds Park, they never show a replay of any good plays made by the opposition. Must be something in the water.

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  6. Dad,
    Sitcom Kelly is the "Wilson" of Darwinfish2... you remember the neighbor on Tool Time, whose face you never saw? That's Sitcom Kelly, who has to stay anonymous, so better to sneak up on her hockey player prey.

    Yes, it occurred to me as well that the Ratties do the same thing with the scoreboard. Local insecurity, I suppose.

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  7. Every Sunday is Kids Day at the field and after the game, they welcome the kids to come down and run the bases. Who does that?! It's awesome.

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  8. Cassie,
    The O's let the kids run the bases once a year. That's it. Again, there's no reason they can't do it regularly... it costs them practically nothing.

    What I want to know is when they'll let the grownups run the bases. Hell, I'll sign the waiver...

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  9. I agree with Mary Ann. I couldn't put my finger on what I found disturbing about the number statues, but they do look a lot like headstones.

    Overall, PNC Park does look a lot nicer, even though I hate baseball. I don't expect anything less from a sports venue in Pittsburgh, though. I hope for the sake of dedicated fans like you that the Pirates can keep improving.

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  10. Lilo,
    To me they just severely lack in imagination. It's like they just reduce their legacy to numbers. No heart, which is something that each of those players had in abundance.

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  11. I might be a baseball fan today if they'd let me run on the field and meet a professional player when I was a small fry!

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  12. The tribute to the Negro leaguers is so, so right.

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  13. Mrs. Bachelor Girl,
    We should have all run on the field when we were kids. They couldn't taze us all, could they? Well, maybe in Philadelphia...

    Sharyn,
    I was surprised to see that because I hadn't heard about it before. They did real good.

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  14. If the Hens are in town when you're here, we should definitely go. And if my son is working the camera there that night, be sure to do something outrageous so he can put it out there for all to see...

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  15. Do you have special baseball socks that you wear to games and only wash when the season is over? Just curious.

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  16. Sherry,
    The Hens are in town over the first weekend I’m there, then go on the road. That means I’ll try to get the guys to go on the Sunday or Monday. (7/31 or 8/1)

    And hey… if they don’t want to go, it’s you and me…

    Judie,
    I know you’re just yanking my chain, but I’ll answer your question. I don’t have any special baseball socks. The only thing I even loosely monitor is what T-shirt I wear to the game. Too many losses in one shirt and I’ll try another. I really need to get an Orioles game jersey to wear. I have a 70s-era Pirates jersey, but I don’t get out to see many Pirates games. (3 in 9 years, to be exact, not including the 2 here in Baltimore)

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  17. Nice comparison. I've also had respect for Camden Yards because it was the first ballpark re-do to get it right by incorporating the old-time feel of former parks. The same architects learned off of Cellular Field in Chicago that cobalt blue plastic and metal does not give that homey baseball feel. They went back to the drawing board and created Camden. Ballparks that followed all used brick and stone to recreate that old time charm. (Too late for the poor White Sox' monstrocity.)

    I must say, the Pirates got a bit lazy soon after builing PNC. I think they wondered if people would come for the park and not worry about the team. They soon found out that wasn't the case and they got busy on baseball matters that is just starting to pay off this year.

    The Pirates do a great job with food. They have lots of local offerings from Primanti's to Penn Brewery to Pierogies in the stadium. Last weekend I saw some Red Sox fans searching out the one pierogie stand. Nice.

    As an old fart, I sometimes tire of the constant need in ballparks to entertain. It seems that there always has to be a video or game or music playing. I think this came up to the majors from the minor leagues, where they really have to try hard to engage the crowds. I grew up in Wrigley where there still is no video screen or mascot. People are there for baseball and baseball alone. That's probably a bit extreme, but as a kid, I never needed more.

    I wish the Pirates would take some effort to change up their presentation. They have certain songs slotted for certain inning breaks that has been the same for several years. Spend a few bucks on iTunes, for Pete's sake, and don't be afraid to change it up now and then!

    And don't get me started on the noise meter to rev up the crowd. I've always said that fans at Wrigley know when to cheer and don't the stadium to cue them to get loud.

    And I must add, one of my favorite things about PNC this year is that fans seem to be into the baseball. I haven't seen a single wave, yet. That makes me swell with pride.

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  18. Carpetbagger,
    I knew you’d come through for me, buddy.

    I also agree that there shouldn’t be such a need for constant entertainment between innings. BUT, since they’re doing it anyway, they should at least keep it fresh. I think a lot of the things that bug you about PNC bug me about Camden Yards… the constant repetition.

    They may not do the same songs at the same inning breaks here, but they ALWAYS play “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” at the 7th inning stretch. There was a rumbling to get rid of it a few years back, but the team refused. Around here, if you do anything more than once, it becomes “tradition,” and is damned near impossible to change. But it makes no sense at all… there’s nothing remotely “Country Boyish” about Baltimore. It’s totally misplaced. But I guess it brings people back to the times when the Orioles were actually a decent team. Like with the Pirates, the memories are all the fans have left.

    I think they should have a few ‘standards’ that people can look forward to, but still come with enough variation to keep returning fans interested.

    I can’t stand the noise meters, or any artificial methods of pumping up the crowd. If the game doesn’t do it naturally, it’s just senseless noise. And they still do The Wave here… in fact it messed up a couple of my pictures last weekend.

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  19. Great photos, Bluz and how terrific is it that the Pirates are not in the basement this year? I may actually go to a game to watch IT, rather than to enjoy the Park itself!

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  20. Cher,
    I’m thrilled that the Pirates are actually competitive this year, far beyond their usual Shooting-Star-in-April history. They’ve finally got some good young players mixed with some veterans. Now, the key will be if they can resign their young all-stars when the time comes, as opposed to their long tradition of trading them away for a sack of baseballs rather than paying them.

    I think that anyone that lives in a ‘major league’ city should go to some games to support the team. How many people are there who live in the middle of nowhere and would love to see a major league game without having to travel for hours?

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