PNC Park, Pittsburgh, PA – From the top of the Rotunda

Here’s one of my favorite not Italian spots in the world – PNC Park. It has, of course, been lauded over and over as a modern baseball marvel. One of the truly outstanding features of this stadium is the navy steel rotunda which forms a spiral walkway to the very top  of the ballpark. I’ve been meaning to post these since June, so now as the baseball season begins to wane, and I go into mourning, I thought I’d show you what Pittsburgh looks like from the top of the rotunda of the greatest baseball stadium in the world. Here goes:

 

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Legacy Square commemorating the great Negro League teams from Pittsburgh. There used to be bronze statues here. Where did they go?

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Looking straight down on the enormous statue of the great Hall of Famer Willie Stargell – one of my childhood heroes. He died the night before PNC opened its doors in 2001.

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Here’s the top of the rotunda itself. The original designs had a roof over the steel structure, but I’m so glad that didn’t happen.

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Standing at the top of the left field foul pole – fans filing in.

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Looking eastward over the Allegheny River. The tallest building in Pittsburgh – the former US Steel building takes center stage. 

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Looking Southeast over the Allegheny. PPG Paints building second from the left. In the distance Point State Park and Mount Washington.

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A beautiful view of the Roberto Clemente Bridge heading downtown.

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In my happy place.  See you next summer PNC Park.

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The Sky is Choking Us (AKA: Never Take Blue Skies for Granted)

Here’s a photo of our street at the moment.

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Notice those beautifully green hills in the background? Of course not, they are completely covered by a thick layer of smog courtesy of Indonesia.

We’ve had occasional bad visibility in the past from time to time, but I’ve seen nothing like this in my ten years in Malaysia. Today is the worst air quality I’ve ever seen – currently reading 172 on the air pollution index.

Hundreds of fires in Indonesia are currently sending a thick plume of polluted air throughout Southeast Asia. Penang, being quite a bit north, usually escapes most of it, but not this time. The fires are a result of clear-cutting, making way for new farm land. I have great sympathy for the peasants who toil on the land with a meager existence. I understand how the thought of a new field with increased returns could entice them, but when practices threaten the health of an entire region, more must be done. The Indonesian government is working now to put the fires out, but that does little to stop the long-term issues.

I grew up in the Pittsburgh area, which of course used to have the blackest sky in the world back in the roaring steel mill days of Carnegie and Frick. I’m sure the area was still quite polluted in the sixties when I was born, but it always looked clean to me.

I lived in Vietnam for ten years and never saw a more polluted sky than what I’m seeing today. I lived along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia for a couple years and enjoyed the clean, brisk air. But seeing this thick smog encapsulate the nation, I don’t envy people who have to deal with these issues on a regular basis. (Beijing, Mexico City, …)

Here’s the current air quality map of the region:

Capture air quality

 

You might notice that horrendous reading Kalimantan (southern part of Borneo, Indonesia) – 852! The label for that reading is hazardous. No one should have to live surrounded by oppression like that.

I hope the government of Indonesia will take some serious steps to address these issues through education and alternatives for people living in poverty.

For the time being, I’m staying inside, enjoying my air conditioning, and wondering if we will have school tomorrow. I know there are many who simply don’t have the small luxuries that I have.

Never take blue skies for granted.

Know Your History: Andrew Carnegie and Skibo Castle

As the story goes, Andrew Carnegie grew up poor within a stone’s throw of the majestic Skibo Castle in the northern highlands of Scotland. Because of a local feud, Carnegie’s family was never invited into the estate during the time when the owners would open the vast castle to the public each year. Andrew would stand on the edge of the estate grounds and watch the fun festivities, telling himself that one day he would own Skibo Castle. (Quite the imagination for a poor Scottish boy!)

Carnegie emigrated as a boy to America with his mother. They moved to Pittsburgh and lived poor conditions. Carnegie got a job as an errand boy and eventually the railroad. He slowly worked his way up until he became the right hand man for railroad executive Thomas Scot.

He had a revelation one day when he received his first dividend from a stock he got from the railroad. He realized that he had earned money, but hadn’t done any work. What a revelation indeed! This was the way, he determined, to make real wealth.

Through hard work and investment, Carnegie bought himself into the steel industry, revolutionizing it by bringing the Bessemer process to America and using it on a large scale. The Bessemer process enabled a steel producer to produce large quantities of steel, which was in high demand building railroads, bridges, and the infrastructure of America.  Carnegie built his Homestead plant outside Pittsburgh into the largest steel producer in the world, making himself one of the richest people in the world alongside the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.

He had never forgotten his humble beginnings in Scotland, nor had he forgotten being left on the outside of Skibo Castle as a small boy. In 1897, Carnegie leased Skibo Castle for a year, optioning to buy in 1898 for 85,000 pounds. His dream had come true. He now owned the most prestigious and meaningful place in the world for him.

JP Morgan eventually bought Carnegie Steel for the astronomical price of $480,000,000; making Carnegie, for the time being, the richest man in the world. Morgan founded US Steel, and Carnegie spent the rest of his years giving away his fortune, building libraries around the world, building projects for universities, and famed music halls and museums.

Carnegie was one of the original Robber Barons – the ones who built America.

 

Theatre Review: “Evita” @ the Benedum in Pittsburgh

A real treat for theatre enthusiasts is in Pittsburgh this week in the revival of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s and Tim Rice’s “Evita”.

“Evita” chronicles the rise to power and prominence of Eva Duarte who was the driving force behind former Argentine president Juan Peron.

While the historical context of the musical is fascinating, it’s the music and lyrics of Weber and Rice, and the exuberant and spirited performance produced by Pittsburgh’s Civic Light Opera which takes center stage.

The story starts at the death of Eva, the First Lady, at a young age of 33. The masses are mourning their beloved leader who had become a saint-like figure and a symbol of hope for the down-trodden. But enter Che, who and sings the truth about the ambition, greed, and passion which seemed to chase after Eva her entire life. This makes the audience question Eva’s motives, making her a complex and intriguing character.

The entire show is a fascinating character study against the backdrop of soaring vocal numbers, tango-infused dance moves, and passionate intimate scenes between Eva and Juan.

It’s a musical production which reminds us all why we love live theatre – emotion, gripping-storytelling, passionate live music, and human drama. It doesn’t get much better than this.

And it is also hard to beat the beautiful, 2800 seat Benedum Center. Catch it through Sunday if you can.

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A Night at PNC Park

Being from the Pittsburgh area, we are blessed with the best baseball park in America – or the world for that matter! If you haven’t seen the park for yourself or heard the accolades, well, that’s too bad. Because it is simply awesome!

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend three games this past week. I ended up with a 2-1 record. I’m sure it would have been 3-0 but my McCutchen wasn’t dirty, but it smelled so bad my wife wouldn’t let me wear it. So therefore, the loss.

But anyways. Here are a few shots of the gorgeous ballpark:

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After one of the games was faith night where some of the Pirates players and coaches shared how their faith impacts how they play the game. Very cool.

2014-06-26 22.43.56 Here are the throngs before the game. It was a sell-out.2014-06-26 18.25.49 The beautiful Roberto Clemente bridge rises right out of the outfield and crosses the Allegheny River into downtown. The bridge is closed for all but foot traffic on game days.2014-06-26 19.04.21 2014-06-26 19.07.41 Action in action. 2014-06-26 19.14.28A good time was had by all. Hope you get a chance to check out this amazing stadium sometime.

Happy July 4!

 

I used to eat out only once a year.

In my last post, I connected my past to the silly memories of McDonald’s restaurants throughout the course of my life. Those nostalgic Big Mac memories made me think of another fast-food chain which I loved for a very special reason. It’s name was Winky’s, and I ate there once a year. Here’s the story:

My parents always had a huge garden. When all of us kids were young, our big yard, where we played baseball, was only half the size of the garden, which my parents, especially my dad, cultivated to perfection. I always loved the years he would line the whole bottom side of it with tall majestic sunflowers. It was always in the running as garden of the year in our little neighborhood.

By mid-July the corn would be chest high and a mere few weeks away from harvest. By that time we already had many other vegetable seasons which had come and gone. My mother would spend mid-summer to early autumn canning everything from tomatoes to pickles to beets to beans. She would freeze corn and berries and would make loads of jam and sandwich spread. We had a fruit cellar stocked year round with home grown produce including onions and potatoes that would last until spring.

With home production at this scale, it is little wonder that we never ate out at a restaurant. I mean never. Ever. Except once a year. That’s it. Once a year. Are my kids reading this? Remember this the next time you are less than enthusiastic about heading out to eat, OK?

Once a year. What a magical day it was – the last day of school.

On that early June day, we would rush home with a summer’s worth of expectations in our heads. I couldn’t wait to ride bikes through the woods, play army with my friends, hit the ball, play in the creek, and just be a boy.

And the kickoff to each summer was when my dad would pile us in the car after leaving all books at school and drive us to the promised land – Winky’s!

Winky’s was a fast-food hamburger joint only in the Pittsburgh area. It was modeled after McDonald’s back in the 1960s and grew to be a popular local brand until it went bankrupt in 1982.

All six of us would trudge up to the counter and order our burgers, and since we didn’t do eating out very well, we would take our burgers to go and sit in the car and eat them down. I can still smell the food – especially the steamed buns and the glistening hot fries. It was magic in my hand and went down much too easily.

When finished, I would crumble the wrapper in my hand and say goodbye to my precious evening out that would come again in 365 days.

Once Winky’s was gone, we migrated to McDonald’s but for some reason it was never the same. I had grown up. I had a little income from working here and there. I had friends who had cars. We would go out and stop at McDonald’s or other places to eat. I got my driver’s license which enabled me to have more freedom on my own. Frequency lessens the special nature of things which touch us, and so too I became a mindless teen not really understanding how fortunate I was when I could only eat out once a year.

Now that I’m a father, I realize how different a life my kids have had compared to how I was raised. They have eaten out thousands of times in their young lives, a thousand times more than my parents have eaten out in their entire lives.

Times change, but I do wish I could have a large garden full of vegetables and a yearly trip to Winky’s. Now that would be something.

The Great One: #21

I am taking a one-post break from my usual ramblings about writing, drama, history, or life to write about the other passion in my life: baseball. I hope you enjoy!

The Great One: #21

I was a little over five years old when Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash. I don’t remember it. He wore #21.

The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates are a few short victories away from stopping the record for the most consecutive losing seasons by any professional sports franchise. The last time they had a winning season was in 1992 – 21 years ago.

I started listening to Pirates baseball back in 1976 and 1977. I remember sitting at the dining room table in the evening with the crackled cadences of the national past-time humming over the airwaves while I was, no doubt, doodling with numbers or statistics in a spiral-bound notebook. My childhood revolved around three things: spiral-bound notebooks, a transistor radio, and a shoebox full of baseball cards.

I don’t remember why I started listening or what it was about baseball over the radio that started my four decade love-affair with baseball, but I became hooked.

I had stacks of spiral-bound notebooks which I filled with stats of make-believe players, teams, and leagues. I created games in my head by standing out in front of our house and tossing a tennis ball into the air and whacking it with a long, hard-plastic Whiffle ball bat. In my mind, I threw myself curves, grounded into double plays, and even hit home runs when the ball flew over the driveway and landed in the garden. My third baseman was a tall, oval-shaped arborvitae shrub – who had great hands – and my second baseman and shortstop combined was a medium size pine tree about twenty five feet from the sidewalk where I stood to hit the ball. The outfield consisted of an extremely tall pine tree where home runs went to die. This was real fantasy baseball. My daily games drove me to write down notebooks full of stats, and my daytime dream-ball drove me every evening to my radio where I listened to the Lumber Company powered by Willie Stargell, Dave Parker et al.

It became obvious to me over my early years of listening to Bucco baseball that the team I had joined as a blood brother for life was still coming out of the shadows of the tragic death of The Great One – Roberto Clemente. It took a small boy like me many years to piece together just who this Clemente was, how good he played baseball, and why his death had greatly impacted so many people. By the time I reached high school, I had learned enough about the man to seek out #21 for the back of my Legion ball uniform. College the same – then post-college – then softball coaching – always #21 to honor the man.

So as the Pirates get ready to breakout of their 20 year losing streak, I thought it would be a good time to remind people just who Roberto Clemente was. (This will in no way be an authoritative rendering of his life. If you want that, I highly recommend David Maraniss’ Clemente Biography.)

Roberto Clemente was a fiercely proud Latino ballplayer from Puerto Rico. His prowess in right field is the stuff of legends. He won 12 consecutive gold gloves with a power rocket of an arm that was second to none.

He was lifted from the Dodgers organization in the Rule 5 draft – quite the coup for the Pirates organization. In the 1960 World Series against the New York Yankees, he hit safely in all seven of the games, setting the stage for him to become one of the very best players of the 1960s. He won the N.L. MVP award in 1966 and led the Pirates to three consecutive NL East titles in 1970-1972. His star shined the brightest during the 1971 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles where he, once again, hit safely in all seven of the games extending his World Series hitting streak to 14 games. He thrived in the games biggest stage.

On the last day of the season in 1972, he pounded a double into Three River’s Stadium’s left-center field gap – his career 3000 base hit, reaching the plateau of baseball giants, assuring him of induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame after his retirement of from the game. When that hit reached the outfield, his career batting average was .317. Little did everyone know that that number would be his final career average.

Clemente was often a misunderstood player. He didn’t care for the English label “Bob” which graced a few of his baseball cards. He was moody, often complaining about injuries, and fiercely proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, which was still a subject of great consternation during the turbulent civil rights era. During one of the great moments of Roberto’s career, while basking in the achievement of defeating the Orioles after the 1971 World Series, he was asked a question by legendary Pirates’ broadcaster Bob Prince, but before he answered, he turned to the national TV audience and spoke his love to his mother and beloved homeland in Spanish. It’s little wonder that boys and players all over the Caribbean grew up idolizing the man. He was the first great Latin ballplayer. The first Latin ballplayer inducted into the Hall of Fame, and the idol of every boy from the banks of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium to rugged sandlots of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

But for all his baseball pedigree, he is, perhaps, just as revered for his love and compassion for all of humanity.

On a stormy night, New Year’s Eve 1972, Clemente boarded a plane of questionable air-worthiness that he had hired himself, that he had coordinated and loaded himself, with a humanitarian load of supplies headed towards the victims of a horrific earthquake in Nicaragua which had occurred a week earlier on December 23. The plane took off and quickly crashed into the sea just off the coast of Puerto Rico. His body was never recovered. Panamanian teammate and Pirates’ catcher Manny Sanguillen scoured the beach for days looking for evidence of Roberto’s remains. None were ever found.

On March 30, 1973, the baseball writers of America conducted a special election, waiving the five year retirement requirement, and elected Roberto Clemente to the Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously.

His death signified how he lived. Graciously. He loved people, and if he could help, he would put aside his own holiday plans in order to put others first. On the field or off, Roberto Clemente stands as a symbol of greatness, and the statue of him outside of PNC Park, or the bridge renamed after him, which leads thousands of people from downtown to the ballpark on gameday, stands as a reminder of the human being he was. And of course, I have to mention the Clemente Wall, the 21-ft high wall in right field of PNC Park, which watches over his hallowed position, providing a sense of history and depth to the 126 year old franchise.

If you take a walk around PNC Park on any given day, you’re likely to see as many Clemente jerseys as McCutchen jerseys. That’s the power of the spell he has cast over the city of Pittsburgh and the baseball-loving portions of the Caribbean for the last forty years.

So it is extremely suitable for the number 21 to once again rear its head and make itself known in 2013. A twenty one year losing streak for the proud Pittsburgh franchise would just be unacceptable. The streak will end at 20, and in the highly superstitious realm of baseball, I’d like to think that Roberto somehow had a hand in it.

(Note: The Clemente family has a biography about Roberto set to release in September 2013. You can see more information about that HERE.)