PITTSBURGH, Pa. — After decades of victories that brought the Pittsburgh Pirates two World Series wins and left the names Clemente, Mazeroski and Stargell echoing around its concrete rings, the team fell out of love with Three Rivers Stadium.
Their stadium roommate, the Pittsburgh Steelers, were of a similar disposition and both teams began embracing the idea of a new facility. In the final analysis, it wasn’t the structure that failed, it was the inability to add enough luxury boxes to suit team owners and a design that was a compromise between two disparate sports but a master of neither.
On Sept. 5, 1991, Mayor Sophie Masloff proposed the idea of a new home for the Pirates on the city’s North Shore. Discussions about a baseball-only facility lingered for years afterward, but kept striking out until Kevin McClatchy purchased the team in February 1996. With new ownership, a new sense of urgency emerged.
Masloff’s successor, Mayor Tom Murphy, created a task force to study the feasibility of a new ballpark. The final report of the Forbes Field II Task Force was released on June 26, 1996 to wide criticism, including a published rebuttal from the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy.
Among other rebukes, taxpayers revolted against the teams’ desires to replace Three Rivers by raising sales taxes, defeating it in a 1997 voter referendum. But the aptly named Plan B sealed the fate of Three Rivers and the new ballpark project moved forward, with the Pirates pledging to remain in the city until at least 2031.
Selling the naming rights was a controversial decision, as many had wanted the new ballpark to be named for former outfielder Roberto Clemente. The city renamed the 6th Street Bridge as the Roberto Clemente Bridge to appease those disappointed by the team’s decision.
The $262 million ballpark had its groundbreaking on April 7, 1999, immediately after the bridge renaming ceremony. The stadium was designed by HOK Sport (which has since changed its name to Populous), and built by Dick Corporation and Barton Malow.
The two-deck ballpark incorporates architectural flourishes from Forbes Field, the team’s home for 61 years prior to Three Rivers. The Kasota limestone from Minnesota is complemented by steel beams made at a plant in Brownsville, Fayette County. The ballpark continues its intimate and nostalgic air all the way down to the natural grass playing field.
The ballpark opened to great acclaim just two years after the groundbreaking. Crowds at the first home-opening game at PNC Park on April 9, 2001, gawked at the city’s spectacular skyline spread before them with the Roberto Clemente Bridge leaping behind the stands of left field. It’s among the smallest of MLB ballparks, with a current seating capacity of 38,362.
It also boasted the first LED video boards in an outdoor MLB stadium and the first scoreboard that showed the status of every other MLB game being played.
Unfortunately, the dreams and promises that a new stadium would bring new success for the team have fallen short. The first home game was an 8-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds and, perhaps, an omen of darker times to come.
Regardless of how the Pirates’ season is faring, PNC Park has received numerous and generous assessments from local fans and those who come to root for the visiting teams, and the stadium has become a model for civic structures around the world.
Two years after the stadium’s groundbreaking, on April 7, 2001, a statue of Willie “Pops” Stargell was unveiled outside the left field entrance. The tribute took on added poignancy when Stargell died of a stroke two days later, the same day of the Pirates’ first home game at PNC Park.
Masloff lived to see her dream of a North Shore ballpark become reality and even had a street near the ballpark named after her in 2007. Masloff died in 2014.
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