Tonight, the secret is out. Tonight, millions across the country will see the stadium lit up on the banks of the Allegheny, a limestone jewel resting in the shadow of a soaring skyline that has become a symbol for a city unequivocally on the rise.
In PNC Park, Pittsburgh has what many feel is the nation's best ballpark. Now a playoff-caliber Pirates team calls it home for the first time. The spotlight is on, with the Cincinnati Reds and Pirates dueling for the chance to play more October baseball, and for Pittsburghers who have dreamed of this, it's worth a moment of reflection about how far their city has climbed -- and also how much farther it could have fallen.
Late one night in November 1997, when then-Mayor Tom Murphy made a phone call to then-Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy, it was not at all clear how much Pittsburgh wanted to be remain a big league city.
Voters in 11 Western Pennsylvania counties had voted down a sales tax increase to partially fund new stadiums for the Pirates and Steelers, who had shared Three Rivers Stadium since 1970. The plan called for an extra half-penny on the dollar for seven years, and the answer from the black-and-gold-bleeding electorate was an emphatic "no."
"Pittsburgh was at a time when it was down, and I thought the last thing we needed to do was lose our major league sports teams," the former mayor said. "You don't think of Pittsburgh in the same sentence as you do Toledo or Oklahoma City or a host of other cities that are [around] our size. You think of Pittsburgh in a different kind of way, because we have major league teams."
Mr. McClatchy took Mr. Murphy's call that night. The mayor acknowledged that the young and ambitious owner could move the team if he wanted. But ...
"He just said, 'Have some faith,' " Mr. McClatchy recalled.
Soon, the two men would become very unpopular. They introduced a "Plan B," sending the message that they were going to be bullheaded about public funds building these stadiums for private owners. Maybe it wasn't right, but it was necessary to move the city forward. They became lightning rods for criticism, and legislators called for Mr. Murphy's resignation.
"I remember people saying, if you build PNC Park, it's going to be just like Three Rivers; there will be no businesses around it," Mr. McClatchy said. "No hotels, no nothing. Everybody was convinced it wasn't going to impact the city at all."
In July 1998, with the help of what Mr. Murphy called some "creative financing," the mayor and Mr. McClatchy won. The Allegheny Regional Asset District approved a plan for $809 million to build a baseball stadium, a football stadium and perform renovations to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center -- $228 million of which was designated for what would become PNC Park.
The Pirates then signed a contract saying they would stay in Pittsburgh until at least 2031.
"What we made a decision to do as a city, in the midst of depression in Pittsburgh, was to look to the future, not to simply manage decline," Mr. Murphy said. "To really build high-quality things."
For that, the Pirates called Earl Santee, the lead baseball stadium designer for HOK Sport, now known as Populous, in Kansas City, Mo. When Mr. Santee met with the Pirates about their vision for the new stadium, one buzzword stuck out: "Intimate."
"I think it was really Pittsburgh's time to have great buildings again," Mr. Santee said.
Mr. Santee, along with most everyone else involved in the process, became enamored with a plot of land just east of where the Pirates played their first games at Exposition Park. The area was just close enough to the bridges to be able to use them, along with the skyline, as the perfect backdrop.
Architecturally, they decided on a two-deck structure instead of the three decks being used in most parks. They also wanted it to feel like it was uniquely Pittsburgh, opting for the limestone brick instead of the red brick that had become popular around baseball. They even incorporated elements from Forbes Field.
But, to prove wrong Mr. Murphy's and Mr. McClatchy's many critics, PNC Park had to be more than just a great venue for baseball. It needed to connect the city and invigorate the North Shore.
"[Steelers owner] Dan Rooney always said that we need to look at the rivers as not defining the city but running through the city," said Mr. Murphy, who now works with the Urban Land Institute in Washington, as a senior resident fellow. "We always thought of the North Side as not part of the city. What we've been able to do with the [Pittsburgh] Cultural Trust on one side of the city attracting millions of people, and the ballparks, shutting the bridge down and making that connection, it's [changed] how people view the city."
Since PNC Park's opening in 2001, Mr. Santee has returned for games and seen the boom of the surrounding area. It was exactly like they'd planned it.
Bars, restaurants, hotels and businesses stretch from the ballpark to Heinz Field, which opened in 2002. Mr. Santee believes that if PNC Park had been built much further toward the Ohio River that it would not have had the same impact because it wouldn't have the premier location directly across from the Cultural District.
"The front door of PNC Park is on the river," Mr. Santee said. "The walkway to PNC Park is the Clemente Bridge. That's the front sidewalk if you will. Those relationships are pretty strong."
Tonight, and later this weekend if the Pirates host Games 3 and 4 of the National League Divisional Series against the Cardinals, the rest of the country will have a front-row view of the culmination of two comebacks: the franchise's and Pittsburgh's.
Diehard baseball fans know about the splendor of PNC Park, but many casual observers still need an introduction. The raised stakes of a playoff game, of fans pinching themselves as they wave their Jolly Roger flags, is the right time.
"I'm in the business of designing buildings that create memories," Mr. Santee said. "You've got 37,000 fans there watching a game together, and being able to say, 'I was there.' When we started the project, people would tell me about games they went and saw Roberto Clemente play. They would remember those things as if they were yesterday.
"I believe you have to have those memories to keep a sustainable love affair with the stadium, the team, the city. And it's the Pirates' moment right now. However it goes, at least they had that moment."
Added local architect Louis D. Astorino, who helped Mr. Santee with the design of the stadium, "There will be something special that will happen to them once there's a playoff game."
Former Pirates All-Star center fielder Andy Van Slyke doesn't think the current players can comprehend how good they have it in PNC Park.
"I'm not jealous of anything the players are doing today, the money they make, the amount of media attention they get," Mr. Van Slyke said. "But I am jealous of Pirates players playing on a beautiful grass field, I can tell you that. I had to play in Three Rivers, and I will just leave it that way."
But even Three Rivers was beloved because of the magnitude of the games that were won and lost on that artificial turf.
"I don't think you're going to have that strong emotional tie until this team does have winning baseball in the postseason," Mr. Van Slyke said. "It's one thing to say we've got a nice ballpark and a nice team. It's totally different to say we've got the best baseball team and the best baseball stadium together. My point is, that stadium isn't truly beautiful until you put makeup on it, and the makeup is the playoffs."
For the Pirates, for the city, for the fans, and for Mr. Murphy and Mr. McClatchy, tonight's game signifies the end of one journey and the beginning of a new one, with the Pirates and PNC Park standing together as part of Pittsburgh's ongoing renaissance.
"It means everything," said Mr. McClatchy, who lives in Ligonier and is now the chairman of the board of the McClatchy Co., his family-owned media group. "I've been down to quite a few games, and seeing the enthusiasm, and the downtown ... I think we have the best fans in baseball because they've had to go through more than most any other fans have, and just seeing them having a great time and enjoying the ballpark means a lot to me."
J. Brady McCollough: email@example.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published October 1, 2013 4:00 AM