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Ballpark Quirks: PNC Park honors a Pittsburgh legend in Clemente

Ballpark Quirks: PNC Park honors a Pittsburgh legend in Clemente Photo: Getty Images

Pittsburgh loved Roberto Clemente, and PNC Park makes that clear, with everything from outfield walls built in his tribute to a stadium oriented and designed to show off the bridge crossing the Allegheny River named in his honor.

Tying Clemente and the Pirates' old home until 1971, Forbes Field, into the 38,000-plus-seat stadium proved a must for stadium designer Earl Santee. The Populous architect told SI.com that the love for Clemente — which led to the renaming of a bridge over the Allegheny in his honor — drove the orientation and design of the two-deck stadium.

"The color of the bridge (yellow), how it is arched, the trusses coming across the Allegheny, those are really powerful images," Santee said. "Clemente Bridge becomes a centerfield icon, one of the signatures of that building and that team."

Opened in 2001 to replace Three Rivers Stadium, the relatively small PNC Park — the highest seat in the house is only 88 feet from the field — honors Clemente with a rightfield wall at 21 feet high, chosen because Clemente wore No. 21. But the wall dips down to six feet by leftfield, and the largely open centerfield allows for colorful views of the bridge and downtown Pittsburgh beyond.

The Clemente Bridge, renamed in conjunction with the building of PNC Park, closes down to vehicles on Pirates game days, turning into a pedestrian walkway from downtown, even allowing visitors past a Clemente statue. The architecture of the bridge ties with the historic Forbes Field, allowing PNC to play with that nostalgia with masonry archways across the entry level façade, steel trusses and decorative terra cotta-tiled pillars.

But tying to the river — just 443 feet and four inches from home plate — and the bridge remains a central focus for the waterfront park. Fans can arrive via the Clemente Bridge or riverboat access; before they enjoy the views from within the park, they can spend time along the shores of the river in a retail and restaurant pavilion tucked between the water and right field.

For a team that has lived in Pittsburgh since 1887, having a stadium that directly looks at both the city and team history from every angle honors that history and Clemente, at least in the form of a bridge.

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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