The Baseball, Hot Dogs & Apple Pie Weekend (Part III)
As cities go, San Diego is dead last in the league of self-promotion. It often strikes me that, despite being the 8th most populous city in the country, most Americans would not notice if San Diego somehow drifted away from the U.S. mainland and floated down the coast to Mexico, re-attaching itself somewhere near Cabo.
Having lived in San Diego, I know that in general the natives are OK with this. The owners of the San Diego Padres have to be somewhat less enthusiastic about this dynamic though. See, they own the most beautiful baseball park (and perhaps the nicest sports facility of any kind) in America, and receive zero publicity on that topic.
If Petco Park were in Chicago or Dallas, the reviews would be over the moon. Entire vacations would be planned around attending a game there. Sports Business Journal would retire its annual “Best Facility” Award. Let me put it this way – if somehow it could be arranged for the Angels to play their home games there, I might never leave the property.
Have I mentioned that it’s a nice place to catch a game?
When I lived in San Diego, the Padres played in Qualcomm Stadium, which they shared with the NFL’s Chargers. Originally opened in 1967, Qualcomm is one of the last of the dreaded “multi-purpose”, or more accurately the “let’s pour concrete in a big bowl and bolt down some seats” stadiums that came to plague the countryside in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Having been to a couple of Padres games at Qualcomm, it didn’t surprise me in the least that the team was willing to crawl across the cut glass that characterized the financing, permitting and construction of Petco Park.
But once it opened in 2004, Petco quickly faded into the background among conversation about new sports venues. I guess this was understandable, given that Petco Park was one of the last to open among a 10-stadium gold rush of new MLB ballparks that debuted between 1998 and 2004. Plus there’s that whole San Diego under-the-radar thing. I myself never considered it a “must visit”. Until now.
Providing a lesson in urban development and architectural design, Petco looks like a luxury resort that has been airlifted into an already “cozy” downtown that houses the San Diego Convention Center and its attendant hotels and restaurants. The concept of “adaptive reuse”, which entails co-opting old structures for different uses, is personified by the brick façade of the now-defunct Western Metal Supply Company.
At one time it was scheduled for demolition, but the now-refurbished building occupies a portion of the left-field wall of Petco Park, and houses the Padres Team Store, several luxury rental suites, a restaurant and three sections of rooftop bleachers – where $17 will get you a great view of the game.
Unlike a lot of baseball stadiums, the Padres chose not to enclose the park with seating. Or at least conventional seating. Beyond the center field wall is the Park At The Park, where for a $5 entry fee you have access to a huge manicured hillside lawn where you can spread a blanket and watch the game. A huge video board that directly faces the PATP ensures that you won’t miss a replay, should you doze off in a picnic-induced delirium.
For $10, you can sit in the center field bleachers, which are fronted by a beach. Yes, I said a beach – where your kids can frolic while you enjoy the game. There’s even a staff of employees on hand to put the kids through games and group exercise programs in the sand. Would you pay $10 to have someone exhaust your 6-year-old while you idly watch a baseball game? I thought so.
Within the stadium proper, Petco Park features several eat-in restaurants and dozens of concession stands offering far more options than standard ballpark food. And a lot of it is actually healthy stuff. To accompany your meal, there are the beer-stands-on-steroids that list at least twenty different options. I had to send The Bird to order my beer, as I was afraid that I’d stand there slack-jawed for an inning or two while trying to decide. And she delivered as always, bringing me the first draft IPA that I’ve ever had inside a ballpark. I won’t lie to you. I got a little teary-eyed at the milestone.
Unlike a lot of sports venues where, when they announce paid attendance you look around and go “huh?” the 23,498 attendance number that appeared on the video board seemed about right. In other words, people who had purchased a ticket made it a point of attending the game. I looked up the team’s average 2010 attendance later and found Sunday’s game to be pretty much right on the number. With capacity at Petco set at 42,445, there are always “plenty of good seats still available”. This is hard to believe, because this team is: (a) fun to watch; and (b) leading the National League West.
The Padres have Adrian Gonzalez, without a doubt the least hyped superstar in the game today. Their closer, Heath Bell, leads the National League in saves and was just added to the National League All-Star team as an injury replacement. Other than that…a bunch of players that the average fan hasn’t heard of. Former World Series MVP David Eckstein is probably the most recognizable face on the roster. This is eerily similar to the 2002 Angels World Series team, right down to the presence of Eckstein. I’m just saying.
But perhaps the one name on the Padres roster that even the most casual baseball fan can easily conjure up is Tony Gwynn – or more accurately, Tony Gwynn, Jr. The son of the Hall-of-Famer that bears the same name, the younger Gwynn until last season was known mostly for his famous father – and for the game-tying triple he hit for the Milwaukee Brewers in an October 2007 game that had the Padres won, would have clinched a playoff spot.
Since a trade that brought Gwynn to San Diego in May of ’09 however, he has patrolled Petco Park’s center field, working directly below the display that includes the four uniform numbers that the Padres have retired – one of which is the #19 worn by his father.
While not possessed with the same level of talent as his father (and who is?), Gwynn has made several contributions to the Padre’s current first-place position, and so it came as no surprise that in my first visit to Petco, he delivered a walk-off 3-2 win over the Astros with a bases-loaded single in the bottom of the ninth inning. It was the ninth walk-off win for the Padres this year. I’m just saying.
Clearly something special is going on at Petco Park this year. But let’s just keep that to ourselves, shall we? Just like that San Diego floating down to Cabo thing. Most people don’t know about that either.