NOTE: This post is the first in a series of Features describing the author’s first visits to various MLB ballparks around the country. The first two visits, to San Diego and Anaheim, are the product of one trip to Southern California; further visits to parks in the East and Midwest will come during a major road trip planned for June of this year. Keep watching this space for further updates from the road.
It was a beautiful day for a ballgame Sunday, April 23rd in San Diego. That was hardly a surprise; almost every day from April to October–and more than a few beyond that–are beautiful days in California’s southernmost major city. It’s one of the great strengths of the region, and a big part of what makes SoCal in general, and San Diego in particular, a perfect setting for baseball.
Sunday’s game marked my first visit to Petco Park, though not my first game in San Diego. When my mother lived in the East County city of El Cajon (until about a decade ago), I had attended a Padres game while the team was still housed in what was then known as Jack Murphy Stadium.
I can report, with absolute certainty, that Petco Park represents a huge upgrade for Padres Fans.
I stayed at a hotel in the Gaslamp District during my San Diego visit, so the approach to the park was by foot–a mere three blocks (give or take) away from my lodging. The walk to Petco Park is similar to the approach to AT&T Park in San Francisco. In fact, there are a great many similarities between the two facilities–enough that one might consider the pair to be “brother parks,” or at the very least very near cousins. In both cases, you approach the park through a very urban landscape of city blocks, many of which are jammed with businesses that cater to the ballpark crowd (lots of bars/pubs, a number of restaurants, etc.).
Then again, there are notable differences. AT&T dominates its area along San Francisco’s Third and King Streets. The Giants’ park rose in the vanguard of the redevelopment of SF’s South Beach neighborhood; most of what was there beforehand was residential spaces, or commercial buildings (but not major business stacks; more like older, three- or four-story office buildings), along with the marinas. There is an old, heavily industrial section just south of the park along Third, famously framed by what’s now called McCovey Cove, but those old factory buildings don’t really crowd the stadium all that much.
“I have to say that a visit to Petco should be on every baseball fan’s “must-do” list.”
Petco, in contrast, lives in its neighborhood but doesn’t dominate it. At this remove it’s hard to know what within the surrounding blocks was built up after the opening of the ballpark and what lived there before, but the Padres’ home is surrounded by many more tower blocks than its northern relative. Instead of a picturesque view of a bridge and bay beyond the outfield fence, a la AT&T, Petco patrons are treated to a more traditional city skyline view out beyond the open outfield bounds of the park. (See the panorama pic above for a taste of the view.)
That same area also houses a “Park at the Park,” towards which I did not steer myself, as I was much more focused on the experience inside the stadium versus the outside. However, as the picture attests, lots of folks made that stretch of ground their destination on Sunday, both before and during the game. (Probably after, too, but I didn’t stick around to see that.)
Access to the park is quite good, if you’re in the neighborhood already. The streets immediately surrounding the park are blocked off on game days, leading to an easy walk-up approach.
Entry, too, was quick and easy, with no delay at all at the (now inevitable) security checkpoint, and only a slight delay at the actual turnstile, caused by my ticket not reading properly the first time I stuck the barcode under the reader. A retry proved successful, and I was officially inside the Padres’ home.
The building is beautiful, still seems brand new, and had great access both for getting in and getting around once you are inside the grounds. My trip up to my seat location in the third deck was accomplished swiftly thanks to some well-designed escalator access. There, in the park’s upper reaches, I found my seat in the third row of the top deck–which was still an excellent view of the field, the stadium in general, and beyond. As with many of the newer stadiums, Petco is designed so that there are basically no bad seats in the house.
My overall Petco Park experience was overwhelmingly positive. Among the highlights:
- The aforementioned good view, both of the field and the park and is surroundings as a whole, from my third deck seat (Again, see above; click the photo for a larger, more representative view.)
- Good ballpark food that was fresh and tasty; nothing stale, flavorless, or obviously inferior quality. (Expensive, of course, but that’s standard for all stadiums now.)
- A friendly atmosphere among the patrons. The crowd was not close to capacity, so things weren’t cramped, and thus a little mellower, perhaps–but the whole vibe around the place seemed extremely pleasant and enjoyable. I struck up a conversation with a young fan sitting a couple of seats away, a young man named Ryan, who shared a great many thoughts on the state of San Diego sports in general and the Padres in particular–a bit of chatter that gave valuable context to experience as seen through a local’s eyes.
- The Petco PA system is mercifully low-key on the volume compared with some other parks I’ve been to. Even up in the third deck there was little danger of having my eardrums burst.
There were only a few downsides to my visit:
- Petco Park staff are, in general, a bit on the lackadaisical side when it comes to doing their jobs. Whether it was at the entry point, or getting my food from the concessions, or waiting for a vendor in the stands to mosey on over my way, just about everyone who works at the park seems to be a bit low on the hop-to-it-iveness scale.
- The home team is not very good. Nor are they even particularly recognizable. Beyond Will Myers and Erick Aybar, none of the names in the Padres’ lineup rang any bells on Sunday–and even Myers and Aybar are not exactly household names.
Still, one fan’s trash is another fan’s…if not treasure, then at least something vaguely valuable. I was particularly struck by the local crowd’s devotion to their team; though they didn’t show their support in huge numbers–again, nowhere near a sellout–it seemed like everyone who showed up was dressed in some sort of Padres paraphernalia.
That merch even included more than one jersey celebrating former Padres third baseman and one-time NL MVP Ken Caminiti. I found that choice to be striking; Caminiti is mostly remembered around the baseball world for his admission of PED use during his MVP season, as well as (perhaps) his early, tragic death attributable to drug use. Apparently, though, in San Diego there is still a fondness for the player who led the team to the 1996 NL West title. Perhaps the jerseys I saw, like the one worn by the young lady who sat two rows in front of me (see picture), was not meant to honor the man as much as it was just a convenient shirt to wear to a game. Her shirt was obviously the product of a giveaway promotion; others so adorned may have been wearing theirs for the same reason.
However it may be, the names on the jerseys worn by the locals, as well as the team history highlight reel that played before the game showed one of the big things you come to recognize when you visit another city’s park: everyone’s reference point(s) for what the game means to them is different–and is heavily influenced by location, by local history, by what is a part of your hometown life. That’s a valuable lesson to learn–one that might, perhaps, help fans of a given team come to see their fandom as part of something bigger than just what the locals mean to them.
As for the game itself…as I said, the Padres are both anonymous and not particularly good. Padres starter Luis Perdomo was able to work his way through the Marlins lineup for five innings without giving up a run, and, after San Diego right fielder Hunter Renfroe slugged a deep 2-run homer to center in the bottom of the fourth, the home nine was looking to be in pretty good shape with a 3-0 lead.
It all came crashing down in the sixth. Not surprisingly, Giancarlo Stanton had a pivotal at bat for the Marlins, bringing home Christian Yelich with Miami’s first run on a single to center. It was a major victory for Perdomo that he kept Stanton in the ballpark, but that proved to be the last hitter of the day for the Pads’ young right-hander. Perdomo was pulled in favor of reliever Craig Stammen–who promptly destroyed the game for the home team by not getting an out on the way to letting five runs score, all without getting an out. Once Miami’s light-hitting first baseman Justin Bour belted a big, 3-run homer to right to complete the six-run inning, the game was pretty much decided.
The rest of the game was little more than a hour-plus of sitting in the sun, and taking the occasional break to wander the upper concourse and snap a picture or two of the surrounding area (see above). It’s a pretty spectacular look whichever way you turn. And, it being San Diego, it was warm but not too warm, sunny and breezy without being too much of either, with just enough wispy clouds passing overhead now and then to take the edge off the sunshine.
There was only one piece of business left to attend to over the final three innings: would the Marlins’ Ichiro Suzuki, who was not in the starting lineup, get an at-bat as a pinch hitter before it was all over, for what was likely to be his last at bat in San Diego (a place he visited frequently as a member of the Mariners during the early days of inter-league play)?
The answer came in the top of the eighth, when Ichiro capped off the half-inning with a pinch hit appearance for the Marlins. The San Diego crowd gave the Japanese-born legend an appropriately rousing ovation for his appearance. Unfortunately, Ichiro could only ground out to second in his sayonara to Padres fans–but he still looked like a Hall-of-Famer doing it.
Miami added one more run in the top of the ninth, just to make sure of things, and closed out the Pads in the bottom of the inning without any particular intrigue, and thus my first game at Petco Park came to a disappointing end for the home nine. For me personally, however, it was a very enjoyable experience all around, and I have to say that a visit to Petco should be on every baseball fan’s “must-do” list. You’ll hardly find a better place to watch a baseball game in the major leagues, even if the Padres themselves aren’t much to look at.
Next stop on the trip: Anaheim for a Tuesday night game between the visiting Oakland Athletics and the homestanding Angels.