It’s six o’clock in the evening on July 21, and the brilliant blue of the late-afternoon sky over San Diego is bleaching at the edges as the sun moseys toward the horizon, throwing the downtown buildings into gray relief as I speed toward them along the 94 west. Once I reach downtown, I turn left on Tenth, find a parking spot just shy of Market, and begin hoofing it toward the visible sliver of Petco Park, passing under banners hung from streetlamps and declaring the 40th anniversary of our home team, the San Diego Padres. The Franciscan Friar who serves as our mascot is, true to history, clad in brown; the banners, like (some of) the team’s current uniforms, are strangely, tastefully navy. I head south toward the park, on my way to see the home team take on the Florida Marlins, a .500 team mired in the middle of the National League East. It’s a beautiful night for baseball.
A lanky, graying man with a Padres cushion tucked under his arm and a professional air about his person is walking just ahead of me. His name is Daniel Haslam, and he is director of development for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. When I catch up to him, I learn that he’s been coming to Petco ever since it opened and counts himself a fan. “The only reason I have Cox cable at home is so I can watch the games,” he says. He’s on his way to meet friends. “There are between six and seven in our group; I’m the youngest at 55, and they range up close to 90. There are some really sharp people who can spout statistics, who can tell you who was on the team whenever. There are some who are learning; and there are some who just go for social reasons and hardly even watch the game.”
Along the way, he points out a couple of bars that are good for baseball fans looking to talk about the game, including the Tilted Kilt, just outside the stadium gate. (Lots of cleavage and short skirts on the waitstaff, because, hey, baseball doesn’t have cheerleaders.) But Haslam himself doesn’t frequent the bars; he heads straight for his seat in the upper deck, overlooking third base. “We’ve moved around every year — I love this park, it’s hard to get a bad seat — and now we’ve found our element. We’re in row 7 — that’s a front row, so there’s nobody in front of us. We’ve got a 13-game pass; we don’t know if we’d want to go for more.”
The first year he came — 2004 — Haslam had a 15-game pass but came to 30. “It was exciting” — for one thing, the Padres were winning. “There’s no excitement now. I think we’re going to finish in last place.” As predictions go, it sounds pretty safe: the Padres are 37–56, two games behind Arizona. Part of the problem is injuries, and “there’s nothing you can do about that.” But part of the problem, he thinks, is Padres manager Bud Black. “I don’t have a lot of confidence in him. Last year, we’d have a pitcher up on the mound in trouble, and Black would leave him in until he’d ruined the game, and then he’d decide to change the pitcher. This year, I think, he’s overreacting. He’s pulling them too quickly.”
And the real shame of it is, it isn’t just the pitchers who are getting sent off. “When something goes wrong, they change course. The trading business has just gone wild. They get somebody like Scott Hairston, who’s halfway decent, who’s proving to be one of the starters, and they trade him away for someone they think is going to be better. We don’t know any of these players. They come here for a short time, and then it’s off to Tradeland. Why do it? You’re not going to get the sponsors or the people who pay the freight. I came to the game on Sunday afternoon, and the stadium was less than half full. That’s terrible.” His advice for management: “Don’t try to reinvent yourself every two weeks; it ain’t going to work.” We part company just outside the stadium proper, under a huge banner featuring homegrown ace Jake Peavy, currently languishing on the disabled list. (How’s that for foreshadowing?)
“For a while,” says Haslam, “we were bringing lots and lots of snacks to the game, and we’d share and have our little meal up there in the upper deck. But ever since they got the 5-for-$5, we’ve been doing that. It’s pretty good — everybody likes it.” He’s right — just about everybody I talked to at the game mentioned the wonders of the 5-for-$5: a hot dog, a drink, a cookie, and bags of peanuts, and popcorn for just $5. That’s just a dollar more than a grilled (kosher) hot dog at the K Street Grill inside the stadium. It’s the same price as the Caramel Bliss popcorn being sold on the promenade behind right field. And it’s less than a cheeseburger ($7), an Oggi’s cheese pizza ($6), nachos ($5.50), or a Tubby’s Bucket at Dippin’ Dots ($5.75). I had to try it. God help me, I’m going to sound like a snob, but here goes: the hot dog tasted mostly of salt — not necessarily a bad thing, but there it is. My Coke was heavy on the syrup — a touch flat. The popcorn was good if a little chewy; ditto the Mrs. GoodCookie chocolate chunk cookie (the sort filled with a brown sugar mush to give the effect of just-baked softness). Sadly, the Hampton Farms salted and roasted peanuts were tired to the point of being unpleasant. But hey, $5. As my mother would say, “What do you want, egg in your beer?”
So here I am at Petco Park, built in part with public funds by a private citizen, Padres owner John Moores, who wanted to reap the benefits of East Village redevelopment and who threatened to take the team elsewhere if we didn’t, ahem, play ball. But you know what? St. Peter’s in Rome was built in part through the sale of indulgences — money covering a multitude of sins. That’s not to excuse either one; it’s just to say that in both cases, the results are wonderful enough to soften the heart a bit.