Looking around the Park at the Park, tucked in behind the outfield wall, you can almost believe that all is well with America and that baseball is still our national pastime. Cooling shadows are beginning to stretch over the outfield to my left, and the air surrounding all those cream-colored girders is fine and clear. Up there on the right, atop a grassy knoll, stands a statue of Tony Gwynn (“Mr. Padre”) in midswing — a monument to old-style baseball. His whole remarkable career with one team, his excellence arising from consistency and mechanics instead of power and raw athleticism on the lawn. Before him, a father plays catch with his son; the boy, barely more than a toddler, gleefully heaves a tennis ball toward his dad. Down the slope, parents guide their children through a round of Wiffle ball on the miniature diamond. What soccer moms?
“Hey kids!” reads a sandwich board set up near the stadium entrance. “Join the US Bank Junior Padres for only $10 and receive an EXCLUSIVE US Bank Junior Padres Wristwatch and Collector Tin! Sign up today at Fan Program Center 135 (in the Kids Power Alley) or online at www.padres.com.” Over at the nearby Friar Shack, kids 52 inches and under can order hot dogs, Smucker’s PB&J sandwiches, popcorn, cinnamon grahams, fruit cups, juice boxes, and milk for $1.50 each. The aforementioned Power Alley is a batting cage set up inside the stadium walkway, just a few feet from the Friar Fastball pitching cage. Get your tokens and test your skill: one for $3, two for $5. But I will ignore the money-sucks and the boy clutching his Nintendo DS even as he takes a $40 seat behind the first base line. The kids still like baseball.
Bob Minnich, 81, still likes baseball too — though he does call himself “a different kind of fan. I’d rather miss seeing them win than see them lose. When we have a lead and the other team is up, it’s sometimes painful for me to watch. There was one time, for the last out of the ninth inning of a game that would have won us either the division or league title, I left my seat and went into the tunnel — this was at Qualcomm. I couldn’t watch it. There’s a strong feeling for the game, and winning is important to me. Though I can handle a loss if it’s good play. Most of my foul language comes as a result of a reaction to baseball plays — less so at the stadium than at home.”
Minnich has been coming since 1973, the year his sister gave his parents quarter-season tickets just behind the Padres’ dugout for their 50th wedding anniversary (also, the year before the debut of the San Diego Chicken). “My father immediately bought two more, so that the four of us could go.” He remembers the days of great tailgates in the Jack Murphy Stadium parking lot. “We’d have three to four couples, and we were beer drinkers. When we were ready to go in to the game, we would take all the beer, open it, dump it into a gallon jug, and bring it in with us. It was okay in those days. It didn’t matter what variety or brand — though they were all good brands.” (Today, there is a two-beer limit per customer inside the park, but you can still get good brands — Bass, Shiner Bock, Peroni, etc. — for $8.50 a pop.)
He was here when Hank Aaron came to town after breaking Babe Ruth’s career home-run record. “My father had been quite influential in New York State, and Babe Ruth once signed a baseball for him. I took that baseball down to the locker room, on the chance that Aaron would be willing to sign it. What I didn’t know at the time was that Aaron went through hell when he set the record” — death threats and hate mail from people who didn’t want to see a black man surpass Ruth — “and so he wasn’t too happy with anybody, and probably less so with white folks. But maybe he was flattered that it was a ball signed by Babe Ruth. Anyway, he signed it. Where that ball is today, I have no idea.”
And he was here for Alan Wiggins’s brief stardom in the early ’80s — he stole 70 bases for the ’84 team — before drugs destroyed his career. “I once saw him steal home, which was exciting. In some ways, it’s only successful if nobody’s aware it’s happening, so that you don’t really see anything until he’s already home. It kind of fools the fans as well as the other team. At Charger stadium, you take an elevator down to the tunnel where the players walk to their lockers. One time, we were leaving, and Wiggins was coming by. I said something like, ‘Great job,’ and he said, ‘Yeah.’ It was an interesting reaction — the tone of it. I felt like he was beating himself up for what he was doing.”
Thirty-odd years in, “I’ve seen two All-Star Games and two World Series. I’ve seen them in their best of times, but I’m not sure I’ve seen them in their worst of times yet. There are 100 losses looming on the horizon this season. We were golden our first three weeks, and my joke is that they finally learned to play down to their level. They’ve done the best they can. The $40 million payroll limit has to be part of it. It seems to me that the era of moneyed people who like the prestige of owning a major-league sports enterprise is gone. Unfortunately, it’s now seen as a business for profit.”
Obligatory Tony Gwynn Anecdote
Minnich’s wife Laureen is with him tonight and cannot help relating the following: “When my oldest son Mike was in Little League, I would take him to the batting cages off Mission Gorge Road. At the time, I think Tony Gwynn was a part-owner. One Saturday, I had taken Mike there early to practice, and Tony was practicing in the next cage over. I was a single mother at the time and didn’t know how to advise Mike to hold the bat. He was missing balls, and I felt so bad. Tony looked over and saw what was going on, and he came over and asked if I would mind him going into the cage with my son and giving him some pointers. He helped him for about 20 minutes. I’ll never forget that.”