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.
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.”
The Late Greats
“There was a period of time,” recalls Minnich, “when this team would hire big names in their waning years. Sometimes they were very productive for us, and sometimes they were just going out to pasture. But it created some exciting moments just the same.”
A few highlights from those days:
“The most exciting was Fernando Valenzuela. I just loved watching him pitch. He was a classic intellectual pitcher: he would pitch to the man he saw based on the man who was coming up. A joy to watch.” (Valenzuela was 13–8 for San Diego in 1996, with a 3.62 ERA.) Slightly less exciting, if more successful: “Gaylord Perry won a Cy Young with us in 1978” — he was 39 years old and went 21–6 with a 2.73 ERA.
“Graig Nettles was a great third baseman who had been a Yankee all his life” — or at least, for the 11 seasons before he came back to his hometown of San Diego in 1984. (Yankees owner George Steinbrenner traded him after seeing a promotional copy of Nettles’s memoir Balls, which was critical of Steinbrenner.) “His family lived here. His father was a district counselor, and I was a psychologist at one of the schools he was assigned to. He has a picture of Graig and his younger brother Jim in his office.” The two both played baseball at San Diego State. “Jim had hit a home run and was rounding third base, giving that look to his brother. It was a great picture.” (In 1985, at age 40, Graig Nettles the Padre was selected for the National League All-Star team.) “Goose Gossage had been a Yankee as well” and came over at the same time as Nettles, delivering over 20 saves a season for his first three years with the team.
“We had Dave Kingman for a while. He was tall, and he wore a skin-tight uniform — you’ve seen some of these players, there isn’t a ruffle. He was a good-fielding first baseman, and he was known for strikeouts and home runs. Unfortunately, when he played for us in 1977, he opted for the former (48) more than the latter (11).” Two years later, he uncorked 48 for the Chicago Cubs.
“Willie McCovey was a classic first baseman. He was 6 feet 4 inches, and his nickname was Stretch — a great defensive player. And Steve Garvey, of course, had a moment or two with us,” including a couple of years as an All-Star in the mid-’80s.
While Minnich talks, members of the field crew — outfitted in their glamour-free uniforms of khakis and light blue shirts — set to work prepping the infield: misting the dirt, raking it smooth with broad brushes, formatting and laying the white lines around home plate, smoothing the pitcher’s mound. The ritual is its own sort of entertainment. If there is a Zen quality to baseball — the back and forth of pitcher to catcher, shortstop to second to first, and all the rest of it — it’s only half as perfect as the perfect sameness of the field crew’s motions as they rake and rerake the cocoa-brown earth, rendering it absolutely uniform so that it contrasts with the outfield’s stripedy crosshatch of lawn-mower lines.
A team from the San Diego Zoo lines up along the third base line and displays a collection of beasties: raptors, turtles, etc. Four men from the Oceanside Police Department Color Guard — two with rifles — bear the flags of the United States and the State of California to a patch of infield just behind the pitcher’s mound, and we’re ready for the national anthem. Encinitas resident Michael Ahmann takes his place at the microphone set up behind home plate. Backsides heave up from their seats, hats slip off of heads, and the words flash on the digital screens along the walls lining the playing field. “O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light…” And now we’re ready to play ball.
As soon as we watch this exciting video on the JumboTron, anyway. The one that takes us on a computer-generated roller-coaster ride past helicopters and scenery and Padres players making wonderful catches. And as soon as we hear the starting lineups, which are received in silence.
Padres pitcher Chad Gaudin gets off to a strong start, throwing his first pitch, a 91-mile-per-hour fastball, in for a strike, and getting Marlins left fielder Chris Coghlan to fly out to left on the next pitch. Third baseman Emilio Bonifacio is out after two pitches as well, ripping a grounder into the glove of Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera. (Later, he will make another sparkling catch, and the JumboTron, sponsored by Carl’s Jr., will advise us to hang a star on that one.) Both outs garner applause from the crowd. Hanley Ramirez tags the first pitch he sees and sends it through the hole beside second base, but Jorge Cantu grounds out, and the Padres are done with one.
Eats at the Outset
I will never forget taking my sons to their first ballgame at Petco, way back when it opened. The boys were young, maybe seven and five. We had sweet seats along the first base line — a friend had given us tickets. But the drama of the evening was unrelated to the game. The drama came from the endless parade of goodies passing before their eyes. Here’s what gets hawked at the beginning of tonight’s game: 7:04: popcorn. 7:05: iced tea. 7:06: popcorn again. 7:07: iced tea again. 7:10: snow cones. 7:18: Cracker Jacks, peanuts. 7:35: ice cream. 7:37: soda. By 7:45, the cotton candy man had shown up. After that, I stopped keeping track.
Shortstop Cabrera walks to lead off for the Padres. And after Tony Gwynn Jr. advances him to second, the San Diego Chicken starts to dance and we hear our first blast from the organ — CHARGE! Our enthusiasm is rewarded: first baseman Adrian Gonzalez singles to center, and Cabrera scores. It’s only the first inning; it’s just one run. But it’s still thrilling. When third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff grounds into a double play to end the inning and a lady in the row behind me cheers, she catches more than one look of shock and chagrin. What’s a Marlins fan doing way down here in the infield seats? She’s harshing our buzz! But she is not intimidated and continues to hoot and holler for her boys in gray. And the boys in gray respond, scoring runs in the second, third, and fifth while the Padres fizzle.
This is not a hit piece. I didn’t come to the game to hammer on the Padres or on the fan experience. I came to see what it’s like. So I’m not going to dwell overlong on the practice of giving the fan a little dollop of infotainment to go with his at-bat — the JumboTron factoids offered up about the man at the plate.
Often, factoids make good marketing sense. If the fan really is the tenth man — if his or her enthusiasm can help to make the difference in a game — then you want to sell the fan on the action. Or the memory of action. Or the promise of action. Viz: “John Johnson has had at least one base hit in his last 38 games.” He’s been doing so well! Hooray! And if we cheer hard enough, perhaps he will do well again! So the hype machine roars into life, and the JumboTron buzzes with facts about just about every man who comes to the plate. The screen is the spectator’s color commentary.
But this is one of the problems with hype. If you keep pushing it all the time, pretty soon your audience develops an appetite. They expect it: Hype me. So what do you do when there’s nothing to hype? A color commentator might shift the discussion to larger matters — say, the way umps are calling the strike zone this year. But the JumboTron isn’t equipped for that. Can you just turn off the big screen and hope people will concentrate on the game? Apparently not. Instead, you have to put up bits like this:
“Everth Cabrera has started every game at shortstop since being activated from the DL on June 19.”
“Kevin Kouzmanoff was the last everyday third baseman in the majors to make an error this year.”
The subtexts are genuinely sadmaking. First, your team is so riddled with injuries that it is hypeworthy to note that your shortstop has been healthy and starting for over a month. Second, your third baseman had a good start in the field this year. But the follow-up looms: What happened since then? Has he gone on a bobble spree? (As it happens, no.)
The crowd fizzles right along with the Padres, despite the best efforts of the computerized Swinging Friar on the JumboTron, who urges us to make some noise and cups his ear while a bouncing needle registers our collective output. Later, animated clapping hands will set an example. At one point, the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” starts up over the speakers:
Tonight’s the night/ Let’s live it up/ I got my money/ Let’s spend it up/ Go out and smash it/ Like oh my God/ Jump off that sofa/ Let’s get get off/ I know that we’ll have a ball…I gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night…
The song is about clubbing and dancing, but gosh, it’s so optimistic and peppy and cheerful — it’s hard to knock its inclusion here. I mean, it could almost be about baseball and going down to the park to watch a game, right? In that way, it’s a lot like Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” (which we’ll hear a line from tonight after a Marlin strikes out). That song is about a guy who gets pushed too far and goes on a machine-gun murder spree: “Out of the doorway the bullets rip/ To the sound of the beat/ Another one bites the dust…”
(Can we digress from this digression for one second and marvel at the way Queen’s music has been caught up, not just once but twice, by the world of professional sports? How many times have you attended/watched a Big Game and heard Freddie Mercury croon, “We are the champions — my friend/ And we’ll keep on fighting — till the end…?” Me? Lots. The man was flamboyant beyond belief [at least onstage] — eschewing a leotard only when leather pants and suspenders or a bandleader’s uniform seemed more apropos. And yet, millions upon millions of sports fans — not a notoriously gay-friendly crowd — are happy to sing along with his tenor warblings. Maybe we can all just get along…)
So anyway, “I Gotta Feeling” makes sense at a ballgame. Some of the other songs, less so.
A Sampling of Songs Heard Over the Course of an Evening at Petco Park
“My Sharona” by the Knack. Fun sample lyric: “Never gonna stop, give it up, such a dirty mind/ Always get it up for the touch of the younger kind…”
“Panama” by Van Halen. Fun sample lyric: “Got an on-ramp comin’ through my bedroom/ Don’t you know she’s coming home with me…”
“Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard. Fun sample lyric: “You gotta squeeze a little, squeeze a little, tease a little more/ Easy operator come a-knockin’ on my door…”
“I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” by Joan Jett. Fun sample lyric: “He smiled so I got up and asked for his name/ That don’t matter, he said, ’cause it’s all the same…”
Who knew baseball was so sexy? But it’s not all a romp in the sheets…
“Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses. Fun sample lyric: “Strapped in the chair of the city’s gas chamber/ Why I’m here, I can’t quite remember…”
“Kids in America” by No Secrets. Fun sample lyric: “Much later, baby, you’ll be saying ‘Never mind’/ You know life is cruel, life is never kind.”
“Snow (Hey Oh)” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Fun sample lyric: “When it’s killing me, when will I really see/ All that I need to look inside.”
Yeah, yeah — get off my lawn. Nobody’s listening to the lyrics, right? This is about a feeling, a mood. I love rock and roll! Take me down to the Paradise City! We’re the kids in America! My-my-my Sharona! AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” is an anthem about Satan coming to drag you to hell, but it worked just fine as an intro for Trevor Hoffman. Shut up, Lickona.
As C-3PO said: Shutting up, sir. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a teensy bit much mood management going on? A faint whiff of desperation in the constant juicing of the crowd with vaguely inappropriate musical interludes?
I mean, we’re in paradise. The park is beautiful. We came here on purpose. You’re not gonna distract us from the sad spectacle taking place on the field with guitar riffs and sexy talk. I’m reminded of Bob Minnich’s appraisal of sports-talk shows: “I’m disgusted with them, particularly during the game, when they think they have to do the entertaining and not the ballplayers. It’s kind of sad.” Ease up; we promise not to fall asleep in our seats. And while you’re at it, maybe settle on a uniform? (The Padres this evening are wearing short-sleeve blue tops and long white pants; the Marlins aren’t quite as uniform in their uniforms — some wear pants, while others opt for calf-high stockings — and teal shoes.)
And as long as we’ve got a few minutes to kill, a rock song, and a JumboTron, how ’bout let’s make a music video? Maybe show highlights from the season — great catches, big hits, sharp plays? But then, this is baseball we’re talking about, a sport that stubbornly resists glamming up. Watching a pitcher work the strike zone is a meditative exercise; a well-turned double play is more poetry than rock and roll. And the sad fact is, when you’re watching it on television (or the JumboTron), a home run looks much the same leaving the bat as a long fly ball. You need something extra — a hollering play-by-play man, for example. Or CGI explosions.
Wait, what? You better believe it. Little bursts of energy surround each crack of the bat, as if we were reading a comic book about the game. Players glow as they slide into second. Lasers flash around pitches. When an outfielder leaps to snag a ball before it slips over the fence, the screen splits so that we can see him do it in stereo, giving us twice the action. It comes off a little bit silly — if we can’t get worked up enough to admire feats of outstanding athleticism and skill on the baseball field without lasers and light shows, maybe we shouldn’t be here? (Happy caveat: a little later, they do it right, showing a montage of former Padres catcher Benito Santiago gunning down a swarm of would-be base stealers — including St. Louis speedster Vince Coleman — and doing it from his knees. No special effects, just great highlights.)
“Come on, Padres, win on my birthday!” cries the 63-year-old man next to me. But the Padres don’t respond — at least, not right away. You want to know what the middle innings are like? Here’s color man Andy Masur, heard over the radio broadcast playing by Oggi’s Pizza inside the stadium: “Both offenses have been kind of flat. That’s just what happens when you don’t have a lot of offense.” Ouch. It takes a lot — or rather, very little — to make a color man reach like that. So I chat up Ray Rossicone, who is standing at the stainless-steel counter on the landing and sipping a beer before returning to his seat just behind the first-base dugout. He’s been coming to games since ’85. “I’ve got neighbors who have been season-ticket holders for 30 years. I got in on a really good package-seat thing,” he explains. “Eight games a year. That keeps me coming — if I don’t, I’ll lose my seat. And besides, what’s not to like? Even when they’re not doing well, I come to see them because it’s a nice stadium.”
It is a nice stadium. And they are not doing well. “You’ve got to spend money to make money,” surmises Rossicone. “But we’re a small-market team, and the owners don’t want to spend any money. You never know who’s going to be there next week — it’s a surprise every time.”
Rossicone hails from New York and grew up rooting for the Yankees and Mets. “Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle. And the Mets were something else in ’69” — when they won the series after going 73–89 in ’68. His favorite moment as a Padres fan came in the 1998 National League Championship Series, “with Trevor coming in and ‘Hells Bells’ playing” and the white towels swinging in the crowd. “The old stadium was rocking.”
Tonight, he’s here with his son and daughter, who are home from college. “Are your kids fans like you were?” I ask. “Probably not. I coached seven years of Little League, and my son ended up playing lacrosse.”
His beer finished, he heads down to join his family, and I drift off to the cheap seats behind the netting that forms part of the right-field wall. Kids are playing in the sandpit behind the netting; a relaxed young man I’ll call Sid sits with his friends near the top of the seating area. “I’ve been to a handful of these games,” he says. “I’ll try to come more, now that I have a job. It’s a gorgeous ballpark, and you can pay just $10 to sit here or $7 or $5 to sit on the grass behind us.”
Sid became a Padres fan upon moving south to attend Point Loma Nazarene, but he hasn’t stopped rooting for his beloved A’s up in Oakland. “It’s been pretty depressing, kind of like it’s been being a Padres fan the last few years. Whenever we’d get someone, they’d go on to the Yankees or somewhere and then come back when they were washed up.” He likes San Diego’s smaller ballpark. “There are around 20,000 people here — that’s similar to Oakland. But here, they’re packed in a little more, and that’s good. It’s less dispersed.”
In the top of the seventh, shortstop Cabrera guns a long throw well to the left of first base: E-3 and a man on first. A smattering of boos rises up from the crowd, boos that are converted to cheers seconds later as the Padres pull off a third-to-second-to-first double play. Still, the fans sound tired. A couple pulls their young son away from the railing, telling him it’s bedtime. He pulls against them, lingering, straining to look back and see just a little more.
By the eighth the crowds are leaving in earnest. But not 20-year-old Hawna and her friends, lounging on a blanket on the hill behind the sandpit. (They are just four of the many, many young folks in attendance — it ain’t all families and old-timers.) “I stay until the end,” she says. “I’m, like, ‘Come on. Really? You can’t stay another inning?’ I mean, if you have kids, it’s understandable…”
Hawna, who attends San Diego State, has been following the Padres since she was ten. Her father liked baseball, and she played softball. “The whole league would go to games down at Qualcomm. We’d do the tailgate thing in the lot. We did that almost every year. But Petco is the coolest park I’ve ever been to — and I’ve been to Wrigley.” These days, she gets down to maybe five games a year. “It’s kind of hard right now. This is the first year where I don’t know most of the guys on the field. Before, I knew everybody — Ken Caminiti, Wally Joyner. That was a fun year. Now, I just know Kouzmanoff and Adrian Gonzalez.”
Mostly, she cheers for Gonzalez. “He’s a really down-to-earth person; I can just tell. He’s not one of these big shots that wants to follow the money. He’s not just in it for show; he plays for the game, and he plays for the fans. I hope they hold on to him. I would be really upset if they didn’t. They got rid of Jody Gerut, and I was, like, ‘Really? You have to get rid of Jody Gerut?’ It would be a big mistake.”
(As it happens, today’s Union-Tribune features a story headlined, “Gonzalez wants to stay, but…” “Would I want to be traded? No,” Gonzalez told the paper. “Is it to a team that has a chance to win the World Series? I’d have to be intrigued by it. Know what I mean? I’m in the prime of my career. Who wouldn’t want to play for a chance at the World Series every year?”)
Going into the bottom of the ninth, it’s still 3–1 Marlins. Two young women pass by my seat on their way out of the stadium; one turns back and calls out, “Go, Padres! Padres are winners to me!” But apparently, not so much so that she’s going to watch these last three outs. A gentle wave — a wavelet, really — passes through the lower decks of the stands. Then the monitors flash to life, and everything I’ve said about electronic hype goes out the window. As the portentous choral boom of Carmina Burana blares forth, the flashbacks kick in, complete with subtitles: “May 7, 2009, Padres vs. Diamondbacks, bottom of the 10th — you believed” — and second baseman David Eckstein hit a game-winning single to right. “May 16, Padres vs. Reds, bottom of the 16th — Nick Hundley provides the magic,” belting a home run over the left-field wall. “With you as the 10th man, we can do it again…Victory…RALLY TIME.” What’s left of the crowd explodes, and a few fans even inside-out their hats to form rally caps.
And then, holy cow, can it be, yes it can, rookie Kyle Blanks takes the first pitch from Marlins closer Leo Nunez and sends it over the left-field wall — a long, loping shot that amps up the cheers even further. “Let’s go, Padres!” someone shouts, and the CLAP-CLAP/CLAP-CLAP-CLAP sounds in response. It’s not huge noise, but it’s constant — again and again, the shouts and claps ring out.
Two outs and a number of audible sighs later, rookie Will Venable bloops a single to center and promptly steals second. I’m wishing I had a radio so I could hear Ted Leitner tell me that the tying run is in scoring position. I know it, I’m looking at it, but it would be good to hear him say it. It would add to the anticipation.
Then Cabrera hits a ground ball that doesn’t make it out of the infield, and the game is over. Two hours, 49 minutes, before a crowd of 20,311, says the PA man. Less than half full, and another loss.
The crowd files up the stairs and out onto the concrete platforms that will lead them to the exits. “Same as last night!” cries a frustrated fan, recalling the previous evening’s (ultimately insufficient) back-to-back homer heroics. But don’t be fooled by that exclamation point: his frustration is a leaky balloon; even before he finishes, he’s starting to sag. The fans — the people who stayed long enough to get their hopes up in the bottom of the ninth — are deflated. Two guys in Padres hats pass two guys in Dodgers hats. “Boo — they suck!” says Padre to Dodger with the sour pout of a punished child. Dodger just shoots Padre a look — his team is 9 games up in the National League West and 24 games ahead of the Padres. “They suck? Really?” The radio speakers sound out Ted Leitner’s summing up as he accentuates the positive. “If these kids can play, it would be really, really nice,” he says of the rookies Blanks and Venable. “They showed that today, but they fell short.”
No one, as far as I can tell, is talking baseball at the Tilted Kilt — though some are watching it on the flat-screen TVs hung about the place. The fans disperse into the sticky warmth of the evening. The last one I see before I reach my car is a heavy woman with a cane making her way down F Street, wearing an oversized T-shirt bearing the name and number of Trevor Hoffman, a longtime Padre traded in 2008 to Milwaukee, where he has successfully saved 25 of 27 games this year.
Epilogue to the Epilogue
On July 31, the Padres traded (injured) pitching ace Jake Peavy to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for four pitchers with much less professional experience but much, much less wear and tear. I gave a call to Dan Haslam, the guy I met walking to the game, and asked what he and his fellows thought of the deal.
“We thought it was terrible. We felt that Peavy was homegrown and provided the team’s esprit de corps. To lose him means the loss of any sort of morale for the people who are left behind, the people buying the tickets. It was probably inevitable, but we were very sad.”
The same day Peavy was traded, Trevor Hoffman made his first visit to Petco Park as a Brewer. “You really are torn when you’re a fan,” commented Haslam. “Trevor Hoffman comes back to the stadium, and they have a big event for him and all that — and, of course, they traded him away. You have this really torn loyalty. They’ve made so many trades, done so much to hurt the fan base, that it’s hard to develop a loyalty and maintain it. You’re there watching Hoffman, and you’re saying, ‘He’s great. He’s done so many great things. But I hope he doesn’t strike us out.’ But that’s his job.” If he does strike us out, “You think, ‘Well, good for you, Trevor. You’ve still got it. That ought to show them.’ That’s the kind of hurt loyalty that we feel.”
As it happened, he didn’t strike us out. He never even appeared, and the Padres won, 11–7.