I'm not sure how it pencils out for San Diegans, but for an out-of-town baseball fan, this city's new ballpark looks like the greatest temptation since Pete Rose met his first bookie.
Petco Park stands tall and tidy near the waterfront, so close to airport, train and trolley stops that you need not bring a car. One snazzy new hotel towers next door to the ballpark; others are rising or already in business nearby; and the city's leading nightlife neighborhood, the Gaslamp Quarter, is just a few blocks off.
If you're a big-picture visitor, you can reflect on the ballpark, which made its debut in March, as a major milestone in downtown San Diego's remarkable three-decade march from grit to glitter. If you're more interested in slugging percentages than redevelopment strategy, consider the Padres' habit of losing more than they win. They may have started this season strong, but in the longer view, the odds for any visiting team are excellent. What more could an out-of-towner ask?
Do not mistake these words for the chortles of a Dodger fan. I have rooted for the Padres for more than 30 years, since "NumberElevenEnzo" (that's how the announcer liked to say it) Hernandez was starting at shortstop, since a third baseman named Ed Spiezio was losing ground balls in the lights, since those afternoons when a cranky old coach named Whitey Wietelmann would holler at us to throw back the stray foul balls from batting practice because the team couldn't afford to lose them.
He might have been telling the truth. In those days, home was the austere, multiuse concrete concoction in Mission Valley that's now known as Qualcomm Stadium. The average major-league salary was $30,000. The average Padres home game drew 8,000 fans, not counting those of us who came early and shimmied under the gates .
As for downtown San Diego, it was a fine place for fighting sailors or cruising for tattoos.
When I stepped into Petco Park for the first time a few Sundays ago, it was immediately clear that all sorts of things are different now. The ballpark cost about $449 million. Tickets cost $5 (standing room only) to $55. Fringed by sand-hued walls and dotted with bougainvillea, sage and rosemary, the 42,500-seat facility hints at the seductive landscape beyond the baselines.
Naturally, some purists have already complained that the building, designed by architect Antoine Predock with help from others, is insufficiently baseball-centric. They should get lives.
No football here
Like other recently built baseball fields, Petco Park emphasizes intimacy and nostalgia, it rejects football, and its designers have taken care to pack in the high-priced luxury boxes and revenue-boosting retail opportunities. (No surprise when you remember the average major-league salary these days is $2.49 million.) Almost needless to say, the team has persuaded the city of San Diego to bankroll most of the cost.
Petco Park is a handsome place to play and watch baseball, and its urban placement will remind many people of the waterfront field that San Francisco unveiled in 2000. The park's seats look out at a onetime warehouse district now teeming with condo construction.
To reach the neighborhood (and avoid the Omni hotel's $22-a-night parking charge), I took Amtrak , then caught a $5.50 taxi to the Omni, arriving about two hours before the 1 p.m. game.
I had booked a room for the night, and the hotel folk were able to grant me early check-in (without knowing who I was or what I was up to), so as fans traipsed into the ballpark next door from parking lots scattered near and far (and priced at $3 to $17), I was riding the elevator toward a high-priced room.
The brochure rates for Omni rooms run $329 to $750. Discounts can cut those prices in half, but for April 18, the cheapest I could get was — gulp — $349. So I approached the door of my room with a healthy sense of entitlement.
But first, about the neighborhood, and what's going up in place of those old warehouses. The Centre City Development Corp., the semipublic agency that has led in the redevelopment of the area, reports that in the last three years, close to 2,000 condos and 1,500 apartment units have been built downtown. Within five blocks of the ballpark, 2,400 condos and 1,200 apartments are newly opened, under construction or in the planning pipeline.
The agency forecasts more than 335,000 square feet of new retail space too and, for gravitas, a new 10-story central library at 11th and J streets. For now, the area is dominated by steel skeletons, yammering jackhammers and holdover bohemians from the lofts around the old central library on E Street.
Downtown San Diego's rebirth began with the rise of the city-backed Horton Plaza shopping center in the mid-'80s. The construction of the tent-roofed convention center kept the ball rolling in the late '80s, and the dining and entertainment options in the neighboring Gaslamp Quarter have been advancing ever since.
The poor haven't been entirely banished — walk below Broadway before 9 a.m. and you'll see, scattered about, men and women in tattered clothing — but in the afternoon and evening, gliding pedicabs and merry conventioneers prevail, along with prosperous young people on their way to several dozen restaurants and clubs.
Among the more recent arrivals on 5th Avenue's restaurant row are Deco's (steaks, sushi and nightclub, since 2002) and Lime (a tequila bar, since 2003); the Mister Tiki mai tai lounge will open soon. On Broadway you'll find Ra Sushi (since December). On 4th Avenue there's the Yard House (brewpub and restaurant, since 2003). On E Street, providing a yang to the yin of Hooters on Market Street, there's Larry Flynt's Hustler Bar and Grill (since September; no nudity). On K Street, there's Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar (since 2003), and over on 9th Avenue near the ballpark, there's Café Noir (since October).
Back in the shadow of the ballpark, the 235-room Hotel Solamar, a boutique lodging rising at 6th Avenue and J Street, is expected to open next year.
So the Omni is the lodging of the moment. Its 511 rooms fill 21 floors and are topped by 11 more floors that hold three dozen high-end condos. Its restaurant is a new McCormick & Schmick's. Down the hotel halls, bats, mitts and such are arrayed in display cases like guitars in a Hard Rock Cafe.
My room was 605, a corner room with windows on two walls that looked out on the tent roof of the convention center, a bit of San Diego Bay beyond it and, in the foreground, the Omni's sixth-floor swimming pool and patio area. In many ways, the Omni looks inside and out like a thousand other sleek business hotels. But beyond its earth tones and high ceilings, my room had its quirks.
Most vexingly, the designers have placed shuttered internal windows between the bathroom and bed. (Who wants to see the toilet from the bed? Who wants to see the bed from the toilet?). Also unusual, but at least aesthetically defensible, was the rippled sand-dune texture of the greenish carpet; it looked like infield dirt, fresh from a seventh-inning grounds-crew grooming. It was an OK room. I'd feel fine paying $200 — maybe even $250 on a game day — but $349 was too much.
Of the ballpark itself, I could see only a light tower. There are a dozen rooms that offer a distant glimpse of the grass from on high, but nobody would want to watch a game that way. Nor should anyone confuse this hotel with the Renaissance in Toronto, a hotel built into the SkyDome, where 70 guest rooms look through floor-to-ceiling windows to the Blue Jays' playing field. There, you can watch a game. The biggest physical link between the Omni and Petco Park is the fourth-floor passageway that connects them: convenient but hardly revolutionary.
Inside the ballpark, I did a couple of laps and thought the place looked great. (But be warned: The team acknowledges that some of the $8 bleacher seats have obstructed views, and the San Diego Union-Tribune recently quoted several fans in pricier seats complaining about blind spots.)
Soon after I settled into my own field-level spot ($40), the Padres took the field and gave the Arizona Diamondbacks three runs in the first inning. As they failed to close this gap inning after inning, I had plenty of time to gaze around, wolf down a passable slice of ballpark pizza, wonder what Enzo Hernandez was doing these days and appreciate the presence of the seatback holder for my beer. By the ninth, it was 5-2, Arizona.
From most seats in the stadium, you can see the grassy hillock of a 2.7-acre semipublic park, just beyond center field. They call it the Park at the Park, and it's scheduled to open to the public during daylight hours on non-game days. On game days, fans (especially families) pay $5 per person for a distant view of the game and a nice patch of grass for children.
Hitting the wall
The ballpark's most notable nostalgic stroke looms over left field: the 95-year-old, brick-faced Western Metal Supply Co. building, a piece of reclaimed urban streetscape that rises just beyond the outfield grass. Not only does it accommodate fans on balconies that look like old-fashioned fire escapes, but the building also plays a key role in the playing field's layout: The edge of its brick facade is outlined in yellow and angled to serve as the left-field foul line.
Which brings me to the ninth inning. The whole thing seemed just about over. But as more than 41,000 of us looked on in half-belief, a Padre singled, and another walked, and another singled, which made it 5-3 with two men on base. Up stepped Ryan Klesko, the 220-pound left-handed left fielder. He stuck out the bat and sent a slicing, rocket-shot, opposite-field line drive toward the Western Metal Supply Co. It carried and hit the bricks.
Game over, 6-5 Padres. We all stood there blinking in the sun, and gradually, sadly, it dawned on us that we had to leave. We all spilled out of the park and, instead of a vast Mission Valley parking lot, we faced the streets of downtown San Diego, the lights of the Gaslamp bars and restaurants already beckoning. Not bad.
And my night still had three chapters ahead.
First, in a tapas restaurant on 7th Avenue called Ventanas — bright yellow outside, dim and full of din inside — I spooned good tortilla soup from a cleverly asymmetrical bowl and wondered if management were consciously using its sound system to lure the young and repel the old. (Yes, I decided.)
Then I stepped next door, paid a $10 cover charge and was admitted to an alcohol-free club called Dizzy's, where I sat up front for an evening of rollicking jazz from boogie-woogie pianist Sue Palmer and her Motel Swing Orchestra. (The world needs more left-footed trombone solos like the one I heard there.)
Last came a nightcap at Lou & Mickey's, a surf-and-turf palace at the foot of 5th Avenue. Amid wood paneling and stained glass, I sipped another beer and reviewed my postgame stops. The first had been open less than a year, the second less than three years, the third just under four years.
I do miss Whitey Wietelmann. But I believe I'm going to get over it.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Padres and more
It's about 120 miles from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Diego, four miles from San Diego's airport to Petco Park. Amtrak offers nearly a dozen trains between the cities daily in each direction, with fares of $37 each way for reserved tickets, $25 for unreserved.
Single-game adult tickets at Petco Park run $5-$55, with details available at http://www.padres.com . The ballpark stands between 7th and 10th avenues along J Street.
WHERE TO STAY:
Omni San Diego Hotel, 675 L St.; (619) 231-6664, http://www.omnihotels.com . Brochure rates for the Omni's 511 rooms are $329-$750, with discounted rates under $180 possible on non-game days. The hotel offers four packages that include baseball tickets, beginning at $219 for one night and a pair of general admission Padres tickets and free parking. Availability is limited, specials are subject to black-out dates, and on busy nights, the lowest available prices climb past $300.
Hilton Gaslamp Quarter, 401 K St.; (619) 231-4040, http://www.hilton.com . The Hilton, an easy walk from the ballpark along 5th Avenue, has 252 rooms, plus a 30-unit collection of lofts and suites next door known as the Enclave. Brochure rates from $295, $395 in the Enclave. Discounts often available.
WHERE TO EAT:
Ventanas, 338 7th Ave.; (619) 338-0526. A Mexican restaurant aimed at the late-night crowd, with a bright yellow front and throbbing sound system. Entrees $12-$18.45. Dinner only.
Lou & Mickey's at the Gaslamp, 224 5th Ave.; (619) 237-4900, http://www.louandmickeys.com . Specializes in steaks and seafood, with entrees $8.75 (a hamburger) to $45 (steamed Alaskan King crab legs). Lively atmosphere with an outdoor patio.
McCormick & Schmick's , 675 L St.; (619) 645-6545. National chain known for its extensive seafood menus. It's the anchor eatery of the Omni hotel, on the corporate side but convenient to trolley, ballpark, convention center and Gaslamp Quarter. Dinner entrees $6.90 (a cheeseburger) to $26.90 (strip steak or filet mignon).
Dizzy's, 344 7th Ave.; http://www.dizzyssandiego.com , no phone. The enterprise is a performers' collective, sharing the daytime space of three design firms; it serves no food or alcohol.