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).