Travel

In San Francisco, covering all the bases

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It's time to nuke Dodger Stadium.

That thought struck me like a Louisville Slugger on a festive, sunbaked afternoon last month at Pacific Bell Park. One of the latest in a line of sparkling new diamonds around the country, Pac Bell Park is a treasure on the shores of San Francisco Bay.

Since April 2000, when Pac Bell became the first new major-league ballpark in California in nearly four decades, I had been eager to check out the place. The hang-up was tickets; nearly every game in the 41,467-seat venue continued to sell out.

But I found a convenient, albeit pricey, online ticket service. All it took was a few clicks of the mouse to snag two field-level seats for a Saturday game against the Colorado Rockies. Although my wife, Willow, does not share my passion for America's pastime (I'm a long-suffering Detroit Tigers fan), she was more than willing to join me.

We flew to Oakland on a Friday evening, hopped a 10-minute shuttle to BART and rode the train to within a couple of blocks of our hotel. (Air fare was high at the time, but prices have since dropped as low as $75 round trip.)

The city is still reeling from the dot-com collapse, and many hotels are struggling to fill rooms. We paid only $119 plus tax per night at the classy Argent Hotel, just south of Market Street and within walking distance of Pac Bell Park.

The Argent's 667 rooms have city views through floor-to-ceiling windows. Our 23rd-floor room looked toward the Bay. It was fitting that we could see the lights of the ballpark illuminate the evening sky.

We had dinner at Perry's on Union Street, a sports bar and grill with a lively mix of locals and out-of-towners. A light meal consisted of two glasses of Cabernet, a zesty calamari appetizer, bowls of tasty, piping-hot Manhattan clam chowder, and fruit sorbet for dessert.

_ _ _

Early Saturday we caught a cab to the Golden Gate Bridge visitor center. The coffee shop had not opened, the gift shop was empty and hordes of tourists had yet to arrive. It was calm, cool and eerily overcast.

The Golden Gate, which attracts an estimated 9 million visitors annually, is an engineering marvel better appreciated on foot than by car. We spent an hour and 15 minutes walking leisurely to the Marin County side and back, stopping for sweeping views of Alcatraz Island and Fisherman's Wharf. We never did see the top half of the bridge, hidden in the thick marine layer.

I felt like a kid outside Disneyland when we arrived for the ballgame 90 minutes early to tour Pac Bell inside and out. Thousands of people poured in by light rail, train, bus and ferry. There was even a storage room where fans could check their bicycles. (Anyone trying these alternate modes of transportation to Dodger Stadium risks missing the first seven innings.)

Beyond the right-field wall, I struck up a conversation with a weathered fellow who carried a baseball glove and a fishing rod with a net at the end of the line. Joe Dirt, 40, a guitarist in the band Society Dog (he swore he wasn't making this up), stood near McCovey Cove, a part of the Bay named after Giants Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. Dirt was ready to pounce on baseballs swatted out of the stadium during batting practice.

On a good day, he will net two. As we chatted, Dirt's eyes darted skyward as a ball soared over the bleachers and bounced off a nearby railing.

A few steps away are three large screens for passersby to watch the game without tickets. The free section, which proved popular throughout the afternoon, abuts the warning track in right field. Beyond the center-field wall is picturesque picnicking territory: a grassy knoll overlooking a marina.

The pregame setting was far more enjoyable than the one at Dodger Stadium, where tailgating is prohibited and the only signs of life are cars stacked up at parking tollbooths and lines at the Taco Bell stand.

Willow and I entered Pac Bell about 30 minutes before the first pitch. Above the left-field seats are a gigantic green Coca-Cola bottle and baseball mitt—part of a playground that includes four slides and a miniature field where youngsters take turns hitting a foam ball and running the bases, all while watching themselves on a Jumbotron.

At the Beaming Station, a steel-box computer transmits season statistics, rosters, team schedules and feature stories on the Giants via infrared beam. It took less than a minute for my personal digital assistant to receive all the data, which included an electronic score sheet.

We settled into our seats, 23 rows behind the Giants' dugout. The first thing we noticed was the extraordinary legroom, width and comfort. I couldn't imagine a better location, high enough to get a full view of the field yet close enough to hear every fastball pop in the catcher's mitt. In fact, every section of Pac Bell, including the bleacher seats, felt like an intimate outdoor concert hall compared with a certain cavernous stadium off the Pasadena Freeway.

I had obtained tickets through the Double Play Ticket Window on the Giants' Internet site, http://www.sfgiants.com. This is a form of legal scalping that enables season-ticket holders to unload seats to anyone willing to pay a premium. I coughed up $111.90 for two seats with a face value of $32 apiece. The price included an extra $35 for the ticket holder and $12.90 in fees.

Although I chose expensive seats, tickets in all price ranges are available. About a week ago I found 203 offers for tickets to today's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, ranging from $440 for four front-row seats to $28.60 for a pair of bleacher seats.

To my surprise, Pac Bell was 90% full in the first inning when Jeff Kent slid face-first into third base with a triple, driving in the Giants' first run. The crowd was on its feet roaring. I got goose bumps.

We passed up lobster and crab rolls for traditional baseball fare: hot dogs, peanuts and beer. While we basked in our sun-drenched seats, an electronic billboard flashed a question: "Can you imagine anywhere else you would rather be right now?" I couldn't. Willow could. "Aruba. Hawaii. Nordstrom," she cracked without hesitation.

As the game ended (Giants 6, Rockies 1), we swayed to a recording of Tony Bennett singing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Outside the park, I counted a dozen restaurants and bars in the South of Market district filling up with still-thirsty fans. I wondered what this infusion of foot traffic could do for downtown L.A. 81 days a year.

We walked to Market Street and jumped on a cable car. The Powell-Hyde line took us past Union Square, Chinatown, Nob Hill and crooked Lombard Street before ending near Fisherman's Wharf.

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For dinner I suggested Lefty O'Douls, a hofbräu named after the legendary manager of the minor-league San Francisco Seals. BayInsider.com rated O'Douls as "one of our 10 best places for dinner and a show."

The place looked inviting enough. A mannequin in a Yankee uniform was posed as the maitre d'. After a glance at the buffet—chicken, turkey and mashed potatoes—I got a queasy feeling, the same one that sets in when I see the food in the office cafeteria beginning to crust over. I pulled Willow gently by the arm and walked out.

A few steps away on Geary Street, we stumbled upon the Daily Grill, a chain we've found reliable in the past. Unfortunately, the service here was lousy, and the chicken Caesar salad was like rubber soaked in mayonnaise.

"We should have eaten at O'Douls," Willow said afterward.

Breakfast the next morning at "world famous" Sears Fine Food off Union Square did not disappoint. Founded in 1938 by a retired clown and his Swedish wife, Sears is a greasy spoon that attracts long lines, particularly on weekends.

House specialties are fresh fruit in a chilled cup and 18 miniature Swedish pancakes with lingonberries. And that's precisely what I order every time. Anything else is consumed at your own risk. (Willow's French toast was drenched with too much egg batter.)

At 9:55 a.m. sharp, it was time to meet a guide and other tourists in the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel on Union Square. For $25 per person (children are free), Peter Moylan offers a fascinating, fact-filled, 17-block historic walking tour ( http://www.sfhistorytour.com).

Moylan is a Giants season-ticket holder, so the daily tour ends in North Beach at precisely 12:40 p.m.—plenty of time to catch a bus to Pac Bell Park before the first pitch at 1:05.

Glenn F. Bunting is an investigative reporter at The Times.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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