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AMONG THE YUMANS : He’s Here to Tell You: There’s More to the Padres’ Winter Home Than the Padres

Hi, boss.

I’m at the Yuma Inn Suites, checking out. I just signed the bill, and I think you’re going to be happy.

See, this real nice lady behind the counter offered me a room with my own indoor jacuzzi when I arrived. I said no. I took the regular room, which was only half as expensive. I figured you’d like that.

Turns out I didn’t need a jacuzzi after all, boss. I’ve spent 29 of the past 34 hours driving to and through Yuma doing this Consumer Report thing you wanted for Padre fans who will be driving this way over the next few weeks.

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Restaurants and bars, museums and parks. Oh, and the dog track. The expense account covers that, doesn’t it?

I’ve been seeking fun, as instructed. Trouble is, at times I got that same feeling I used to get when we had fire drills in grade school. There’s a lot of anticipation when the buzzer sounds, but once you get outside, nothing is happening. That’s kind of how it is here.

And then this morning, Eric Show, of all people, put it into perspective. If you’re looking for action and you come to Yuma, Eric said, you’ve come to the wrong place. You come to Yuma to get away.

He’s right. That’s the charm of Yuma. There are a couple of “happening” nightspots and a few popular restaurants, but basically, Yuma is pretty sleepy.

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Which isn’t bad. Yuma might not be state-of-the-art for visitors, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s state-of-mind.

So here are a handful of things our Yuma-bound San Diegans should know, boss, before they swing onto Interstate 8 east for that 180-mile drive to spring training:

1. Best spot to view sunrise on the drive to Yuma.

The sunrise through the Cleveland National Forest, just east of Alpine, is majestic. The sun glimmers through the dark valleys, bounces off the mountaintops and leaves you with such a sense of serenity that you realize how Thoreau might have felt at Walden Pond.

And once you get around that beat-up station wagon towing the boat, you really begin to feel good.

2. Most exciting sights and stops on the way to Yuma.

The best place for a break is the Sunbeam Rest Area. You can tell it’s important because a) it has a name; and b) it’s janitorial services are contracted out to the Imperial County Work Training Center. All of this handy information can be found on a sign at the entrance, 67 miles from Yuma.

If you’re looking for a quick fast food stop on the way, your only hope is El Centro, a Spanish name that, loosely translated, means “Don’t expect to be able to tune in any worthwhile radio stations in this part of the country.” Keep driving and pop another cassette tape into your stereo; you’re only 51 miles away from baseball.

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3. Your fruit or your life.

Just before you reach the Arizona state line, you might run into Raymond at the Arizona Commission of Agriculture and Horticulture, Winterhaven Inspection. It’s a border patrol for fruit and plants.

You drive up, stop and Raymond (or a facsimile) asks, “Hello, do you have any fruits or plants?” Raymond, who likes his job, figures he asks, “Hello, do you have any fruits or plants?” about a thousand times a shift. He also said he’s never had to get rough with anyone.

You should offer some fruit to Raymond on your way through.

4. Does anybody really know what time it is?

Don’t forget: Arizona is an hour ahead of California, on Mountain Standard Time.

5. Welcome to Desert Sun Stadium.

Tickets to a game are $5, $4 and $2. Some $5 box seats and $2 general admission reserved remain, but the $4 tickets are sold out for the spring. Generally, more tickets remain to weekday games than weekend games.

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There is a main lot in which to park at $1 per car and $3 per motor home. Just don’t park too close to the ballpark, because the complex is small enough that foul balls have a habit of zeroing in on car windshields.

6. Where to sit, or how not to get skulled by a screaming foul ball.

Because the stadium seats only 6,874, and many seats are already sold, there isn’t much of a choice. Most of the remaining seats are down the first- or third-base lines.

Knowing this, you must pay extra attention once you’re seated. The stadium is small, and the seats are close to the field. A line drive into the stands isn’t always a pretty sight. The most gruesome incident happened last year, when a man took a shot in the nose, shattering it and an eye socket. He had emergency surgery.

A couple of seating tips: Try to avoid the first row of the reserved section, because people are constantly walking in front of you on the way to the concession stand. Also, stay alert toward the end of the game. Usually by the seventh inning or so, you can sneak up a few rows to improve your seating location.

7. Your pal, the sun.

Temperatures in Yuma during spring training average in the 90s, and nearly all of the seats are in the sun. There’s no escaping it, so don’t forget the sunblock, sunglasses and hats. And drink plenty of liquids.

The medical personnel from the Yuma Fire Department inform us that they attend to an average of three people per game for heat exhaustion. They also remind us that alcohol dehydrates you. They weren’t smiling.

8. Lorin Zick’s food review.

Zick, a retiree from Wisconsin, rates the typical Desert Sun Stadium hot dog: Size--"Good. It fits the bun.” Price--"Cheap; a bargain.” Taste--"Good.” Overall--"It’s good. The ketchup, mustard and relish make it excellent.” Note: Hot dogs were 50 cents the day of Zick’s review. For the rest of the spring, they’re $1--still cheaper than at most major league ballparks.

The most expensive items on the concession stand menu are $1.50: beer and ice cream. Burritos are a buck, and soft drinks, peanuts, popcorn and coffee are 75 cents.

9. Welcome to Yuma, now go home.

Time out for a definition of Snowbird: A winter visitor to Yuma, usually retired and from a cold-weather state, who descends on the town to escape the cold and stays anywhere from a few weeks to three or four months. They arrive by the thousands in motor homes. The Yuma Chamber of Commerce estimates that 45,000 to 50,000 come to Yuma for the winter. The normal population is about 55,000.

Things become so congested that some Yumans (that’s really what they’re called) don’t bother going out to eat during the winter because reservations are sometimes needed as much as two days in advance. The two worst times to attempt to get hotel reservations are during spring training, usually on weekends, and during dove hunting season, which comes in two stages. The first phase opens Sept. 1, the second Dec. 1.

The people of Yuma, though, are exceptionally patient and friendly. Just don’t ask them about the Snowbirds’ driving skills.

10. Best autographs.

According to a group of kids who were crowded around an opening in the left-center field fence waiting for the players to walk to the clubhouse, Sandy Alomar Jr., Tony Gwynn, Mike Brumley, Gary Green, Bruce Hurst, Tim Flannery and Jack Clark have been the most accommodating signers this spring.

11. Funniest story of the spring so far, even though it happened a few weeks before the Padres arrived.

Traveling secretary Doc Mattei was in Yuma setting up camp, and the Yakult Swallows of the Japanese League were using the facilities. Mattei’s mother was in town from Lucca, Italy, and Doc was going to celebrate her birthday. So he rounded up some singers to serenade her: the Swallows sang Happy Birthday in Japanese, the grounds crew sang it in Spanish, and the rest of the group sang it in English.

Mattei’s mother, who turned 96 and has been to spring training for each of the past 22 years, speaks nothing but Italian.

12. Best hamburger.

Hands down to Lutes Casino in Old Yuma for the burgers and the atmosphere. It’s a place where people go to eat warm burgers, drink cold beer, shoot pool, listen to music and lie a lot; the only place in town where you can eat while looking at posters of Herman Munster, George Bernard Shaw, Marilyn Monroe, George Washington and Paul Newman, among others.

The two mottos at Lutes, which has been making burgers since the 1940s, are “Where the Elite Meet” and “Save a Kangaroo, Eat a Lutesburger.” Save a kangaroo? “All the other places use kangaroo meat for their hamburgers,” owner Bob Lutes advises.

One of the most interesting features at Lutes is the large window in the men’s room door. You can look right inside the men’s room, or outside, depending on your condition at the time. There are two reasons for the window, according to Lutes. When you’re in the men’s room, nobody can sneak up and shoot you. And, if you’re playing pool, nobody can move the eight-ball on you.

13. A 30-second restaurant tour.

The best steaks are cooked at the Hungry Hunter or Jack and Rosie’s. One of the best places in town is the Mandarin Palace. The most valuable restaurant, though, is probably Chester’s Chuckwagon, because it’s open 24 hours and serves breakfast anytime. It’s a home-style place with John Wayne prints on the walls and country music coming out of the ceiling. Try the all-you-can eat pancakes, for $1.59, from 5-11 a.m. Monday through Thursday.

14. Yuma’s Other Places.

When the sun sets, the two most popular places are Johnny’s Other Place (a bar, as opposed to Bobby’s Other Place, a restaurant) and the Shilo Inn. The Shilo is packed on Friday and Saturday nights and is one of Yuma’s most progressive places (people there don’t wear jeans). Johnny’s Other Place is a gold-old-boys rock-and-roll emporium where they serve 10-cent beer from 7-8 p.m. every night and host a Hot Legs contest each Wednesday. Atmosphere-wise, Johnny’s Other Place is what you would get if you crossed a bowling alley with a pool hall and added a dance floor.

15. A word about Reds.

Since the bars in Arizona close at 1 a.m., you may want to join the locals for a trip to Reds, a bar in Winterhaven--just across the California border. Because of the time difference, you’ve still got two hours. On most nights, Reds is dead until the 1 a.m./midnight hour strikes, when the crowd at Johnny’s Other Place, and a few other local haunts, picks up and moves five miles down the road.

If you think Johnny’s Other Place is a good-old-boy haven, wait until you see Reds. Alternately described as a “bikers’ bar” and “the sleaziest of sleazy” by many people, they will still tell you it’s worth the experience.

“I was scared the first time I went there,” said one of the waitresses in Yuma. “Just look like you know what you’re doing when you go in, and people will leave you alone.”

16. Where the boys are.

The biggest myth is that the players can be found easily around the hotel pool. This is not always true, because once the games begin and the number of fans increases, the players tend to avoid crowds.

For autographs, the best thing to do is get to the ballpark early--before practice or games--and catch the players on their way from the clubhouse to the field. As for seeing the players around town, it’s not that difficult. A few spots where Padres can be found: the dog track, shooting pool at Sugar’s Tavern across the street from the Days Inn on 4th Avenue (the players’ hotel), the lounge at Shilo’s, Hungry Hunter, and Jack and Rosie’s.

The three big activities for the players, once they finish working for the day, are golf and pool. A handful bowl.

There are four public golf courses in town. You might want to look into the Desert Hills Municipal Golf Course, only a Jack Clark home run away from the stadium. You can get in a round of golf in the morning and walk over the the stadium when you’re done. The Desert Hills Golf Course is an 18-hole, par-72, 6,700-yard course, and greens fees are $10 through the end of March. Keep in mind that you have to reserve tee times at least two days in advance.

One more thing, boss: A banner hanging across 4th Avenue says, “Welcome Home San Diego Padres.” At first I figured that was a bit much--welcome home ?--but then it hit me: Yuma is a state of mind. Same as with the billboard behind the right-center field fence at the ballpark, the one that reads “San Diego Padres, 1989 N. L. champions.” Pretty optimistic, huh?

See, boss, I really didn’t need that jacuzzi anyway, what with all of the chasing around Yuma and hanging around the ballpark. In fact, I only was able to spend half an hour in the hotel pool.

Maybe I could come back?


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