Three of a Kind Beats Full House
A proud fan held up a sign early Tuesday afternoon that read: “This Is Heaven!”
He had it right.
A long way from Iowa and even further from the numbing conditions of Candlestick Park, the San Francisco Giants marked their first regular-season game in spectacular Pacific Bell Park with a civic celebration that included balloons, fireworks and actor Danny Glover reading from “Field of Dreams.”
An unlikely guest shook the foundation and ruined the party.
Kevin Elster, no relation to Moonlight Graham, sparked a 6-5 Dodger victory by dialing long distance at Pac Bell.
The Dodger shortstop hit three home runs, to the chagrin of a crowd of 40,930, the first sellout in a season of improbable sellouts for the Giants in their new facility.
“The thing we’ve learned is that when there isn’t much wind, the park plays pretty small,” Giant Manager Dusty Baker said. “But we saw in the exhibition with Milwaukee that when the wind is blowing, it plays pretty large. That wasn’t the case today.
“Three home runs in one day is a lot. I don’t know if you’ll ever see a new park initiated with three home runs. We kept putting the ball in the wrong area, and he didn’t miss.”
Elster--as if to say, “Who needs Alex Rodriguez?"--is hitting .412 in support of Manager Davey Johnson’s decision to go with his offense over Alex Cora’s defense. How hot would he be if he had played last year instead of “enjoying retirement and acting pretty much like a slob?”
Baker thought about that and said, “Maybe we should go look for somebody who was out last year.”
Somebody like himself?
“No, I’ve been out too long,” he said.
The Giants had petitioned National League schedule makers for the opportunity to open against the Dodgers, feeling that a renewal of the rivalry would appropriately initiate their new park.
The Dodgers put a damper on the decision, but aside from resounding boos when they were introduced--news that Tom Lasorda is no longer the manager may not have reached here--and a chant of “Beat L.A!” when J.T. Snow slugged a ninth-inning homer to get the Giants to within a run, the Dodgers could have forgotten they were in San Francisco.
There was none of the chilling wind of Candlestick. There were none of the inebriated, brawling and hostile fans.
“This is not the same environment,” Eric Karros said. “The difference is night and day. Anybody who wore Dodger memorabilia [in the stands] at Candlestick was looking to get his butt kicked. Maybe it was just opening day, but this was a different crowd. It was actually fun being here. It’s a beautiful park.”
Pac Bell fits snugly on only 12 1/2 acres by San Francisco Bay. The Giants did wind studies, then redid the blueprints in an effort to block the strongest of the China Basin winds, but as second baseman Jeff Kent noted, “This is San Francisco. The wind blows. It won’t be as bad as at Candlestick, but it’s still unpredictable, a fact of life we just have to deal with.”
The Dodger manager agreed.
“I’m going to be from Missouri,” Johnson said. “You’ll have to show me. They can take all the tests they want, but when Mother Nature blows here, it’s going to be nasty.”
As the latest example of baseball’s retro renaissance, however, Pac Bell is a beauty. It may lack Camden Yard’s right-field warehouse and the skyline backdrop of Cleveland’s Jacobs Field, but it presents its own compelling views of the bay and some quirky dimensions that are bound to produce, as Kent put it, “some freak hits and plays.”
The right-field fence, for example, fronts the water and is part brick, padding and chain link, which allows spectators on a public walkway behind the fence to watch, at no charge, through what are called portholes. There are sharp angles at 365 feet in right center and 421 in deepest center. The different compositions and angles will cause varying bounces, as will the rubberized warning track.
Said Johnson, referring to the advertising logo on the right field brick:
“I’m not as concerned with the weather as I am with how my players play that Old Navy Splash Landing.”
Of the six homers hit Tuesday, only Snow’s soared over the neighborly Old Navy. However, it fell short of the bay, where Portuguese water dogs, in final training, will begin retrieving baseballs on the weekend.
There was certainly nothing cheap about Elster’s three hits, even if the park was playing small on a mild and virtually wind-free afternoon.
For Elster, of course, all of this, is “gravy, a bonus.”
He had no idea he would be in a major league uniform again, let alone starting for the Dodgers or hitting three home runs to mar the Giants’ opener. He hadn’t hit three home runs in a game since Little League and had only once hit more than 10 in a season, slugging 24 with Texas in 1996, his best year.
“The thing with me is that I come to the park every day not knowing if I’m going to be seeing the ball good or not seeing it, if I’m going to be fast, slow or jumping at pitches,” he said. “I was seeing it good today [in batting practice]. I knew I had a chance, but in no way could I think about hitting three.”
Neither could his teammates, who greeted Elster after the third by demanding to know “what I had done last night.”
“I had dinner with some friends,” he said, laughing. “Nothing special. No magic.”
Despite the loss, of course, Tuesday was the start of something magical for the Giants in their $319-million, privately financed ballpark--the first since Dodger Stadium opened in 1962.
Bay Area voters had rejected public financing four times. The club was headed to Tampa-St. Petersburg in 1993 before NL owners vetoed the move and a local group headed by Peter Magowan saved the club for San Francisco. Now the Giants have sold 3 million tickets--many on a charter basis spanning nine-year leases--in a park that seemed destined never to be built.
“What this facility means,” Magowan said Tuesday, “is that the Giants are now safe, that they will be here forever.”
A field of dreams that Kevin Elster initiated in a style beyond his wildest dream.