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For the Padres, this might be their year. For their fans? Wait till next year

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Beat writers Jorge Castillo of the Los Angeles Times and Kevin Acee of the Union-Tribune talk Dodgers and Padres

It was an hour before game time , and Tony Gwynn Drive was eerily quiet. The only human anywhere on the block behind Petco Park: one woman, walking two dogs.

A handful of humans were sprinkled within the team store, buying one version or another of the “Slam Diego” T-shirts that have become San Diego’s must-have summer sportswear.

The words on the street sign taunted long-suffering Padres fans: “No Parking During Petco Park Events.” This year, when the Padres finally have fulfilled their promise, there are no fans during Petco Park events.

The Padres have not qualified for the playoffs since 2006. They have not been relevant in September since 2010.

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The Dodgers come to town Monday, and if fans could pack Petco Park, imagine what the atmosphere could have been. The two top teams in the National League: the Dodgers, with the best record in baseball, against the Padres, with the most entertaining team in baseball.

“It certainly would have been like a playoff atmosphere,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said in a telephone interview. “The Padres looked at this year as a year they felt they could compete. It’s played out as such. The fans have bought in.

“To have meaningful games in September, against the Dodgers, would have been a lot of fun for baseball and for San Diego.”

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Roberts knows. He grew up here. He played here. He was the last Padres player to bat in a postseason game.

He knows it is a special season indeed when beating the Dodgers is not all the Padres have left to play for in September. He knows it is a special game here when the fans chanting “Beat L.A.” are not outnumbered by the fans cheering for L.A.

“Even when I played for the Padres,” Roberts said, “when the Dodgers came to town, it felt like a home game for the Dodgers. I do feel like this year would have been different.”

That is what makes this season so bittersweet here.

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During what should have been a happy hour Thursday, a couple dozen folks lingered outside Bub’s at the Ballpark, watching the Lakers on one big screen and the Chiefs on another. With the ballpark closed to fans and many nearby offices closed as well, the Gaslamp Quarter was enveloped in an unusual and unnatural calm.

San Diego Padres starting pitcher Garrett Richards throws to Angels batter David Fletcher.
San Diego Padres starting pitcher Garrett Richards throws to Angels batter David Fletcher during a game at Petco Park on July 20.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

In a year without a killer virus, Bub’s would be crowded, inside and out. And, with the Padres playing the Dodgers in a series that mattered, business at the sports bar might have been 30-40% better than even a good weekend last year, manager Herman Shoate said.

“The Padres have a good year,” he said, “and we can’t really celebrate it.”

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San Diego can’t even see it, in person, except for a few hundred fortunate fans who watch from the windows, balconies, plazas and rooftop bars of the condominiums and hotels that surround Petco Park. Fans fly flags, hang banners and make noise with horns and bullhorns.

“I guarantee this has the most energy of any stadium in the league,” said Chip Messenger, a financial adviser who watched Thursday’s game from his high-rise condo beyond center field. “It’s just nice to see a little energy where there otherwise wouldn’t be.”

Messenger said he is delighted the Padres have emerged after what he called “a decade in the wilderness.”

Said Messenger: “We’re normally taking our medicine. We’re actually good this year. We can throw some punches back.”

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A view of Petco Park in San Diego.
A view of Petco Park in San Diego from Chip Messenger’s condo behind the stadium.
(Bill Shaikin / Los Angeles Times)

Even with a view into the ballpark from his home, Messenger said the Padres’ success has left him longing to attend a game, in the stands, watching winning baseball and enjoying some of the awesome burgers and barbecue sold at Petco Park.

Alas, with no fans in the ballpark, someone had set up a portable basketball hoop along the main concourse, in front of the closed Phil’s BBQ stand.

On the other side of the ballpark, back along Tony Gwynn Drive, the ticket windows are closed. They have been all season, and so the picture there still displays Manny Machado in last season’s boring blue uniforms.

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The Padres reclaimed their bold brown last fall, and the combination of a winning team and a unique look has attracted fans around town and beyond. Sales of Padres merchandise on the league website have increased by more than 150% since 2018.

In the team store, the player jerseys and shirts displayed most prominently are the ones that feature Machado, the Padres’ four-time All-Star and $300-million third baseman, and Fernando Tatis Jr., the dynamic 21-year-old shortstop who gained national attention in part for swinging at a 3-0 pitch and hitting a grand slam.

“Make sure your 3-0 pitch is a little bit better,” reads one of the T-shirts on sale, quoting the Padres’ Zach Davies.

Joaquin Oliver, one of 14 students killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooting, is being remembered with a cutout in 14 MLB ballparks.

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Is the Tatis merchandise or the Machado merchandise more popular?

“Tatis is 200% more popular,” said a store employee. “He’s the man right now.”

That might be unscientific, but this is not: The Padres might not have won a postseason series in this century, and they might play in one of the smallest markets in the major leagues, but Tatis currently ranks third on the list of most popular jerseys sold on the league website.

Imagine that: Only two other major leaguers drive more jersey sales than Tatis. (The league declined to identify those two players, pending the release of final sales rankings at the end of the season.)

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On Thursday, at about the same time Machado hit a home run to give the Padres a 4-1 lead, the team store closed for the day. It was the third inning, with the most exciting team in baseball on its way to its fifth consecutive victory.

It was 7 p.m., closing time for the team store. Fans can enter from within the ballpark or from Tony Gwynn Drive, but the ballpark gates were locked, and the street was deserted.


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