Do you remember the old adage about the mullet haircut, “business upfront, party in the back”? I knew you did. Thing is, as generally uncool as the mullet is, Petco is extraordinarily cool. And yet, Petco very much fits that two-part description. It’s that convergence of philosophies, of catering to different audiences, that makes Petco so unique and special. It’s why, regardless of how bad the team is (quite bad right now), Petco is easily in my Top 5 ballparks. It’s definitely the friendliest ballpark in the majors.
Petco Park is often associated with the historic Gaslamp Quarter, the retail and entertainment district frequented by both locals and tourists. The stadium is technically in the East Village, a grittier and still largely undeveloped neighborhood east of the Gaslamp. I found out how gritty it was when I went looking for a parking space on Saturday while the Padres were hosting the Phillies. I only had to drive six blocks away to see homeless encampments leaning against dormant construction sites. As the Gaslamp and the adjacent parts of the East Village became gentrified over the last 20 years, the homeless were pushed further out. That left the area immediately around Petco quite clean, safe, even serene. The park and neighborhood are connected to the harbor/marina/convention center by a striking new pedestrian bridge, which is elevated above train tracks and the main thoroughfare Harbor Drive. Two trolley stations flank the ballpark, bringing in fans from throughout the city, south to Chula Vista and the San Ysidro/Tijuana border, and east to El Cajon and Santee. Northern suburbs are serviced by the Coaster commuter train, which transfers to the trolley at Union Station.
My brother’s wedding ceremony was on Sunday. The wedding party stayed the weekend in a hotel in the Gaslamp only two blocks from Petco, so we felt the full brunt of humanity all over the neighborhood and downtown on Saturday night. Phillies fans came as early as Thursday and descended on the Gaslamp like a plague of locusts. I tweeted an observation over the weekend:
Staying in Gaslamp Quarter while Phillies-Padres play series. Neighborhood is electric, everything Oakland & San Jose want and more.
— newballpark (@newballpark) April 22, 2012
In the Bay Area we rave about how much AT&T Park improved the China Basin/South Beach area, or about the impact HP Pavilion had on downtown San Jose. Neither can hold a candle to what Petco Park has done for the Gaslamp. Part of that is because outgoing Padres owner John Moores bought numerous plots of land around Petco and developed them. That included two hotels (Omni and Solamar), condos, and master planning for the blocks including and surrounding the ballpark. That’s not to say that such work is required for a downtown ballpark in either Oakland or San Jose – it just doesn’t hurt to have that kind of vision. That’s probably a good reason why Oakland is contracting with Moores’ firm JMI Sports for the Coliseum City project.
Back to the mullet. No ballpark is going to work economically unless it has the stuff corporate interests will pay good money for, such as suites and clubs. All of that stuff is there and it appears to be sufficiently luxurious. Concourses go from wide to vast. Taking a page from recent mall design, there’s rarely a single long corridor. Instead the field concourse is broken up by informal plazas, a side concession court, numerous portable merchandise booths, and warm stucco along the many of the concourse walls. Every few feet the ballpark reveals something new, a different perspective or vantage point. The field is frequently within view, with spacious standing room areas everywhere. Yet there are always opportunities to walk a few feet and check out the harbor or downtown, making Petco feel wholly integrated with the neighborhood. If you’re walking in the Gaslamp and you go a block or two east to 8th Street, you can see the third base grandstand, beckoning you to come in with its arms open. The ballpark’s orientation (north towards downtown) is a choice I’m glad they made, because a waterfront ballpark wasn’t feasible and had already been done previously in San Francisco and Pittsburgh.
On Tuesday night, I checked out a pitcher’s duel between the Padres’ Clayton Richard and former Athletic, now Washington National Gio Gonzalez. Gio was his good self that night, firing a no-stress, two-hit, six-inning shutout on the way to a 3-1 win. My seat was in the upper deck, directly behind the plate (see top pic). I stayed for five innings, then moved around the ballpark to take pictures. The following day, I sat in the bleachers, which I had never done in previous games here. It’s not a perfect bleacher experience, but it is marvelous.
First of all, the are numerous quirks. The bleachers are comfortable and spacious enough, with individual seat bottoms, plenty of leg room, and grass at your feet (all the better for flip-flops). As the bleachers are a fairly small seating section, they are subject to many obstructed views. My seat had one of the best views and I couldn’t see either LF or RF corner. If your seat is more towards CF, you stand to have a third of the field or worse obscured (a la Yankee Stadium). Plus if you’re below Row 7 and you’re trying to watch the game, you’re liable to get a great view of the chain link fence or worse, the padding on top of the fence. That said, maybe you’re coming to mostly hang out with friends, and for that it’s the best bleacher section in the majors. Plenty of concessions are always available behind you, and if you have kids with you they will take to the sandy “Beach” area like ducks to a pond. The hecklers have seen fit to get their seats in the RF corner where they can heckle the visiting pitching staff or right fielder.
In back of the bleachers is the “Park at the Park”, an open area and berm which is open to the public during non-game hours and is available for a $5 ticket during games. No matter how bad the attendance gets thanks to the Padres fielding one of the worst teams in MLB, the Park at the Park always has activity. This is even more of a case of a place where the casual fan can go, bring kids, and not worry too much about the cost. Fans with the $5 ticket still have access to the standing room areas within the grandstand, making a Park at the Park ticket effectively a cover charge. Now I have to wonder if this depresses the demand for non-premium tickets somewhat, but I figure that many of these people simply wouldn’t go at all if such an affordable ticket weren’t available. In the end it’s probably a wash in terms of revenue, with a positive PR boost to assist.
If I worked in downtown San Diego, I’d make a lunch appointment everyday at the Park of the Park, no doubt about it. I hope we have the chance to celebrate something this lovely for the A’s, somewhere in the Bay Area. A boy can dream, right?
Tomorrow: More technical and trivial information about Petco Park.