Petco: the ballpark has two faces

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 upper deck panorama

The ballpark is oriented north to capture the downtown San Diego skyline

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.

Cable-stayed pedestrian bridge

From the convention center end of the Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge

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:

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.

Lower Concourse

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.

Bleacher Panorama

The “Beach” in the foreground, game in the background

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.

Park at the Park

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.

20 thoughts on “Petco: the ballpark has two faces

  1. It is simply gorgeous down there, agreed. I have Naval family down there so I’ve had the opportunity to attend a few games and take advantage of the Military discounts with them (which is a very smart and even noble thing for the Padres to do, cultivating that large military population there).

    My revelation in my first visit to PETCO was watching a night game in a T-shirt and shorts, and being completely comfortable. That’s unthinkable for me even in the summer months in Candlestick/Coliseum/Pac Bell, which is where I’ve seen 95% of my pro baseball in my lifetime.

  2. It’s a great park, in a great town. I went to nine games in ten days on the SF/LA/SD trip the A’s did in June ’09, and it finished at Petco. Good times.

    Re: the homeless . . . I was down in the tailgate lot last season for a game, and SDPD would come by and shoo the panhandlers away every ten minutes. Stay classy, San Diego!!

  3. Awesome thread Rhamesis! I remember being stationed at 32nd Steet Naval Station back in the late 80’s/early 90’s and that area where Petco Park is being a complete dump. You would never think of getting off the trolley there unless you were into red lights and transients. What an awesome transformation.
    And it is this transformation that I foresee for downtown San Jose and Diridon. Cisco Field promises to be NorCals version of Petco, with development sure to follow at Diridon, North San Pedro and even along W. San Carlos. It’s gonna be awesome!

  4. @nsj,
    Damn I wish Petco had been there when I was in the Navy! Oh well, Cisco Field will be worth waiting for that downtown ballpark experience.

  5. This is my favorite West Coast ballpark, hands down. A similar vision would have worked well at Victory Court, unfortunately we never really saw the vision for that place.

  6. My wife and I spent a few days of our first Honeymoon in San Diego five and a half years ago. We stayed at the Horton Grand Hotel, about five blocks from Petco Park. There was plenty of things to do around the Gaslamp District, and the place was always buzzing. There was a lot of construction going on around the ballpark area, though I imagine now that it is done the place is even better, as you describe.
    We didn’t initially plan on taking in a ballgame, but one morning we decided to go check out the ballpark and ended up buying tickets for that night’s game against Arizona. I like a lot of the park’s design. It’s open and the concourses are wide. We got to see Hoffman move with two or so of the all-time Major League saves leader. It was an enjoyable trip, and I would definitely do it again. I can imagine that the SJ experience becomes similar as the area around Diridon is built up following Cisco Field.

  7. @LoneStranger: see any ghosts at the Horton Grand?

  8. @EddieVegas_NRAF – Sadly, no. That would have been the highlight of the trip!

  9. I got to host a corporate vent at Petco- no game was going on so we got to explore the ballpark pretty extensively- one of m favorite parts was the visitor locker room tour- they talked about Barry bonds- had to bring in his leather recliner and he wanted it located away from the team and facing away from the rest of his teammates- our tour guide implied he was the ultimate prick- ballpark is spectacular- unfortunately not a hitters park-

  10. OT: Kings Sac arena officially dead…

  11. ML, great write up. I honestly think PETCO is my favorite ballpark in all of MLB. It’s so well laid out and built that it just feels right. Even on a losing game day I’m still just happy to be there when I’m at the park, and I’ve never felt that at any other stadium save Fenway Park. The openness of the whole stadium, the integration with the city, the park in the park being open daily game or no game (I’ve had many a lunch there on off days), the way they saved the Western Metal building and put it to good use as the foul pole… I could go on but everything about PETCO just belies the care and thought that went into crafting the place. And on top of that it’s one of the cleanest most well cared for sports venues I’ve ever visited, the staff are always friendly and downright happy to see you and the field itself is just immaculate (I got to go down on it last year during BP). The best part though is how it has plenty of the required modern distractions for casuals, yet they don’t feel overbearing or like they take away from the purity of the game at all like at say AT&T Park. They’re more subtle and it really shows for those of us that don’t need the distractions to enjoy the game. Oh and the beer… my God the beer selection is second to none for a sports venue (which is a great chaser to a Hodad’s burger).
    I hope the A’s get something even half as nice some day.

  12. everything ive heard about petco has been great. its such a shame how bad of a sports city san diego is because that stadium should be packed every night. the only bad thing i heard about it is apparently it has a bad bee problem… not sure about it but i heard that from a friend. otherwise every review has been great and it seams like a great place to see a game

  13. Nice review! I’ve only been outisde of the park, but the neighborhood seems like a good place to hang out pre/post game. I wanted to get down to SD for the Phillies’ series (I’m part of that locust pack) but couldn’t make it.

  14. Never seen a bee at any games. You may be thinking of Peoria where the Padres have spring training. That stadium has had a bee problem from time to time as have a couple of the AZ spring training venues. As for being packed, when the team playing there makes the A’s look like they’re tearing it up it’s not shocking they’ve got a few empty seats. The Padres haven’t really had many great years at PETCO in part due to the park. If PETCO has one failing it’s that it’s TOO much of a pitchers park between the distant walls and the thicker marine air that close to the bay (both when compared to their old park at Qualcomm). Though from the sounds of it they’re going to be bringing the right field and right center field fences in a bit after this season to help solve the problem somewhat.

  15. Slightly OT, but since we are talking about the impact of PETCO park on neighborhood development: there was some misinformed commentary toward the end of the last thread about Nationals Park having been a rip off of DC taxpayers. In fact, that Park has generated far more revenue for the District of Columbia than even its advocates hoped for, so much so that most of the prominent ant-ballpark politicians in DC now admit they were wrong about the deal. Check out this recent piece from the Post on the stadium’s impact on city finances and neighborhood development.
    The key there was that DC is a small city with a large metro area around it. So the vast majority of Nationals fans (who actually foot the bill for the park) are bringing their money into DC instead of spending it where they live, mainly in Virginia.
    San Jose, or Oakland for that matter, will not regret building an A’s ballpark. Football stadiums are boondoggles that make little or no economic sense. A baseball park is great for everybody, even the ones taxpayers initially revolted over.

  16. I usually don’t like to disagree with ML, but I in this case, I will.
    There is a big reason that the Padres have only draw about 2 miilion people per year for the past few years: the ballpark is disappointing and overrated.
    It is a nice neighborhood, no question. The ballpark, however, is not as intimate as it should have been.
    For one thing, it has about 4,000 seats too many. Fixed seats should have been 37K – 38K with the berm (“Park at the Park”) serving as overflow on prime dates.
    The upper deck has 27 rows, which is actually larger than the upper deck at Anaheim Stadium (aka Angel Stadium). The distance of the upper deck is exacerbated by the height of the club level (which features a 56-foot cantilever), pushing the upper deck even higher up.
    I was never a fan of the upper deck suite towers. Those suites are in a poor, non-prime location and also obstruct portions of the back rows of the upper deck.
    The decision to double deck both the left and right field outfield seating was simply idiotic, obstructing one of the best features of the location: the view. And, as ML may go into in further posts, the right field concourse does NOT have a view of the field (this decision was made to save money after a long delay in construction).
    Every time I go to Petco Park I come away disappointed. It should have been one of the best ballparks in baseball, but, sadly for Southern Californians, it is not. The ballpark is somewhat fixable, primarily by the removal of a lot of unused seats in left and right field.
    Hopefully the Athletics and Angels won’t make similar mistakes if they elect to build new ballparks in the next few years.

  17. still believe pnc is by far the best baseball park in baseball. i don’t know if you’ve made or planning to make a trip to visit that but i’ve read so many who also think and have actually been there who say pnc is the best in the bigs.

  18. Interesting post by pudgie. So what do you say RM, is Petco to big or overbuilt? Perhaps 36-38k seat capacity is the sweet spot for a MLB ballpark.

  19. @Pudgie – I agree with some of your observations, as you’ll see later today.

  20. Don’t know if I agree with Pudgie about the height of the upper deck. PETCO’s upper deck isn’t any taller than any of the other new parks, such as AT&T. Plus it’s the closest upper deck to the field in all of MLB due entirely to the cantilevering which brings both upper deck AND club level closer than any park before or since. The cantilever is not confined to just the club level. As for view obstruction in the outfield, not sure much was obstructed by either stand. There were no buildings behind right field to view (nor much of anything else in the east village). Left field you have more of an argument for, but then they also had to put the scoreboard somewhere and it would have obstructed almost all that the smaller upper left field level blocks. And on top of that the view is again limited to left due to the Marriott hotel across the street. You can’t see much beyond that tall building. The prime view was and remains out to center field. Not sure about having too many seats either. It only has 700 more seats that AT&T Park and is right in the 40-43,000 seat range that almost all the new parks are in. In fact only one park built since 1992 was built under 40,000 at PNC Park.
    The one thing I will agree with is the lower right field concourse. That should have been opened up, but as I understand it there were time and money considerations due to the 2 year delay thanks to Bruce Henderson. But even then I can’t see how someone would come away disappointed by PETCO. It’s easily the nicest park in California if not the entire west.

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