Welcome to a special weekend playoff edition of Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Pacific Bell Park
LATER KNOWN AS: AT&T Park
HOME TEAM: San Francisco Giants
VISITED: July 6, 2001
CHRONOLOGY: 24th of 34
RANKING: 8th of 34
As Stephanie and I took our seats in the last row of Pac Bell Park —the View seats as they were cleverly dubbed — we came upon one of the few imperfections detectable in an otherwise magnificent setting. There were stickers on each cupholder advertising an online grocery concern, blights that were soon going to have be removed as that company, Webvan, was declaring bankruptcy, ending its grocery runs. The tech boom was going bust in 2001, and locally headquartered Webvan would go down with it.
A shame for the people who worked there. Tough luck for the Giants losing a sponsor. But the presence of the stickers for such a theoretically forward-thinking outfit was somehow appropriate given the Silicon Valley zeitgeist surrounding Pac Bell Park, a park that (under another name) would later become the first Wi-Fi field in the majors. This place was Retro Version 2.0, an upgrade from the generation of trendsetting ballparks that preceded it. Pac Bell was evidence that nothing was static in this fast-moving era, that progress was only a mouse click or a Barry Bonds swing away.
Camden Yards had been state-of-the-art just eight years earlier. Now baseball seemed poised to trade in their Camdens for Pac Bells.
That’s how it felt up in the last row. As hackneyed an expression as “state-of-the-art” had become by 2001, it fit Pac Bell. Actually, maybe you could make do just by calling it “art”.
Wow, what a venue for baseball. Privately financed, as the lady P.A. announcer saw fit to mention, which maybe explains why they decided to besmirch it with the unsightly Webvan stickers. But it was a small blight on an otherwise pristine landscape.
Why shouldn’t San Francisco’s ballpark be up to San Franciscan standards?
If I may detour slightly from my ultimate destination and fall for some well-worn propaganda, San Francisco is such a gorgeous city, I could almost forgive it for absconding with the Giants. My parents lived there when they were first married in deference to Uncle Sam stationing my father in the area during his army stint. They became enamored of the place. Years later, we took several family trips out there, the last of them concluding the day after my 14th birthday. Except for one business excursion, I hadn’t spent any quality time in San Fran in 25 years when we decided to knock Pac Bell (and the Oakland Coliseum) off our to-do list.
When we touched down on the Fourth of July, San Francisco turned out to be the sweatshirt in the back of the closet that somehow still fit. It felt familiar to me in ways that it shouldn’t have. I had never lived there and had only visited a half-dozen times, yet I somehow knew San Francisco for the few days we were there. San Francisco’s air is its own. Maybe it’s Fisherman’s Wharf, maybe it’s the sourdough, maybe it’s the lightheadedness from walking up all those damn hills. But boy did I enjoy being back.
Had things broken correctly three or so decades earlier, this series would be called Take Me Out to 35 Ballparks, because I almost talked my parents into taking us to Candlestick Park one of the summers we were out there. We could see it from the highway and there was some definite interest gathering on their part. I don’t remember why it was ultimately rejected; they weren’t fans, but they were usually up for adventures on vacation.
Just as well, maybe, that we didn’t go since by universal assent, Candlestick may have been the worst place on the planet for baseball, deserts and oceans included.
The weather, by Roger Angell:
The game that Stoneham and had fixed upon was a midweek afternoon meeting between the Giants and the San Diego Padres — a brilliant, sunshiny day at Candlestick Park, it turned out, and almost the perfect temperature for a curling match.
The atmosphere, by Richard Grossinger:
It took him a number of trips in different seasons to see that Shea was still relatively good-natured compared to Candlestick. The Giants of that era evoked racist anger and redneck fervor from an urban area generally thought of as hip and liberal. It wasn’t. The South San Francisco gay-bashing crowd were as ornery and mean a group of Americans as there are. Add in the Daly City/Brisbane low-rider tailgate partiers and you have a zoo. I don’t think at Shea you’d find the fat woman who sat behind me one day, drinking beer and kicking my seat with some force because I was rooting for the Mets. “You’re in public now, you prick,” she said, in answer to my objections. “You can’t tell me what to do.”
Can’t say I was sorry to have missed Candlestick. But I didn’t want to miss Pac Bell. It was so sumptuous in my first glances at it on SportsCenter in 2000 that I actually took a personal day during the Mets’ first trip in so I could watch a day game live on FSNY. I’ve never been one for remarking on the greenness of the grass at a given ballpark, but Pac Bell, on TV, had the greenest grass I ever saw…and it’s not like I had a high-definition television in 2000.
The Mets got swept in their one four-game set that May. Then they lost in irritating fashion to Liván Hernandez in Game One of the NLDS, another telecast I stayed home to watch. Pac Bell was Turner West where the Mets were concerned, but I still loved to stare at it through the screen. The Pac Bell curse lifted in Game Two moments after it truly, nearly did us in when J.T. Snow snuck a score-tying three-run homer just over the right field fence off Armando Benitez in the bottom of the ninth. Jay Payton and Darryl Hamilton (and John Franco) rescued us from twenty kinds of hell in the tenth, but I have a sense I still would have wanted to have seen Pac Bell for long.
It was just too damn pretty.
The very day in February that Giants tickets went on sale, Stephanie jumped online and ordered two for a game against the low-demand Brewers from tickets.com. That’s not a small detail. The A’s tickets we ordered the same day came in no time at all. But the Giants’ didn’t. We waited and waited. April became May became June and our flight was just around the corner. Finally, she got in touch with customer service. They told her the tickets had been sent to her address…in Medford, Oregon. Seems somebody with the same first name and last name ordered tickets to the same game.
As San Francisco Giants fan Charles Schulz would have had somebody say, “AAUUGGHH!!” What blockheads.
We were told to show up at a certain ticket window with proper ID and we’d be taken care of. As Mets fans, we didn’t believe it, but we had our plane reservations, so we followed through. Flew to San Francisco; wandered through Chinatown; took cable cars; made a BART excursion to Oakland; took a bus to what we refer to as the “other” USF (University of San Francisco, unwitting sister school to our alma mater); met with friends in Haight-Ashbury; lingered in Golden Gate Park; and eventually got on the MUNI light rail, getting off at palm tree-lined 24 Willie Mays Plaza, just off of downtown San Francisco.
There it was: Pac Bell Park. And it took my breath away for a minute. Then I had to get it back for the interminable wait at Will Call and the argument we were in for with the snarling clerk behind the counter.
Except the line moved quickly and it was a perfectly amenable transaction. The Giants were sold out every night, they didn’t need our 3,000-miles-away business, but they were competent and courteous as they resolved the ticket snafu.
Imagine that. And wouldn’t Will Call be a good name for a mascot?
That extraordinarily vital task completed, now we could get back to sizing up Pac Bell and letting go of our breath.
Gorgeous…just like the city. So gorgeous I didn’t mind the lamp post banner featuring J.T. Snow triumphantly rounding first after his homer off Armando (what the hell, we won). So gorgeous I didn’t hear anybody snorting at my 2000 World Series Mets cap “in public” (what the hell, we won). So gorgeous that I could have caressed every brick.
What a happy, ignited place Pac Bell was to circle in the summer of 2001. Every game was sold out; every night was energized by a home run chase — Bonds outpacing McGwire; everybody, you sensed, feeling lucky to be where they were. Indeed, this was the place to be, to explore, to not rush inside from.
So we strolled. We strolled to the Willie Mays statue, an event unto itself. I grew up hearing San Francisco never fully appreciated or accepted Willie as their own because he had the temerity to bring his star with him from New York. I guess that wore off after a while because the Willie Mays statue was a pretty damn popular attraction. Inspired by Willie, or perhaps the NY on my black cap, I sort of elbowed others out of the way so I could take a picture in peace with Mr. Mays.
We left Willie but then spent plenty of time/currency in the store constructed in his shadow. It was two levels and it was brimming with merchandise I had no idea I needed. Stephanie was charmed by the selection and came away with a San Francisco Seals t-shirt. She had no idea who the San Francisco Seals were, but once I told her the shirt was a nod to the city’s Pacific Coast League past, she was even more charmed. Likewise when we visited Seals Plaza with a seal statue (actual mascot name: Lou Seal; I like Will Call better). This brought us to the cusp of already renowned McCovey Cove, where fly balls occasionally dropped in for a drink. Some folks had parked themselves on the water, setting themselves to wait for a potential homer. We waved to them. They waved back. Then we turned around and kept walking, eventually peeking inside the chain link fence the Giants carved out beyond right field for passersby who wanted a glimpse — free! — inside the park while the game was going on.
This was an incredible baseball canvas the Giants painted. And we weren’t even inside yet.
It was pretty freaking great within the walls of the park, too. I missed whatever escalator they have and led us up too many stairs for comfort (though the hills had been good practice). Good thing this was one of those “intimate” parks where the climbing wasn’t as endless as we would have suspected. Finally, we reached our level and…garlic fries! I heard about those, too. Then I saw the line and passed. I will, per Tony Bennett, climb halfway to the stars while in San Francisco, but I won’t wait long for fries, no matter how pervasive their aroma.
There were other places that would sell you food, at least one of them evoking the good old New York Giants. It was named for John McGraw. I didn’t partake, but I took it as a good sign — just like the sign out on one of the plazas that tells you how many miles you were from old Giant haunts, including the Polo Grounds. New York Giant nods were mixed in everywhere: the championship flags from back east; the retired NYs for Muggsy and Matty along with the numbers for Hubbell and Ott; and, in the 50th anniversary year of his Shot, a concourse banner celebrating Bobby Thomson.
I felt at home here.
This was all fantastic, and I still wasn’t in my seat. We had a little more hiking to do, all the way up to Row 18, the height of the View polloi…top row.
They ain’t called View seats just to distract you from how far you sit from the field. It’s a great view. You get that green, green grass, so lush that I could imagine sleeping on it under Tony Bennett’s stars (and I’ve never gone anything like camping in my life). You’re overwhelmed by the lattice work of the scoreboard, the arches carved into the outfield walls, the perfectly placed clock. You get the water: the Cove, China Basin, San Francisco Bay…whatever it was we were looking at, it was intoxicating as sunset approached. Where, I wondered, was Steve Perry? I was playing A/V director for Pac Bell Park and decided that around the sixth inning or whenever it began growing dark that we should all hear Journey:
When the lights
In the City
And the sun shines on
Now that I read those lyrics closely, they seem to be more about morning than evening, but it fit the mood up there. (So does this right now.)
You know what else fit? Every warm piece of clothing we brought with us. I had heard continually over the first season-and-a-half that perhaps the best of all the good things about Pac Bell was it wasn’t as bone-chillingly windy here as it was at Candlestick, then we wouldn’t freeze our tuchuses off in this part of town.
Hogwash. It was freezing. It was Shea in October freezing. The last time I’d seen the Giants in person was nine months earlier when Bobby Jones was one-hitting them to close out the 2000 NLDS. I sat in the last row of Mezzanine in the second-to-last section of left field, and a gale from the general direction of LaGuardia iced me the entire game. I literally wore four layers on my upper half and my back still shivered.
This, in July, was almost as bad.
Granted, I hadn’t schlepped my parka to San Francisco, but I thought I had prepared adequately. While visiting the other USF, I purchased a green and gold lined, pullover windbreaker (their school colors were miraculously the same as our school colors). I understood San Francisco weather enough to know my hoodie from home wouldn’t be enough. But surely, now that I had a couple of articles of autumnal gear, I’d get by.
It was barely adequate, and only because we had traveled 3,000 miles to be here. Stephanie had a substantial jacket, but she wasn’t faring that well. I vamoosed from the 18th row to the first concession I could find to buy her a pair of black wool gloves with an orange SF logo. They helped, a little.
The cold kind of took the momentum out of us. We were into the game as much as we could be for two people who were marveling more at the scenery than the show. It was great scenery, but it just kept getting colder as the sun stopped shining on the bay. When you’re gathering icicles in July — July! — you begin to grow a bit impatient. You find yourself not loving everything. You find yourself annoyed by the Webvan stickers; and the P.A. lady’s slight overdoing every announcement; and her calling it “the best experience in the majors” (let us decide what’s best, thank you); and the cheering for Jeff Kent. True, he was a Giant player and these were Giant fans, but we need to maintain some objective standards.
Stephanie and I agreed to tough it out through the seventh-inning stretch, or until Bonds batted again. Our end point was his groundout to start the bottom of the eighth (Barry was in his one power slump of the season at that point; sorry kayakers).
We left our seats but not the park, opting to explore where it was a little less windy. We took in the view from an unrestricted concourse with a cutesy name (the Promenade) and it, too, was spectacular. We ambled behind the outfield seats, which was like a carnival without the creepiness. That’s where the kitschy oversized glove and the oversized cola bottle sit. There’s a parked cable car there, too. Lots of youths hanging around in there, bordering on restless, maybe even rowdy. I got a bit of a Candlestick vibe from that crowd, so I kept us moving until we were eventually back outside, riding the conveniently located MUNI to Union Square. From there, we hopped a cable car to our hotel. We listened to Brooklyn’s own Rich Aurilia drive in the winning run in the eleventh on KNBR in relative warmth.
A lot to see everywhere at Pac Bell. A fine, fine place to enjoy the game if you can stay focused on baseball; a person probably needs two games to fully appreciate everything it has to offer — and two parkas. Maybe it’s a bit precious or pretentious here and there, but Pac Bell Park wouldn’t have been San Francisco if it hadn’t been.
And it was, without a doubt, San Francisco.
In case you’re interested, a little more Giants history here, from my first piece for the New York Times Bats blog, regarding Christy Mathewson, NLCS Game One winning pitcher Tim Lincecum and the historical parallels that linked them in Philadelphia.