A college-record 40,106 people turned out last Thursday for the trial-run opening of downtown's sparkling new sports venue, Petco Park, and, predictably, many complaints ensued. CityBeat took in the first game and came away with these observations:
5:00 p.m. Two hours before the era of Petco Park begins, a blanket of steel-gray clouds unfurls from the west. Decide to park a block south of the El Cortez, figuring that to park any closer to the new ballpark could bode ill for a smooth post-game departure. Besides, it's a nice evening for a 10-block stroll through the heart of downtown.
5:15 p.m. At Seventh and Market, everybody seems to be moving in one direction-toward the ballpark. Stop by to chat with the patient folks at the Ballpark Café-patient because this little spot of tranquility opened nearly a year and a half ago, when it wasn't so clear that the ballpark would ever be completed. It's one thing to build residential towers when everybody else is and the housing market is squealing, but quite another to set up a business so far in advance with no guarantee of success.
Mike Athnathious, the café's genteel owner, sits pensively in one of two bright-colored sofas that gives the place a homey-trendy feel-even though it's tucked into the base of Park It On Market, the first publicly owned parking garage built in San Diego since the '60s.
Athnathious says he's just a little nervous about how business will go tonight. "I've been open 17 months, but I kind of feel like this is our grand opening, too," he says.
What's a typical Thursday evening like? Aiming right at what will become dinner-bell time for baseball-hungry fans, he answers, "Seven o'clock is dead. I've spent days where I've had to work till 3 a.m. just to make $100."
He has much bigger dreams, now that baseball fans roam his neighborhood. "If I take in $500 or $600 tonight, I'd be remarkably happy," he confides.
6:20 p.m. Along Market, the sun has given way to a chilly, late-winter night, but even 40 minutes before the first pitch, the streets are surprisingly fluid-very little traffic congestion, and plenty of space just two blocks from the ballpark.
It doesn't take long to figure out why. Rounding the south side of the ballpark, an exodus of hundreds of ticket holders pours out of the Imperial Avenue trolley stop to the east at roughly eight-minute intervals. It seems everyone is talking into a cell phone.
"Where are you?" a 20-something guy barks into his phone at the top of his lungs, trying with little success to talk above a public-address greeting that blares over and over and over.
Another family huddles outside the east entrance. One child in the pack gets bored and yanks a three-foot branch off a newly planted sidewalk tree. Oblivious to the kid's destructive tendencies, an adult in the group tells him to drop the evidence and come along.
6:40 p.m. It might mean missing the ceremonial first pitch, but a large security guard to the east looks like he's herding cattle, and, frankly, it looks more interesting than a ritual first toss. One thing there's no shortage of at the Pet, as some have dubbed the ballpark, are police and security guards. Cops in patrol cars and electric carts and on horseback run rings around the grounds.
"Hey guys, you gotta get on the sidewalk!" booms Dale Mandible, a towering figure, leaning against a silver cane, who is known as "The Big Hawaiian" to his security cohorts. "People have been very friendly and accommodating-so far," Mandible says.
Just then, his partner emerges from a crowd of trolley riders and shakes his head. "Lost track of a couple of scalpers," he laments, and then verbally pounces on a pedestrian who strays from the sidewalk linking the trolley stop to the ballpark.
"I told one guy earlier to get off the lawn," Mandible's partner says. "Someone came up to me and said, "Smooth move, guy. That was the president of UCSD you just yelled at.' I don't care. He shouldn't be running on the lawn."
7:20 p.m. Larry Lucchino, the former Padres president credited with ushering in this new era, bounces the ceremonial pitch a few feet in front of the most famous of Padres, Tony Gwynn, now the coach of Aztec baseball. Much more important to inspect the concession stands, which are already clogged with patrons.
First stop, La Cantina, an outdoor bar with an outstanding downtown view and a stunning price list-$8 wine margaritas, $7 premium beverages, $5 draft beers. You might have to take out a second mortgage to catch a buzz here, but at least the lines are tolerable.
Once seated, the buzz of the crowd is palpable. It's the first inning, and the Aztecs are already leading 2-0. Vendors zip up and down walkways hawking $4.50 bags of peanuts, plastic drums of cotton candy and other high-priced munchibles.
8:35 p.m. The neck veins of a middle-aged baseball fan are bulging while he describes his ordeal getting to the ballpark. "I waited 40 minutes at the Old Town station," he said. "Six trolley cars passed by without stopping-all were full. I finally got back in my car and drove down here. It was actually pretty easy, but I ended up paying twice to park. Ridiculous."
A security guard knocks over a canister ashtray, looks at the swath of white sand and butts he's distributed on the ground and walks away. A frail-looking woman in her 70s steps up and begins brushing the mess toward an oversized flowerpot. Turns out she's the grandmother of the night's star pitcher, Aztec starter Scott Shoemaker. Sheila Glendunning's wrinkled face is a picture of nervousness as she takes a drag on a cigarette. "I'm always tense when Scott pitches," she explains. Once a draft pick of the San Francisco Giants, Shoemaker nearly severed his left (non-pitching) hand in a golf-cart accident, she offers. Now he's back doing what he loves.
Soon, the crowd breaks into a rising roar, and Glendunning sprints to a field-side vantage point. Aztec first baseman Rielly Embrey has just hit the first home run in Petco Park, and the fans are bouncing in the stands. With the score now 4-0, Glendunning can breathe a bit easier.
The mascots for the Aztecs and Padres-the revamped Monty Montezuma and the chubby Friar-mill through the crowd, posing for photos. A woman yells to the feather-beak-headdress-sporting Monty, "I liked you better when you were more naked." Monty replies cryptically, "It's coming-don't you worry," and then proceeds to blow into his conch shell.
9:50 p.m. With the Aztecs victorious, the crowd begins to pour out of Petco Park and spread out across downtown. Some nightclubs in the East Village overflow with revelers, more so than on a typical Thursday night, several bouncers concur.
Cops are also busy, but mostly with minor duties, like traffic monitoring. Two bicycle-patrol officers stand behind a Pacer's limo that is grossly misparked-next to a fire hydrant, its back end extending well into oncoming traffic. "A bad one," one cop notes as he writes up the luxury ride.
Back through the less-populated streets of downtown, the thrill of the first inner-city baseball game is tempered by the usual urban scenery this time of night, most notably the scores of homeless holed up in just about every storefront nook and cranny.
Even with the new, some things remain the same.