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THE STATE OF THE GAME

Good-bye Jack Murphy
By John L. Nunes

After thirty-five years, the San Diego Padres played their last game in old Jack Murphy Stadium on September 28, 2003. Qualcomm Stadium, as it's been known the past several years, was one of the few multipurpose stadiums remaining in American big league sports. Only the Minnesota Twins, Florida Marlins, and Oakland A's continue to play in stadia that also serve as home to a professional football team.

Granted, the football-friendly concrete bowl the San Diego Padres have called home since 1968 (they were the minor league Padres then) doesn't come close to the class of storied edifices such as Fenway Park, Wrigley, or Ebbets Field. But thirty-five years is a long time in any life to chalk up major memories, and every stadiumˇfrom the antiseptic Metrodome, with its right field wall resembling a trash can liner, to the LaLa Land house that Vin Scully helped make famousˇhas had its share of memorable moments.

Situated along the floodplain in Mission Valley and just a little more than a Barry Bonds home run away from the minuscule San Diego River, Jack Murphy Stadium played host to the 1984 and 1998 World Series and the 1978 and 1992 All-Star Games. The Padres lost both Series to the Tigers and Yankees, respectively, and fielded few All-Stars in either of the midsummer classics held in San Diego. Pitcher Rollie Fingers and outfielder Dave Winfield made the '78 All-Star squad as second stringers, but in '92 three Pads were named as starters: the legendary Tony Gwynn, first baseman Fred McGriff, and catcher Benito Santiago. The Padres also brought home a division title in 1996, but were generally known as perennial losers throughout their years playing inside a stadium designed to accommodate the National Football League and tolerate Major League Baseball.

Predictably, the Padres lost their final game at Qualcommˇagainst the hapless Colorado Rockies. It was a game of no consequence in the standings, but the least the Rocks could have done was roll over and let the home team drink in their last multipurpose hurrah with a win.

Boston may be cursed by the Bambino, but the Padres just might have been under the spell of a stadium that sucked dry their offense and befuddled their defense. Team owners haven't exactly built dynasties, either, although McDonald's fast-food king Ray Kroc and current owner, high-tech billionaire John Moores, each captured a pennant. Without a doubt, the darkest days occurred during the ownership of TV producer Tom Werner, whose legacy is having Roseanne Barr sing the National Anthem, arguably the worst-ever rendition performed.

Things will change for the better in the new, upscale downtown digs, Moores has declared. Padre fans can only hope, although the name of the National League's newest designer ballpark most likely will not intimidate opponents: Petco Park. Sounds more like a place to walk your dog. Not surprisingly, news media have had a field day concocting pet names for the new place. The Litter Box, the Cat House, the Dog House, the Bird Cage, and the Petting Zoo come to mind. Money talks, however. Petco paid a whopping $60 million for naming rights over the next twenty yearsˇa grand slam on any Padre scorecard. In comparison, the locally based wireless communications company, Qualcomm Industries, paid a paltry $18 million in 1997 for the twenty-year right to have its name on San Diego Stadium.

At least a year ago, the Sycuan Indians, proprietors of a highly successful local gambling palace, lobbied unsuccessfully to have their name in lights over Major League Baseball's newest temple of worship. Sprawling San Diego County has nine Native American casinos with five others on the drawing boards. But enough city fathers, civic leaders, and corporate power brokers were opposed to such a cozy alignment with gambling. (Though, somewhat hypocritically, the same elite has permitted Sycuan to pony up the dough to be the official sponsor of the Padres' individual baseball seasons.) So Petco Park will be the name of the $457 million facility that is being subsidized by taxpayers and tourists to the tune of about $300 million.

That wasn't always the case in San Diego or, for that matter, any of the other cities that play host to major league teams. Originally known simply as San Diego Stadium, it morphed in 1981 into San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, affectionately christened "the Murph" by locals and made "official" by ESPN's Chris Berman. (San Diego Union sports columnist Jack Murphy led the crusade for a ballot measure to construct the stadium and bring major league sports to town.)

Like all the other tricked-out baseball-only stadia that began popping up with the building of Baltimore's Camden Yards in time for the 1992 season, Petco promises to be a lucrative revenue generator for its owner and expensive place for fans to enjoy the nation's former national pastime. Of course, a slick, new baseball-friendlier park does not guarantee a playoff contender. Just ask the fans in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Detroit who have glistening new stadia but also higher ticket and food prices to go with their mediocre teams. Meanwhile, Padre fans, like their Philadelphia counterparts, have their hopes up. On a positive note, ownership is spending money on better ballplayers. Before the 2003 season closed, John Moores opened his wallet to trade up for RBI machine Brian Giles. Then came All-Star catcher Ramon Hernandez in November. More marquee talent was promised before the 2004 season gets under way.

For San Diegans, it is comforting to know that the Padres and Petco have much in common. Both are homegrown companies with national reach, both are in the entertainment business, and both are thirty-something. They will mature to middle age at the same timeˇhopefully gaining more fan-friendly wisdom and many pennants.

Of course, we can expect fans to spend the first season at Petco Park thrilled with their new place of worship. At the same time, the comparisons with "The Q" will no doubt be made. Gone are the massive tailgate parties in reportedly the largest parking lot west of the Mississippi. The 122 acres that surround the stadium include space for 19,400 vehicles. Until recently outlawed, countless parents taught their children how to drive in this asphalt park. Gone, too, however, is a conveniently located baseball venue. North and east county residents living some twenty-five to thirty-five miles away who had no say in voting on financing the new stadium, are particularly bemoaning the move downtown that will make their drive from the centralized Mission Valley that much farther. They wonder how they will weather the traffic jams. Downtown is located on the harbor, with Petco just a couple of blocks from the water to the south and west.

On the other hand, viewing quality of a ball game will improve and the overall experience should have the look and feel of years gone by when baseball was king in America. Professional baseball has come full circle in San Diego. Petco Park is located just a few tape-measure homers from the long-gone, harborside Lane Field, where Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio starred for the Triple A Pacific Coast League Padres.

San Diego Stadium was built in the mid-sixties for $27.5 millionˇabout the same it costs to pay A-Rod his annual salary. At around the same time, the renovation and rebirth of downtown San Diego got started.

San Diego's first major league regular-season game commenced on April 8, 1969. Sporting ugly dirt brown and mustard uniforms, the home team bested the Houston Astros 2˝1 before a crowd of 23,370. Anaheim Angel Scott Spiezio's dad, Ed, got the San Diego franchise's first hitˇa home run in the fifth off Don Wilson. In the sixth, "Downtown" Ollie Brown doubled in the winning run. Unfortunately, things went pretty much downhill after that, as the Padres lost 110 games, tying the expansion Montreal Expos for the worst record in baseball that year.

 

Ollie Brown and Ed Spiezio were on hand with dozens of other Padre alumni for the "Farewell to the Q" festivities held throughout the final weekend of Padre baseball in Mission Valley. Among the former Pads taking bowsˇon and off the fieldˇwere Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith, Steve Garvey, Dave Dravecky, and Cy Young Award winners Randy Jones and Gaylord Perry. Nineteen ninety-six NL MVP Ken Caminiti's curtain call was particularly emotional for the player, given his public battle with drugs. They even brought back the San Diego Chicken. Each player wore the jersey of that particular era's team, which ranged in color from brown to beige to yellow to this year's blue with orange piping. Alas, the current team lost two of three during its final home stand, ending the season at 64˝98, two games worse than 2002.

Overall, the Padres finished 1,369˝1,405 during regular-season play in their first home. More than 54 million people attended games in the old stadium, including 2,027,020 this seasonˇthe Padres' eighth consecutive year of drawing 2 million or more in a county that is populated by 2.5 million.

The team's 2003 season ended at 5:11 P.M. with Padre catcher Gary Bennett swinging and missing at strike three with runners on first and second. Along the way, manager Bruce Bochy was ejected from the game and in his absence, bench coach Tony Muser decided to walk Todd Helton intentionally in the eighth inning after the Rockies first baseman had taken three straight balls with two out and a runner on second. The intentional pass effectively took Helton out of the batting race with Albert Pujols. The best-laid plans of an emotional afternoon didn't end there. Padres reliever Trevor Hoffman was scheduled to pitch the ninth inning with the hope that he'd be the last pitcher to toe the rubber at Qualcomm. It didn't work out that way. The Rockies led by two runs when Hoffman took the mound. He tossed ten pitches, eight of them strikes, and retired the side in order. His second of two strikeouts closed out the inning, but Hoffman then had to chill on the bench as the Padres tried one last comeback. Rockies reliever Justin Speier threw the last pitch. Final score, 10˝8, Rockies.

As it turned out, the final weekend at Qualcomm Stadium was as much about looking forward as it was about looking back. The duality of the occasion was symbolized by the grounds crew digging up home plate after the Padres' 2,787th regular season and playoff home game, then shipping it via a bright red Hummer to Petco. Before the old-timers and the 2003 team had a chance to wave their final good-byes and drift away behind the right field fence, the plate had been delivered safe and sound to its new home. It will be dusted off and ready to go in time for the April 8, 2004, opener against San Francisco.

During the postgame festivities, while former Padres wearing the uniforms of their time period trotted and ambled out to their old positions on the field, fans cheered their hearts out as the names of their former and current heroes were announced. The lengthy procession ended with Hoffman heading in from the left field corner bullpen for the last time to the chimes of his signature song, "Hells Bells." Bochy moved toward the mound of dirt that once was home plate to take the symbolic last pitch. Tony Gwynn, the last player introduced, then strode to the mound, hugged Hoffman, and took the ball from the right-handed pitcher.

In a split second the deed was doneˇGwynn tossed the last one soft and true to Bochy. "I thanked him for the pitch," Bochy said. "It was a little beat up at home plate after digging it up. The last thing I wanted to do was scoop something up off of a beat-up home plate." Bochy's words were far from profound but resonated among baseball people and their fans.

(In Philadelphia, the Phillies and their fans celebrated in much the same way, with seventy former Philly stars parading out onto the field, including Mike Schmidt, Tug McGraw, and Steve Carlton. Unlike the Phillies, however, who sold off Veterans Stadium seats at $280 a pair, the Padres aren't selling anything. The "Q" will remain home to San Diego State University football and the NFL Chargers.)

Good-bye Qualcomm Stadium, hello Petco Park. The new place promises breathtaking views of baseball, San Diego harbor, and the downtown cityscape. Petco is now the crown jewel of the redeveloping East Village section of the city. The stadium's ocean blue seats and white steel beams promise to be a big improvement over the multipurpose venue. Winning, however, will take more than promises.

And just because they built it, fans may not keep coming. To wit: Billy Graham, appearing this year at Qualcomm, drew more attendees during a four-day evangelical event than the 2003 Padres did in a month. The eighty-four-year-old legend preached the gospel and won the day. Former Padre CEO Larry Lucchino used to plead with Padre fans to "keep the faith." Shortly thereafter, he left for Red Sox Nation.

—EFQ

San Diegan JOHN L. NUNES recently published DreamCatcher Games, a novel featuring baseball, fantasy sports, and American Indian casinos. The book is available on Amazon.com.

© 2004 John L. Nunes

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