|Always a good day at Pac Bell|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: This is the third report card in Page 2's summerlong series rating all 30 ballparks in Major League Baseball.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Once upon a time, the San Francisco Giants played baseball in Candlestick Park, a stadium only Jack London could love. It was cold, windy and remote. Fans were bundled and bitter, hovering over their last sorry, soaked matches, desperate for a spark of heat and light. Whole families routinely perished crossing the trail from their seats to the concession stands and back.
These days, the Giants play in Pacific Bell Park, a stadium everyone loves. Folks walk around the place with dopey grins on their faces, like they can't believe their good luck, like they know every minute they spend here is a lifetime they don't have to spend in the barren Candlestick wilderness. You look at them and you think at any minute they might just raise up their collective voices and shout out a few bars of "Zippidy-Doo-Dah."
Anything would have been better than the Stick, but Pac Bell is a gem. It's easy on the eyes, easy to get to, and easy to feel at home in. It fits the neighborhood, sports some funky angles and clear sight lines, and offers up some fine grub.
My brother-in-law Roger and I strolled through the blissed-out masses last week on one of those days -- clear sky, 72 degrees, and a light breeze coming off the bay -- when baseball ain't a game but a poem.
We saw the Giants and A's do the Battle of the Bay thing, saw Eric Byrnes hit for the cycle, saw one guy in the seats behind first base catch two foul balls, saw a 3-year-old named Mason poke a whiffle ball over the left-field fence in the miniature ballpark out behind the bleachers, and saw the whole thing unfold against a backdrop of sailboats cutting through the bright blue water of San Francisco Bay.
It was, as Ice Cube likes to say, "a good day."
So I'm going to break down the experience in categories for you now; but really, I got nothing to say beyond this: Go. Now. You'll be glad you did. Not as glad as the Candlestick survivors maybe, but real glad.
1. Seat comfort: Easy on my 6-foot-2 frame and forgiving of my bony backside. Cup holders? Yes. Bun warmers? No. Bonus points for clean, though. And super-bonus points for concave bleachers in the cheap seats. Points: 5
2. Quality of hot dogs: It's hard to order something called the "Super Beef" with a straight face -- "Excuse me, ma'am, I'll have the 'Super Beef,' please" -- but it isn't hard to eat it. Good stuff, Maynard. Big, bready sesame seed buns are good too. (Polish sausage also available.) 5
3. Quality/selection of other concession-stand fare: Folks make the trek from all over the park to Orlando Cepeda's food stand out behind the center-field bleachers for the "Cha-Cha" bowl -- a beans, rice, chicken and pineapple salsa thing. Fresh lemonade is a good call long about the sixth inning, and the fried calamari is a good call any time. (So are the Krispy Kreme donuts!) Demerits, though, for a rather tragic ice-cream-on-a-stick experience I had in the eighth in which I bit into a Ben and Jerry's Peace Pop and had a river of Heath Bar Crunch come gushing out. There were tears, there were curses, there were sticky hands in the mid-day sun. 4
4. Signature concession item: If the annual Gilroy Garlic Queen competition in beautiful downtown Gilroy, Calif., is the No. 1 garlic-related experience in North America, the garlic fries at Pac Bell are a close second. 5
5. Beer: I'm a good sport -- I'll spring $7.25 for an Anchor Steam at the ballpark. But $7 for a Coors Light? I don't care if I do get a fancy plastic commemorative cup -- that's obscene. 3.5
6. Bathrooms: Spacious, clean, and outfitted with those funky-Euro communal washbasins. At first glance, everything seems copacetic. But then a weird thing happens around the fourth inning of a sold-out game: lines out the door ... at the men's rooms. That's just not right. 4
7. Scoreboard: Light standards that echo the loading docks down the shore, an old-time analog clock, a new-fangled highlight screen, slugging percentage, walks and strikeouts as part of each hitter's profile, neo-retro hand-turned out-of-town scores that make up the right-field wall, and supplemental scoreboards that list pitch count and break down balls and strikes -- that's all good. Advertisements suffocating almost every other square inch of scoreboard and wall territory -- not so good. 4.5
8. Quality of public address system: Renel Brooks-Moon, who last year became the first woman to announce a World Series game, handles the p.a. duties with enthusiasm and aplomb. She's fresh. So's the little leaguer they pulled out of the crowd to announce the third inning the day I was there. And the tunes are great -- no Weekly Top 40, no Smokin' Oldies, just an unpredictable mix of salsa, big band, jump blues, Frank, Prince and the Chili Peppers. Game had a good beat and I could dance to it. I gave it a 98. Which means ... 5
9. Fun stuff to do besides the game: Fun stuff to do besides the game. You mean besides lolling for hours on an inner tube and trailing your fingers in the cool waters of McCovey Cove? You mean other than watching white caps dance on the bay? You mean instead of catching up with old friends on the breezy, wide concourse above the right-field wall, with a beer in your hand and a song in your heart? All right, beyond all that there's a speed pitch (which is always a great place to hear conversations like, "Dude, I was up there -- I was hitting 84, 85" and "No, man, that was a 6 ... 64, not 84") and the aforementioned miniature Pac Bell for the little ones. And you know that big Coke bottle you see on TV? It's full of slides -- short winding ones and long, steep ones. Lines are long but the grins are wide. 5
10. Price/selection of baseball souvenirs: I had a lot of notes on this section, but they all became irrelevant in the light of the following two items: Giants souvenir thong, $10; Ladies Giants insignia satin pajamas, 30 percent off. 5
11. Ticket price/availability: The Bell sells out routinely, which means you can do the SRO thing for $10 ... if you get to the park at least four hours before game time, stand in a line with a bracelet on your wrist and get your number called. You can also do the broker thing, try the auctions on the Giants' Web site, the EBay thing, or troll for tickets on Craig's List (Web-based classifieds). Or, if you roll into town an hour or two before game time, as I did, you do the scalping thing.
It isn't easy to score a scalped seat here. The park is located on a small bit of land along the San Francisco Embarcadero -- the park is pretty much all that's there (no neglected outposts, no hidden corners or shadowy nooks and crannies) and the Giants and the city are serious about discouraging a ticket-based market economy. There are signs all around the park saying scalping is punishable under California Penal Code Sec. 346 (which I think gets you three years hard time with Paul Crew's crew) and the fuzz patrol the place like they don't know that the Krispy Kremes are actually available inside the park.
Brother Roger and I were patient, though, and Ocean's-Eleven smooth, of course -- secret phrases, disguises, timing moves, and so on -- and with about an hour to go until game time, we found a man with View Level seats and an itch to move 'em.
He asked for $80 for a pair, we offered $50, he asked for $70, we stalled, and he said, "O.K., $50." We paid him with three twenties and he went digging through his pockets for our ten back, and just then the scene started to get hectic. Sellers muttering and turning, buyers sweating and spinning, and the boys in blue closing in from all sides. It was like the end of "Midnight Run." Chaos, danger and adrenaline running wild. Rog and I got the hell out of Dodge, whispering "Serrano's got the discs! Serrrano's got the discs!"
So we ended up with two view level box seats for 60 bones, which is five bucks per ticket above face. We were up high along the third-base line, with a great view of the field and a spectacular, write-poems-about-it view of the water. 3.5 (for thrill value and aesthetics)
12. Exterior architecture: Red bricks and green steel in keeping with the warehouse-industrial vibe of the area. Plus (is this architecture? I don't care -- call it art), a slammin', swingin' statue of Willie the Mays in amongst the palm trees outside the entry plaza, where eager young goofs like me can stand all tall and happy-to-be-here, and cool, casual vets like the guy behind me can soak up the sun and prep their scorebooks in the shadow of greatness. 5
13. Interior Architecture: The good kind of small. The intimate, cozy, smell-the-grass, high-five-the-center-fielder sort of small. The back rows of the upper deck are shielded by tarps from wind and sun. The walls separating sections and staircases are clear plexiglass. And no matter where you are sitting or standing (except maybe if you're in one of those inexplicable lines for the men's room), you can see the field. In fact, you can also see the field from a walkway along the edge of McCovey Cove (outside the park) for free -- that there's some fine architecture. The only blemish in the record? If you're in the first couple of rows of the upper levels, your view is somewhat obstructed by the railing. Whatever. Lean in. 5
14. Access: Cars are for suckers (especially with the Mission Bay development project gumming up the works on nearby streets for the foreseeable future). Take the Bart train, take CalTrain from the South Bay, ride the bus from anywhere in town, take the ferry over from the East Bay, or, best of all, ride the Muni through the city and right up to the front door. 5
15. Usher staff: Friendly and helpful, especially the sweet old lady guarding the entrance to the field level seats who got distracted just long enough at the start of the sixth for us to blow by and grab some seats a few rows up from first base. 5
16. Trading-up factor: Trading-up factor. It's tight (sell-outs will do that). But if you come across the right sweet old lady ... 3.5
17. Knowledge of local fans: Strength: Solid grasp of the game and an endearing kind of devotion to the Gints, complete with lots of very unattractive orange-and-black ensembles. Weakness: A little too much California cool, and not enough angry-young-man's edge, to the banter and heckling. Sign of hope: Guy sitting next to me when Eric Byrnes hit his triple to complete the cycle: "F*#k Eric Byrnes! He's a hack." Now that's what I'm talking about. 4
18. Seventh-inning stretch: "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" ... blah, blah, blah. Followed by Mindy Abair (who also Kenny G'd the heck out of the national anthem) doing some serious Najee-like damage to "God Bless America." Fans seemed to dig it, though, so what do I know? Well, I know I'm not giving it any more than ... 3
I know that much.
19. Pregame and postgame bar and restaurant scene. The young, fresh-faced hipsters flood Momo's (right across the street) before and after the game and feast on steamed mussels and smoked chicken quesadillas with pico de gallo for about twelve a pop. But the experienced fan, the local with a little grizzle in his beard, a little salt sea stink in his clothes, knows to hit Red's Java House before the game for a $4.75 double cheeseburger and beer deal. 5
20. Wild-card: The abridged version: the Cove is the thing. The extended dance remix version: There is a languid charm about the Cove. There are radios and rafts, and there are fans content just to be near the smell and feel of the game. The Cove brings a peaceful easy feeling to things. The Cove keeps the edges rounded and the impulses simple and pure. It's not just that the game is somehow better for the Cove, it's that the game -- it's sweet, soft-tossing heart -- is somehow in the Cove. Bonus Points: 7 (plus 1 for not being Candlestick) = 8
TOTAL SCORE FOR PAC BELL: 93