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THE STATE OF THE GAME

This Is Not a Condo: San Francisco's New Ballpark
By Mike Shaler


"The only man who could have caught it, hit it."

—the ultimate assessment of Willie Mays, reprinted on his statue in San Francisco.

 

When the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco, they brought with them a ballplayer already deemed to be among the finest in the land. Willie Mays responded with a stellar campaign and was largely overlooked by his new fans. The exploits of Orlando Cepeda, Jimmy Davenport, and others who'd never set foot in the Polo Grounds captured the hearts of San Franciscans more than anything Willie Mays could do. With the coming of Willie McCovey in the next year, and then another year later, the dazzling Candlestick debut of Juan Marichal, the die seemed cast: Mays might be the best player of all time, but he would not be the most popular player on his own team.

Forty-two years later, though, San Francisco has built an apology to Willie Mays. A neat sized, more-or-less privately built (infrastructure work and the necessary relocation of some port facilities came from the city to a tune of about $26 million) ballpark has risen at the intersection of Third and King, in the South of Market area, close to the downtown financial district. The park bears the name of a regional phone company, it being the one who paid fifty million dollars for the naming rights. Once inside, in case one should forget the name of the Giants' new playground, the public-address announcerķa wo-man who doubles as the drive-time personality for one of San Francisco's top rap stations—pronounces the park's name in splendid throaty tones. Meanwhile, the fan notices various other corporate sponsors, from dot-coms to soft-drink makers to clothing stores, announcing their presence with a dizzying array of company-designated play areas to water fountains spraying high into the air, should a Giant hit a baseball into the nearby waters of San Francisco Bay. For a refugee from Candlestick Park, it almost seems impossible to believe.

Not only are these San Francisco Giants not going to follow the exit strategy of their forerunners, they are going to a part of the city that allows for ease in public transportation access and affords many at the game with breathtaking views of one of the country's most popular metropolitan centers. Sit in the upper deck between home and first. Look out from the park to your extreme left. The skyscrapers appear to be brushing up against you. Below you, streetcars disgorge fans by the thousands, while others walk in, perhaps after making a stop at one of the many restaurants within a two-block radius. (In fact, a player or two might conceivably have made the same walk a few hours earlier. The Giants are happy to have you know that a few of their players now live right in the city, and Ellis Burks, the team's right fielder, has reportedly hung out with fans in the restaurant immediately across King Street.) In left field, the team's resident superstar and godson of Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, stands beneath a garish larger-than-life soft-drink bottle and a gigantic sculpted fielder's glove, but beyond those structures you see boats docked in the marina. Beyond the boats, the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge is handling its double-decked load of traffic. Behind center field, the Giants' own slip, placed just beyond a statue dedicated to the Pacific Coast League San Francisco Seals, may be receiving a commuter boatload of fans from Oakland. If you gaze beyond right field, you'll see people in their own sailing vessels, crammed into an inlet of the bay that comes behind the park, a strip of water now known as McCovey Cove. Below the wall, and just before the water, is a public sidewalk that leads the curious to a few designed openings along the right field wall where they can watch the game for free, as long as viewing is limited to three innings at a time, or longer if not rousted by Giants' security. There may be a few flies in the ointment, but all in all it's a wonderfully seductive picture: Major League Baseball in an open-air, grass park in the heart of the city.

Indeed, the park is already sold out for every game of the 2000 season, with a reported daily attendance of 40,930 for a ball yard that ostensibly seats 40,800. By the time the Giants play their sixty-fifth game this year, they will have set an all-time single-season attendance record for their 117-year-old franchise (now enjoying its forty-third season in the Bay Area). About five hundred bleacher seats are put on sale for each game, approximately two to four hours before the first pitch. So far, the Giants have sold these out every day and night, and for some games have instituted a lottery system for acquiring one of these tickets. The net result has been that a ten-dollar bleacher seat is often scalped for twenty dollars and up. (In fact, for all tickets there is a lusty reselling. The Giants themselves run a Web site in which they allow their season-ticket holders to offer their seats for sale. Those holding the best seats have already plunked down anywhere from $1,500 to $6,000 for a "charter seat license," which then gave them the right to spend up to $3,400 a year to secure their season ticket. Considering their "investment," it's not uncommon for people to ask $200 or more for their behind-the-bases tickets for a midweek game. On Opening Day, a radio caller to the team's flagship station admitted that he'd spent $700 for his seat. Meanwhile, newspapers reported that some brokers asked $2,500 for the first game.)

Yes, the prices are high. The spirit of Willie Mays, the onetime boy playing on the Alabama dirt, the young man who played stickball with kids in the streets of New York, and the in-his-prime San Francisco center fielder whom the Giants themselves, in noting his player-of-the-decade award for the 1960s from The Sporting News, called a "hero for the working class," is not to be found in these prices.

Still, one might be able to rationalize the amount of money it takes to go to a Giants game as merely a part of the high price of living in California, particularly the world of the San Francisco Bay Area, a place where people may well ask $400,000 for a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house and end up getting $500,000 for it, a place where some young computer wizards make enough money to match the earnings of their favorite Giant player.

Of course, this is not the story for all or, in fact, for many, in the Bay Area. As noted in the Los Angeles Times of April 11, 2000, the new park and the growing Internet companies nearby are pushing out sheet-metal plants, garment shops, and photo studios from the surrounding neighborhood. Paul Bolden, director of San Francisco's Coalition on Homeless-ness noted, "This is a small town, and there is nowhere left to get a piece of the American pie for you and your family or for a small business. They act like, 'If it doesn't look good to tourists, we don't want to see it in this town.' What is this: San Diego North?" (In fact, the developer for a nearby 230-unit upscale apartment complex is from San Diego.)

But when my wife and I sat in the left field bleachers for Opening Day (our price for our scalped tickets: $100 each) and then a few days later returned to those seats (because I'd bought a group of twenty-five tickets back in February, our individual tickets worked out to the face-value price of $10 each) for a Friday night match between Randy Johnson and Livan Hernandez, I marveled at something more palpable than the prices or even the park itself: my team was staying in San Francisco and would more than likely stay for at least a couple more generations.

After a rough start in April, the Giants appeared to adjust to their new home and began winning there with increasing regularity. After recovering from the horrors of seeing Kevin Elster of the Dodgers launch three home runs, and watching Randy Johnson retire the Giants on three pitches in one inning en route to another dominating victory, I did get to see the Giants in early May turn away the Mets; saw the former Phillie, Bobby Estalella, help defeat his old team; watched Jeff Kent hit the ball with heretofore-unrealized consistency; and opened July by seeing Kirk Reuter shut down the Dodgers. By the All Star break, I'd managed six games at the Giants' new yard and seen them win four of those contests.

There were quirks that I couldn't have seen at Candlestick, such as Robin Ventura launching a ball four hundred twenty-one feet to the deepest corner of the park and have it turn into a double; J. T. Snow or Bill Mueller drifting a few feet off the line for a foul pop, only to have it go into the stands; or merely watching the Giants emerge from the third base dugout.

However, what I really noticed about the park had more to do with the fans themselves. I noticed people getting up and down from their seats constantly. There was a low hum in the crowd, but not necessarily a sound connected with the game at hand. There were cell phones in the bleachers. A friend, an Oakland A's fan, returned from a game against the Cubs telling me that the crowd had been so quiet. He ascribed this to the San Francisco wine-sipping mentality of Giants fans. I wanted to disagree. The Giants fans I'd seen time after time at Candlestick were involved in the game, a savvy baseball crowd. A cold night at Candlestick, even if in the midst of a pennant race, might mean only 12,000 at the park, but we could be as loud as 50,000 Dodger fans in L.A. We'd bring sandpaper if Mike Scott pitched, brooms if the opposition was about to be swept, and get on the other team's outfielders. We were certainly the hardest-core fans on the West Coast and felt we held our own with fans everywhere. Then, of course, it hit me: This new crowd wasn't the crowd that had gathered at Candlestick. The hard-core fans, to the extent that we could afford to come, found ourselves swallowed up by the new park's patrons.

The one exception to this rule of quiet seemed to be Barry Bonds. The crowd responded to Bonds with the kind of adulation he hadn't received at Candlestick. (At Candlestick, Bonds found respect, inasmuch as he was a gifted player who could help the Giants win, but he was not necessarily the favorite.) Here, at the new park, there were thunderous cheers when he came to bat. And, up to the All Star break, Bonds responded by becoming the only Giant to hit a ball into the Bay. Somehow, the godson of Mays was getting the acclaim in his playing days that his godfather largely missed out on. (In the closing days prior to the break, the Giants' other all-star, Jeff Kent, started receiving his own ovations, but it seemed clear that if it wasn't Barry's team, it was Barry's park.)

Yet, by and large, the game itself remains the game that I love, and the ballpark and I have settled into a truce with one another. When a friend told my wife and me that she didn't think the park "was all that," I almost wanted to defend it.

One reason may be Willie Mays. The Giants placed a larger-than-life statue of Mays in the plaza outside the main entrance, for anyone and everyone to see. It's one of W. P. Kinsella's characters that advocates for the placing of plaques about baseball at various highway stops throughout the country. At Third and King in San Francisco, it's been done. Mays's Hall-of-Fame plaque is reprinted there, as are various quotes from veteran baseball watchers, including the late Jim Murray's observation that "He should play with handcuffs on, so the rest of the players have a chance." It's as if San Francisco is apologizing to Mays, the only player with a statue anywhere on the grounds. Not McCovey, not Cepeda, not Marichal—none of these Giants who debuted in a San Francisco uniform. Only Mays. It's as if the baseball gods have finally gotten through to the people of San Francisco, prodding them to remember the greatest player ever to don the orange and black, and perhaps any uniform.

And finally, for me, it's Willie Mays who puts the Giants' new yard in perspective: "Everybody is talking about the view. Who cares about the view? This is not a condo here. It's a ballpark. Let's play ball."

—EFQ

MIKE SHALER is a teacher, a SABR member, and a San Francisco Giants fan. He is married to Ellen Chafetz Shaler, another teacher and a Detroit Tigers fan. They look forward to the nearly impossible: a Giant-Tiger World Series, and abhor the probable: a Giant-Tiger interleague game.

©2000 Mike Shaler

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