Faith Starts Anew
By Ron Donoho
The silver-haired gal in the ivory Eldorado inches out of the Circle K parking lot. Once in the traffic stream, she cruises at speeds approaching 20 miles per hour. No chance of a swirling wind blowing into the open driver’s-side window and unhinging her white visor. Coming up on a Target-anchored strip mall, the car’s left blinker begins flashing. Four blocks later, the Eldorado tu-u-u-u-u-urns onto Paradise Lane. Ahead sprawls the Peoria Sports Complex.
The only game in town today is the San Diego Padres’ official preseason opener. Granted, the game attracts all types—cherubs in oversized Ken Caminiti jerseys; hipster doofuses imitating the hirsute Caminiti scowl. Some folks are here to check out the reconstructed shoulder of last year’s National League Most Valuable Player. But the majority of the spring-training crowd skews toward octogenarian. All admire the warrior in Caminiti. The third baseman has been felled by a flu bug, and you can see the disappointment on the faces of the need-to-nurture set—for having failed to bring Cammy some homemade chicken soup.
This is how spring training plays in Peoria, Arizona.
Excuse me, but it is called spring training, right? It has rained on and off this day, just as it did for the previous day’s charity game against the Seattle Mariners. Not far
to the north in Flagstaff, there’s nearly a foot of snow on the ground. Arizona is home of the so-called preseason Cactus League. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see a shivering saguaro with its prickly arms folded around itself.
The unusually dour weather leads to disappointing attendance for the National League Western Division Champions’ first game versus the San Francisco Giants. But the drizzle hasn’t kept away Padres owner John Moores. During the off-season the unassuming Moores has been honored more than Jewel, Babyface and Celine Dion combined. He’s just flown in from San Diego after yet another dinner lauding his civic efforts. Looking a tad like rumpled Roger and Me filmmaker Michael Moore, Moores wears
a casual, striped button-down, with eyeglasses hung from one of the shirt’s buttonholes. His dark hair curls out from under a blue Padres 60th-anniversary cap. The hat is dotted with baseball pins, most notably one that says "Tony Gwynn Stadium," an SDSU project to which the deep-pocketed owner and his wife have donated a reported $4 million.
Moores is a calm presence amid a sea of tizzy. Behind him, a phalanx of Japanese media scurry about. They’re seeking morsels on their countryman claimed by the Padres, feather-ruffling pitcher Hideki Irabu. Reporters, family and friends of John and Becky Moores—and even pundit George Will—wander in and out of the owners’ box. Moores seems to be the only one watching the Giants beating the Padres, 5-3.
The loss is insignificant in the scope of what is to come. Right? Hey, it’s only a preseason game, isn’t it? Well, tell that to three beefy diehards who drove seven hours from San Diego to catch the game. Michael Cole, Glenn Turgeon and Harry Lozano are damp—but blissfully so. A pilgrimage to Peoria borders on a religious experience for these fans. The placard the trio has brought to wave at the game says it all: "Faith Starts Here."
Faith may begin in Peoria, but it will be sorely tested in Mission Valley. You can call San Diego’s major-league sports facility a variety of names: Jack Murphy Stadium, The Murph, Qualcomm Stadium, The Qualiseum or The Construction Site—though an $18 million check from the local telecommunications giant says the name will be Qualcomm Stadium. One way or another, it is our field of screams.
Maybe you heard a little something about stadium expansion earlier this year. Former San Diego Councilman Bruce Henderson brought a lawsuit that threatened to stop ongoing construction at The Murph. The ability to accommodate the 1998 Super Bowl, the Chargers and the Padres hung in the balance. When the political dust had settled, expansion plans were advancing unencumbered. But real dust—and dirt and wood scraps and metal piping—remains scattered about the stadium grounds.
Padres president, CEO and minority owner Larry Lucchino chose to remain outside the political fray. His more pressing Henderson problem, he says, involved not a Bruce but a Rickey. The latter Henderson is an aging but still-talented outfielder—and one there seemed to be no room for on the roster after the signing of slugger Greg Vaughn.
Though they stayed way behind the scenes during the stadium war, it is the Padres—and their fans—who now must put up with the ongoing aftermath of construction efforts. The team, for example, had to move its offices to the Hyundai Building—about a mile and a half from the stadium.
And on opening day (April 1), there will be just 44,000 seats available. The stadium will have a gaping, unfinished area on the loge level on the third-base and left-field side. Bob Vila could start a new series called This Old Stadium. Sections 1 through 21 on that level will become available one by one as the season—and construction—progresses. On the plaza level in right and center fields (sections 41 to 61), only the 12 rows closest to the field will be available all season. The reason for that is the large amount of work that will be done behind those seats, which are located near the scoreboard.
Jack Autry, a Padres front-office special assistant who is overseeing the construction, says every effort will be made not to inconvenience fans. "Construction will stop four hours before the gates are opened," he says. "Everything will be swept up and made to look as good as possible. There may be some areas where we’ll have to put up some 8-foot fences for protection. That’s not the prettiest thing, but it is the safest."
Most of the "messy stuff," in terms of heavy construction, has already been completed, says Steve Shushan, assistant stadium manager at The Murph. As soon as possible after Padres games are completed, workers will resume hammering and drilling through the night. By May 1, the maximum capacity will be up to 50,000, says Shushan. It will be August 1 before the Padres can try to sell out a finished, 70,000-seat facility.
Baseball fans seem to be split on how their enjoyment level will be affected by the unfinished stadium. Their concern is summed up by Bob Bender, who works for State Farm Insurance and usually attends 30 games a year: "This is not going to be much fun—but I’ll still go to the games."
If you rebuild it, apparently they will still come—and in record numbers. Through late February, the Padres had sold the equivalent of 8,331 full-season-ticket plans. Expected to continue to grow, that number is already 1,603 higher than last year’s (the record of 12,854 was set in the post–World Series appearance year of 1995).
As for construction being an on-field distraction for his players, Padres manager Bruce Bochy isn’t concerned. "Construction won’t be going on during our ballgames," he says. "They tell me what has been worked on will be covered by tarps. It’ll be a few less seats early on, but other than that, the field will be the same."
During spring training in Peoria, Padres first baseman Wally Joyner is asked his assessment of the stadium. "Is it still there?" he quips. He concurs with Bochy that the missing seats won’t be a distraction. "I don’t expect the lighting will be any different."
Joyner believes the unfinished stadium will be more of a distraction for fans. "I hope they’ll still bring enthusiasm and support. Maybe fans can also bring hammers and chisels to the games." If the Padres’ front office declares a Hard Hat Day promotion, at least credit Joyner with a flair for marketing.
Not that the Padres’ marketing gurus need extra inspiration. Besides promotions featuring giveaway seat cushions, barbecue aprons and beach towels, there is talk of a Viva Las Vegas Night in September. Can you imagine 70,000 Elvis impersonators doing the wave?
The Padres are destined for the marketing hall of fame. This is a team that last year played the first-ever regular-season major-league games in Mexico. Furthering its expansionist policies, the team will play three games this year in Hawaii (April 19 and 20) against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Team management says it’s a matter of looking at the big picture. "We’re trying to redefine the market," says Lucchino. "This is one small step for the Padres, one giant leap for baseball. We are definitely a team with a foreign policy." It’s hoped Hawaii will be a stepping stone to playing in Japan and other sites in Asia.
The wooing of fans hither and yon brings up one Michael Volpe. Frustrated by the management tactics of his favorite team, the Giants, Volpe declared himself a "free-agent fan." The Virginia resident announced his availability and was courted by 22 pro teams. Tim Katzman, director of fan services for the Padres, sent Volpe a gift bag packed with a shirt, baseballs and information on the team’s community-service projects.
Volpe—suddenly an expert—says the Padres were one of 10 teams to make his short list. "They are impressive. I think they have a good idea about what the fans are thinking." He plans to pick one team just before the regular season begins.
Katzman courted media-darling Volpe (and copycat free-agent fans) with considerably more restraint—goody bag notwithstanding—than, say, the Chicago White Sox did with $60-million-man Albert Belle. "I felt there were things we could do in our own community instead of spending money on this one guy," Katzman explains.
To those who think the Padres might overlook San Diego
in the hustle to woo the far-flung foreign and domestic markets, Lucchino pledges that won’t be the case. "What doesn’t get as much media coverage is our North County Project," says Lucchino. "We have a new baseball store in Encinitas. We have sales and marketing and merchandise people working out of that location. We’re trying to plant our flag all over North County as well as places like Hawaii."
The team will continue its aggressive programs of community outreach. Padres Scholars, begun last year, is a college-scholarship program for middle schoolers, funded by team players and owners. Little Padres Parks—60 in all—are being created in communities all over San Diego. According to Charles Steinberg, Padres senior vice president of public affairs, a new outreach program will be aimed at pediatric oncology, tentatively named after Cindy Matters, a special Padres fan who died of cancer in January.
Steinberg says the team will also continue its "Tell It to the Padres" focus groups. The meetings are a vehicle for fans to vent frustrations and make suggestions. Moores and Lucchino attend these sessions, as have players Tony Gwynn, Steve Finley and Trevor Hoffman. "The focus groups are something Larry [Lucchino, who was the Orioles CEO from 1988 to 1993] started in Baltimore before the construction of Oriole Park at Camden Yards," says Steinberg.
Ostensibly, Padres focus groups will be a precursor to a baseball-only stadium here. Moores and Lucchino remain tight-lipped on particulars. But Moores says the team won’t be able to compete in the National League West without the revenue a new ballpark would bring.
"We could continue to play at the Qualiseum, but the team would be financially unstable," he says. "We couldn’t compete with teams drawing 3 million fans in new ballparks." Moores points to the fairly new Coors Field in Colorado and construction plans in San Francisco and for the expansion Phoenix Diamondbacks.
When talk of a new stadium comes up throughout the season—and rest assured, it will be a hot topic—expect Padres officials to be much more reasonable than the principals involved in the stadium expansion flap. Moores—who disputes reports that a new stadium will cost $250 million—says some type of a public/private venture is likely. And no, he won’t just plop $200 million down to build a stadium himself.
But since the new owners took control in 1994, they have proven themselves trustworthy, forthcoming and prudent. Moores has a fairly low opinion of Bruce Henderson’s actions regarding stadium expansion. But when Lucchino is asked if the Libertarian activist will be invited to a future "Tell It to the Padres" session, the team president smiles. Inside his cranium the marketing synapses are firing.
"Of course he will," says Lucchino. "That’s a good idea. We try to get a cross-section of people with strong points of view. I think we will personally invite Bruce Henderson."
That might dispose of at least one distraction for Bochy, Caminiti, Gwynn and company.