Monday, September 17, 2007

Game #30, Take II: The Ballpark By The Bay


A few last words about AT&T Park, to help those who haven’t been there really get a sense for it.


Perhaps no other team had the natural surroundings at hand to build as beautiful a park as the one in San Francisco. But the trick was to use that natural beauty effectively. The ballpark in San Francisco does that spectacularly, blending an old-school brick and steel construction with water, islands, bridge, and city, all in a fantastic downtown setting. Some of the best views are from the upper deck seats along the first base line, from which point the span of the Bay Bridge stretches out almost as an extension of the park itself, before plunging into the side of Treasure Island, halfway across the bay to Oakland. From these seats, the graceful arc of balls making their way to McCovey cove can also be best appreciated, or the all-too-common asymmetric curve of would-be home runs being knocked down by the wind into the right fielder’s glove below. Meanwhile, any seat in the park gives a great view of the game below, and a minimum amount of foul territory makes sure that the stands are kept at a fantastically intimate proximity to the game itself. Finally, while the exposed bleacher seats can experience a fairly significant cross-wind, the frigid conditions of Candlestick Park have been mostly prevented.


For a new park, the focus is also kept well and truly upon the game itself. With the exception of a few kid-friendly amusements in the outfield, including a miniature whiffle ball version of the park as a whole, the intention is very clearly that fans be there to enjoy, and focus upon, the game.


For Game #30, what a game! With the Giants in last place and Barry Bonds having broken the all-time home run record, you might not expect much. However, with the hated LA Dodgers in town, and the Giants playing well for a change, the crowd was well and truly into the game. In a back-and-forth affair, the Giants found themselves ahead by a run heading into the ninth. Then, as happened all too often for the Giants, the bullpen was not able to hold on, giving up a game-tying home run in the top of the ninth. But, with an intensity generated from the SF-LA rivalry, and an enthusiasm born of the youthful eagerness of a September call-up, rookie Dan Ortmeier provided the ideal ending to my 30-park trek with a walk-off game-winning home run.


Back to the park itself; AT&T Park is one of the best pitcher’s parks in the bigs, a fact driven at least partly by the irregular plot of land available for development. While the distances down the lines are reasonably short, center field gets deep in a hurry, while the right-center field triangle affectionately known as Death Valley has seen the unfortunate end of many would-be-home runs. Furthermore, while the right field wall isn’t overly far away, it is quite high and supported by a stiff breeze coming in from the water. This has made for a rough outing for many left-handed power hitters, eagerly swinging for the water only to see their fly balls blown straight down and kept in play.

The archways on that right field wall further support the old-fashioned styling of the park. The hand-operated scoreboard is a great touch, as are the open areas outside the park from which eager ticket-less fans can get a peek of the game within. And, of course, along this wall is the Bonds home-run counter, tracking his trajectory to, and then past, the top home run hitters before him. This counter is further duplicated on the outside of the building, for anyone passing by the park.


Bullpens for both teams are placed directly on the field, with pitchers throwing in the direction of home plate. This has several effects, the nicest of which is the immediacy of the bullpen activity to the game itself. With bullpen activity so evident to the fans, this part of the game is brought front and center, and kept within the boundaries of the field, a great touch. From another perspective, this also allows the bullpen pitchers, catchers and coaches to sit in the dugout itself, with the rest of the team, a great touch at the end of tight games when the entire team is rallying together to will their team on. Finally, unlike at Wrigley Field, there is just enough space on the field to fully hold the bullpens, preventing the in-bound field of play from being directly affected by the bullpen pitchers mounds.


The scoreboard, meanwhile, is one element of the park that is most distinctly NOT old-fashioned. A brand new, and absolutely beautiful, high definition screen has been put into place on the large outfield display, exceeding even the screens in Atlanta and Toronto for quality, size, and information. With both lineups displayed at all times, a tremendous wealth of statistics and details, and a fantastically sharp view of replays and highlights, this is definitely the best screen in baseball.


No discussion of the park would be complete without a profile of McCovey Cove, the inlet of water past right field into which long fly balls can splash. Despite the cold water, most games find a number of hardy fans in kayaks paddling around, in hope of catching a ball.



And the kayaks are not the only boats around AT&T Park. Past center field is a fairly large marina, a great place to dock up boats in between beautifully scenic sailing trips around the San Francisco Bay. Tough life, really.


A relatively new feature of the park, and one that will likely be gone next year, is the collection of rubber chickens hanging from the right field wall. This display commemorates intentional walks issued to Giants pitchers, and was first established in 2004 as inspired by the frequency of IBBs issued to Bonds (120 in 2004, almost 3x the next highest mark of 45 by Willie McCovey).


“…where little cable cars, climb halfway to the stars…”


While commercially-driven, the shape of the top of the left-field wall is both unique and rather amusing. As shown in the picture below, the Chevron billboard painted onto the wall actually extends beyond the line that would generally represent the top of the wall. In order to accommodate this, the wall itself therefore extends higher at this point, meaning that balls hit off this portion of the wall stay in the park instead of becoming home runs. While I wouldn’t want to be sitting behind this (apparently they dropped a Dodgers fan into that seat), the novelty factor somewhat overcomes the commercialism.


In front of the stadium, standing as a classic meeting point, is a statue of one of the greatest players of all times, Willie Mays. Formally, the park’s address is actually 24 Willie Mays Plaza, a two-fold tribute based upon the Say Hey Kid's old uniform number.


In a tip of the cap to the large Latin contingent present on the team, the Giants occasionally take the field as the “Gigantes”, with uniforms to match. This evening was one such game.


While this is fairly extreme, it does make a good point. In many of the older stadiums, the seats face forward, regardless of their orientation to the field, thus producing sore necks if poorly positioned relative to home plate. These seats, in the arcade, offer no such problem.


From a food standpoint, there are a few definite highlights. The garlic fries, inspired by nearby Gilroy, garlic capital of the world, are the park’s signature food, and while they use pre-chopped garlic instead of fresh chopped garlic in order to speed up the preparation process, they’re still fantastic. Meanwhile, the mints provided as an automatic side really don’t help.


The local favorite, meanwhile, is the Cha Cha Bowl, from Orlando’s Caribbean BBQ in center field. Named after former Giant Orlando Cepeda, this is a tasty and (potentially) spicy combination of pork, rice, beans, and a pineapple and zucchini salsa. For a recipe, check out the Food Network here.


Beer selections are quite decent, with a variety of local microbrews available. But perhaps more amusing is the prevalence of both hot coffee from Tully’s and hot chocolate, both served around the park by thermos-equipped vendors as a way to fight off the chill of a cold summer’s evening.


Being back in the Bay Area was a nice touch, and I was joined by a group of good friends for the game. With discounted tickets from our former company helping get us into the park, it was a great end to a fantastic trip.

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