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TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLPARK SAN DEIGO HAS A NEW STADIUM...DESIGNED TO FEEL LIKE A QUIRKY OLD ONE.

Byline: Stories and photos by Eric Noland Travel Editor

SAN DIEGO - The baseball stadiums built in the 1970s had about as much staying power as earth-tone double-knits and feathered haircuts.

They were symmetrical, antiseptic and utterly devoid of character. They also tended to be multipurpose, intended to accommodate both baseball and football - but ultimately serving neither well.

Today's stadium designers have taken a different approach - creating something new that looks makeshift, well-worn and endearing. In other words, conjuring up quirky character right there in the blueprints.

Petco Park, the San Diego Padres' new $474 million ballpark on the edge of downtown, boldly rides this new wave. It's got wacky angles along the outfield walls, a century-old brick building jutting away from one of the foul poles, a sand box for the kids just beyond the center-field wall and nosebleed luxury suites in the light towers.

But it also combines its retro funk with modern conveniences, including padded seats in some areas, dozens of luxury suites, TV screens everywhere and special family bathrooms so that Dad doesn't have to drag little Trixie in where the guys are.

``Going here is like a vacation. It's like a resort,'' enthused James Simmons of Martinez, a San Francisco Giants fan attending the Padres' opening series last month.

Petco Park is fun, intimate and for the most part fan-friendly, though there have been early complaints about obstructed views and limited visibility in some sections. It also has an open feel, with views of downtown and even the bay.

The ballpark is certainly in a prime location: near the waterfront, across from the Convention Center and at the foot of the vibrant Gaslamp Quarter. Taking in a game here - particularly this first season, when curiosity is sure to run high - will be yet another prime entertainment option for anyone in San Diego for a weekend getaway or a midweek business trip.

A first-time visitor might be alternately amused and perplexed by the stadium's laundry list of peculiarities.

Some of the older stadiums in the East grew in fits and starts, with a block of seating added here and a fence thrown up there. Petco's designers were going for that same effect - essentially creating a back story for a brand-new park.

That brick warehouse in the left-field corner, for example. The building dates to 1909, and its painted sign still identifies it as the Western Metal Supply Co., which once forged wagon wheel hardware. You wonder if maybe a stubborn proprietor refused to sell to make room for the new stadium.

But no, the ballpark architects simply liked the look of the old place, and literally incorporated it into the design. In fact, a yellow stripe was painted down the corner of the building. That's the left-field foul pole - ball hits the south face of the building, it's foul; ball caroms off the east face, it's a home run.

Thus, Petco Park instantly has a feature as distinctive as the towering wall - the infamous Green Monster - in Boston's 92-year-old Fenway Park. Also, there are seats up on the roof of the building, just as there are atop a dozen businesses on Waveland Avenue across from Chicago's 90-year-old Wrigley Field.

The ballpark borrows liberally from other historic stadiums, too. There's a ``short porch'' of seats in the right-field corner, a tantalizing target for left-handed batters, just as there is in New York's Yankee Stadium. And there is a park beyond the outfield wall, which was the case at Pittsburgh's old Forbes Field, after an outfield fence went up in 1947 to create what came to be called Greenberg's Gardens.

Yes, Petco's quirks are contrived, but in a harmless way.

It's certainly an accessible place - all the more so for families. Tickets to that outfield park cost only $5, and fans can lounge on a grass-covered hill to take in the action from 500 feet away. Some of the field is blocked from view, but there's a giant TV screen back there to fill in the gaps. And what do you want for $5?

Nearby is a jungle gym, a miniature baseball diamond and the aforementioned sand box for the kids.

Still, holders of the $5 park tickets are not penned up here. They're free to roam the stadium during the game, pausing at any number of standing-room areas behind the seats.

``There are 3,500 standing-room tickets sold in addition to our 42,000 fixed seats,'' said Bill Stephens, a stadium employee who leads tours of the new facility. The 1,000 tickets to the park are up for grabs at every game, but the remaining 2,500 tickets for the standing-room areas ($8) are only made available after all the seats have been sold, Stephens said.

The primary objective of the designers was to create as cozy a ballpark as possible. That certainly was achieved. The seats are so close to the field of play that you really have to pay attention to the action on the field (anathema to many Southern California fans, it seems). A front-row seat in field-level Section 114, for example, is about 20 feet from the foul line, and fans sitting here should be alert for wayward line drives. Seats behind home plate (protected by the backstop) are only 44 feet from where the batter digs in.

But in creating this intimacy, some sacrifices had to be made, and the result was a number of blind spots.

The decks of seating are dramatically cantilevered, to eliminate the need for support posts, but if you have a seat well under the overhang on the field level (from about Row 28 and up), your view of the high-tech scoreboard and video screen in left field will be blocked, and you'll lose sight of a fly ball to the outfield.

The Padres endeavored to compensate for this by hanging hundreds of TV monitors and a few bare-bones scoreboards under there, but it's still like watching a game through the mouth of a tunnel.

In other areas, fans can't see a play that occurs in an outfield corner ... or they have to lean forward in their seats to see home plate ... or they have to turn sharply, risking a nine-inning crick in the neck, to see the action or the scoreboard. Because of the relatively flat angle of the second deck of seats, fan traffic in the aisles blocks views, too.

Petco Park borrowed an idea from one of baseball's newer stadiums, San Francisco's SBC Park, but booted it badly in the exchange.

SBC has a knothole-gang feature in right field, where nonpaying fans can peer onto the field through an open section of fence. The view is terrible, but it's fun to take a peek if you're passing by the stadium.

Petco Park has a viewing area through the fence in left field, just off the bottom floor of the Western Metal building, which houses a souvenir store. It's such an authentic experience that you actually stand on the red dirt of the warning track. But the store closes to the general public a couple hours before game time, and thereafter is only open to ticket-holders.

Hospitality is exercised on other fronts, though. Families on a budget will be pleased to hear that they don't have to get murdered at the concession stands. As at many other major-league stadiums, it's perfectly permissible to bring in your own grub in a shoulder bag, along with small containers of some beverages (bottled water, for example).

If you want to sample the in-house fare, you'll find a diverse selection at the concession stands and restaurants: sushi, barbecue, veggie burgers, spring rolls, blackened-chicken sandwiches, fish tacos (we were impressed with the ones we wolfed down at La Comida) and of course such ballpark standards as hot dogs, burgers, pizza and fries.

The prices are about what you'd expect at a new, modern stadium. If a family of four emerges from Friar Frank's with four hot dogs, two beers, two sodas and two bags of peanuts, Dad's wallet is going to be $41 lighter.

The park's aesthetics are pleasing: beige sandstone blocks imported from India, steel superstructure painted white, vaguely Mayan contours in the entry plaza, a water wall, and landscaping that includes creeping vines, bougainvillea, jacaranda trees, palms and coral trees with brilliant-orange springtime blossoms.

We took in a game from $34 field-level seats, about midway between the third baseman and the left fielder. A late-inning exploration, however, found me in the Upper Concourse, where fans sitting on the right-field side ($12 to $26) are treated to one of Petco Park's best attributes: a superb view of the lights of the downtown skyline.

While looking over the top of the Western Metal Supply Co. building, you almost get the sense that this ballpark was here before those skyscrapers went up.

Eric Noland, (818) 713-3681

eric.noland(at)dailynews.com

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Because it's a downtown stadium, there is a dearth of parking convenient to Petco Park, but after San Francisco opened its new ballpark in 2000, fans there demonstrated that mass transit is a legitimate option for a night at the ballpark. The parking lots closest to Petco Park cost a staggering $17. A suggestion for visitors from out of town: Park in one of the $3 or $5 public lots near the Santa Fe Depot (Broadway and Kettner Boulevard). Across Kettner from the depot is the trolley's America Plaza Transfer Station. A round-trip trolley ticket in the downtown zone is $2.50 (there are self-pay machines), and it's only a few minutes to the Gaslamp Quarter stop, literally at the doorstep of the stadium. After games, the trolleys line up three deep to handle the increased volume of passengers. A map of dozens of parking areas convenient to the stadium can be found at www.padres.com (navigate to Petco Park, then to Parking and Transportation).

TICKETS: Ah, technology. Visitors can buy tickets online at www.padres.com and select the ``automated will call'' option. When you arrive at the ballpark, get out the credit card you used for the purchase and swipe it at one of the E-ticket turnstiles (located at every gate). Your ticket receipt, good for admission, will be printed for you on the spot. There is also an option for printing out tickets on your home computer. Prices range from $5 for admission to the park beyond the center-field wall (1,000 such tickets available per game; seating on a grassy hillside) to $40 for a field box. The stadium has more than 70 private suites, many available for single-game rental (from $1,200). (877) 374-2784.

ODDS AND ENDS: It's permissible to bring your own food into the park, but nothing that can be used as a missile (cut up that apple ahead of time). Sealed bottled water under one-half liter in size can be brought in, as can juice and milk in soft-sided containers. ... Kids under 36 inches tall are admitted free, but must be accompanied by an adult and sit in an adult's lap. ... Restroom lines would often form at the Padres' former stadium, Qualcomm, in Mission Valley. The Padres studied the situation and came up with an interesting solution for their new park: There are 21 restrooms for men and 29 for women. ... Stadium information via phone: (888) 697-2373 or (619) 881-6500.

CAPTION(S):

8 photos, box, map

Photo:

(1 -- 3 -- color) They're playin' baseball at San Diego's new Petco Park, left, where the left-field corner, above right, is anchored by the 95- year-old Western Metal Supply Co. building, and the area beyond center field has a playground for the kids, right.

(4 -- 5) San Diego Bay and the Coronado Bridge, top, are visible from the concourses and food courts of Petco Park, where fans can watch the Padres from seats that protrude from the 95-year-old Western Metal Supply Co. building in left field, above.

(6 -- 7) The designers of Petco Park and the surrounding area put in many inclusive touches, such as a knothole-gang feature at souvenir store, above, and a miniature baseball diamond beyond the outfield wall for pickup games, top.

(8) Riding the trolley to the Gaslamp Quarter is an excellent alternative to parking hassles at the new ballpark.

Eric Noland/Travel Editor

Box:

IF YOU GO (see text)

Map:

SAN DIEGO

Gregg Miller/Staff Artist
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 16, 2004
Words:2061
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