|Qualcomm: At least the tacos are good|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
SAN DIEGO -- Like Derek Fisher at a Lakers shoot-around, Qualcomm Stadium is a lame duck.
The Pads are moving up and out of here at the end of the year, heading for the poorly named but well designed new PETCO Park in downtown San Diego. (Here are some pics of the new place.) In the meantime, they're playing out the string in the only building they've ever called home.
A sign in right field counts down the days until Opening Day at PETCO -- a lucky fan gets to turn over a new card each night, the players look on longingly and the crowd cheers.
You can't blame 'em for wanting to go. It was once a cozy park built for a Triple-A club, a place named for the sports editor of the local paper (Jack Murphy). But a mid-'80s redesign to accommodate the Chargers (and another in '97 that added more seats and suites for football) made it feel like an empty canyon, and where you once heard folks say with love in their hearts that they'd meet you at "The Murph," now you get confused looks and whispered what-the-hell's-a-Qualcomm questions.
I was here on a Monday night, which I'm afraid isn't going to help the Q's rating, and the Padres are currently about 300 games back in the NL West, which doesn't exactly put butts in the seats, but on any day of the week, and even with the joint jumping, Qualcomm makes baseball feel like an afterthought.
1. Seat comfort: They're blue. Charger blue. They're also shallow, and a little stiff. And most of them are empty. Points: 2
2. Quality of hot dogs: On most levels of the park, you get dogs courtesy of Wienerschnitzel. In high school, I went out with a girl who worked the window at my local Wienerschnitzel drive-thru, and man, did she look cute in that funny little red-and-yellow hat ... good memories, good dogs, and we're headed towards a good score. But then I notice that fans on the Charger Gold Club level are offered Hebrew National dogs -- a little bigger, a little juicier, a little less "common." Now, I don't mind if you cook up some fancy food options for your premium customers, but hot dogs are the people's fare, damnit, hot dogs are democratic, hot dogs should unite us not divide us. 3
3. Quality/selection of other concession-stand fare: Two words: Fish tacos. Three words: Randy Jones Bar-b-q. Four words: Homie's Cinnamon Roll Place. 5
4. Signature Concession Item: The fish tacos are de-lish, especially los especiales, with guacamole. But the season ticket holders I talked to, and the lines I saw (even on a slow night) said the ribs at Randy's are what Prince used to call "crucial." 5
5. Beer: You can get domestics for $5.75 (which ain't great, but it's better than PacBell: http://espn.go.com/page2/s/ballparks/pacbell.html), and Heineken for $7.25. But if you're doing the San Diego thing, and especially if you're doing the fish tacos thing, go with the Dos Equis. 3
6. Bathrooms: Maybe the largest, most intimidating, most Vader-like paper towel dispensers in the western world. Seriously, they're scary. 3
7. Scoreboard: It's perfectly positioned to get washed out by the sun in the early innings. But they make up for that by adding a bank of lights in the top of the board that make it so you don't really want to look out that way anyway. 2
8. Quality of public address system: There is one song that, if played, will result in a score of 0 in this category, regardless of sound quality. That song is "We Built This City" by Starship. They played it just before the fifth inning at Qualcomm. 0
9. Fun stuff to do besides the game: PETCO will probably have all sorts of jungle gyms and slides, and all kinds of interactive baseball goodies. They'll probably have storytellers and babysitters. And you'll probably be able to see the game while your kids run wild, too. But here at Qualcomm, there's just a forsaken corner of the main floor, way down the right field line, where a sign on a cement wall, a rag-tag speed pitch and an inflatable carny slide welcome the youngsters. It's sad and strange, like a roadside attraction is sad and strange. Take a look at the Leggo Padre guy at the right, and you'll get the idea. 2
10. Price/selection of baseball souvenirs: Lots of throwback stuff, which is great. Nice to see fans in so much brown, orange and yellow. Glad they know you don't run from your ugly history ... you embrace it and make it your own. That said, the price of nostalgia is steep: An authentic Dave Winfield jersey from the old days runs $374.99! I say, pay cash and get that penny back and invest it, because about a million years from now it will be enough to get you a replica of Garry Templeton's cap. 3
11. Ticket price/availability/location: Step right up. Ten bucks gets you nosebleed view level seats in tight between home and first. Sight lines are good from here, especially if you want to see oceans of empty blue seats. Take the elevator up ... otherwise you're walking for days on those dizzying circular ramps. (Bonus: if you walk all the way up to the top rim of the park, you get a lovely view of the IKEA just off the highway. This is San Diego, California, one of God's chosen places, but you wouldn't know it from anywhere in or around the park. The place is more Joshua Tree than SD. You ought to be watching gulls dive and waves lap, but instead you're looking at a pseudo-Danish furniture outlet, feeling lonely and thirsty.) Priciest seat in the park is $32 (but you can get there for $10 on a Monday night -- more about this later), which isn't bad, and they do old-school $5 tix for the bleachers on Mondays, which is nice. 3.5
12. Exterior architecture: My wife's an art historian, so I ask her, "How would you describe Qualcomm?" She says, "Circular modernist concrete, the failure of the American imagination. A blasphemic mimicry of the great cathedrals." "What are you really saying?" I ask. "It's hideous. It's a beast. It makes me want to cry just looking at it." She's the professional. 1
13. Interior Architecture: The biggest disappointment is that you can't see the game from the walkways, as you shop for food and souvenirs, or make a run to the bathroom. Beyond that, there's no funkiness, no odd angles, nothing to catch your eye or trip your tongue. It's fine, it's invisible, it's big enough to host the Super Bowl. What do you want me to say? That the palm trees behind the outfield wall brighten the place up and conjure images of lazy afternoons playing catch on the beach? Not gonna do it. 2.5
14. Access: I came early and the roads were clear and the parking ($8) was plentiful. It can be a little tricky getting out on a busy night, though, as everybody tries to funnel through a few exits. The best way to go is a trolley ride from downtown San Diego. Tickets are $3-$6, depending on where you get on, and the trolley stops right in front of the stadium entrance. 4
15. Friendliness and helpfulness of usher staff: The guy taking my eight bones for parking was a marvel, the very soul of friendliness and helpfulness. He called me "Sir" about eight times in three minutes, directed me to a good spot, told me where to get tickets, where to sit, and what to eat. The man working the elevator, the woman who sold me my Dos Equis, the woman who showed me to me seat, and everyone else I met in and around the park were equally delightful. 5
16. Trading-up factor: Easy (at least, on a night like this). I was in the Charger Club level behind first in the third, at the field level in the fourth, and directly behind home plate at the field infield level (the $32 seats) by the sixth. No one checked me anywhere, and only in my last move did I have to be sneaky and wait for a crush of fans with melting frozen yogurts to confuse the usher to get by. In the early going, moving around down at the empty right field corner (you know, where they send the kids to play), it was like roaming a high school campus on a weekend -- quiet, empty and concrete cooled. 5
17. Knowledge of local fans: I don't know how smart they are, but their enthusiasm is impressive. They cheer for each little thing that goes right like it's a big thing (they know better than to take hits for granted right now), and they stay around, even after their boys have gone up 7-1 on the Dodgers. 3.5
18. Seventh-inning stretch: Canned (no heat). Crowd does join in, though, so we'll say ... 2
19. Pre-and-postgame bar-and-restaurant scene: The closest thing to the park is a big, fat mall. There's a Bennigan's nearby, and a Dave and Buster's. In other words, the scene is about as unique as a Padres' losing streak. Next year, with the new park downtown, this score will go way up, but this year, it's a ... 2
20. Wild Card: To the good: There's a nice little snarly undercurrent to the Padres fans when it comes to the Dodgers and their fans. Guys carrying Dodger signs and wearing hats were routinely mocked and booed, and even lovely young ladies like Capri and Grace (above), were catching the cold end of the locals' glares. This vibe should flower into righteous, satisfied and passionate homerism once PETCO and its glorious surroundings open up. So, let's say plus-4 on this score. To the bad? It took them 35 years to figure out that maybe the team should have a ballpark down by the water. Minus-2. 4 minus 2 = 2
Total Rating for Qualcomm Stadium: 58