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The new Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco is a lovely place to watch a
baseball game, interesting and quirky, if lacking in the history that only
time will help it accumulate.

In all the media coverage of the new ballyard, though, what doesn’t come
across is just how goofy the park is. Pac Bell Park is being touted as a
blend of the old and the new, but its nods to the past are more theme park
than Fenway Park. And it’s hard to get that nostalgic, old-fashioned Base
Ball feeling when there’s a gigantic Coke bottle beyond the left-field
bleachers.

The park is like one in a video game, colorful, with ads everywhere you
look. Given Pac Bell’s nominal status as the first ballpark built with
private funds in almost 40 years, it is understandable the team has to make
up that money somewhere, and some of the ads are almost appealing. But, to
note one negative example, the giant scoreboard in center field has too
much advertising and not enough space devoted to game-related information.

The Positives

As it turns out, the Coke bottle, which I confess I dreaded in advance,
actually looks fun. It’s functional, too, with slides inside the bottle for
kids of all ages to enjoy. But the spirit of the park is clear to anyone
who looks out into that "Coca Cola Fan Lot" and sees the Coke
bottle alongside a huge, old-school, four-fingered baseball mitt replicated
with astonishing accuracy. Because what you notice is that the mitt next to
the Coke bottle looks odd, even though the opposite should be true. The
Coke bottle is closer to the spirit of the place than the mitt.

My apologies to fans who live in cities where this is the norm, but the
single most remarkable thing about the place–to a Bay Area resident–is
that you can walk to it. There hasn’t been anything like this around here
since Seals Stadium in the late 1950s. It’s a real joy to be walking down a
street in downtown San Francisco knowing there is a baseball game at the
end of the trail. Of course, there’s also the sneaky-good feeling of going
to a ballgame while others are at work, a feeling which is magnified when
you are walking right by those very people.

I didn’t really believe the hype on this, but remarkably, they’ve managed
to keep the wind out. It was pretty windy walking around outside the park,
but when I went to my seat, there was hardly any wind at all. Of course, it
is still cool at night, but it was always the wind that made Candlestick so
bitter, and this is an enormous improvement. The first night game at the
new park, on Wednesday, ended with a suspended outcome after April showers
blew in. It featured an occasional gust, but even during the storm it was
more of a breeze than a blast.

Meanwhile, there are places in the outer areas where you see folks just
standing around chatting and taking in the view of the city skyline. There
wasn’t a single place at Candlestick where you’d want to do that, and there
isn’t a place like that at the Oakland Coliseum, either. Here, you could
step out for a beer or a hot dog and find yourself forgetting to go back to
the game. From a purist’s standpoint, the idea that someone would miss two
innings taking in the view is appalling, but, as with so much about this
park, the contrast with life at Candlestick is so stark that you can’t
blame folks for their giddiness.

Before the first night game, I found myself behind the centerfield
scoreboard, sitting on a comfy bench, eating a tri-tip sandwich from
Orlando’s Caribbean BBQ, watching Hall-of-Famer Cha-Cha Cepeda himself
hanging out behind the counter. I could have sat there forever.

Sitting in the upper deck, looking out at the boats on the bay, the game
going on lazily below, it was pretty easy to just mellow out. Which is
probably good news for fans of visiting teams like the Dodgers. The local
fans were a happy bunch and while there was plenty of "Beat LA"
yelling, overall it was alarmingly good-natured. I even apologized for
bumping into a guy with a Dodger jacket on. I think the Giants are going to
have a "family" crowd now; I didn’t see a single fight in the
stands, a first for a Giant/Dodger game.

The Negatives

The place isn’t perfect, of course. There’s a mechanical ballplayer named
Rusty who comes out of the right-field wall on occasion, and he is so
colossally stupid you can’t believe anyone thought he would be a good idea.
In the upper deck, seats are kind of snug. Leg room is at a premium, and
one person in our vicinity with real long legs didn’t like it. Health codes
apparently preclude the installation of trough-style urinals in the men’s
room, which means men’s bathroom lines are as long as the women’s. I
suppose women will find this to be poetic justice, but I would have
preferred everyone having short lines to everyone having long ones.

On the Field

How does the park play? It’s far too early for conclusive remarks, but
there are plenty of first impressions to go around. Center field looks
huge; Marvin Benard doesn’t stand a chance out there. The Giants
need to revive Dwayne Murphy or something equally drastic. Hey, it worked
for the Dodgers and Kevin Elster.

Also, despite the excellent job the builders have done in keeping the wind
out, this is still San Francisco, and it looks like high-hit balls
especially are going to get caught up in the wind. This will be an
adventure for the fielders, and a boon to or bane of pitchers depending on
the wind’s direction.

Probably the most characteristic play on Opening Day was a triple by
Giants’ catcher Doug Mirabelli. It was his first major-league
triple, and it might not be his last, given that it’s 421 feet to
right-center. In fact, as easy as it was for Mirabelli to leg out the
triple, you have to imagine there’ll be more than the usual number of
inside-the-park home runs as well.

Ultimately, the Pacific Bell Park experience is as unique as the home-run
balls that will land in the waters of McCovey Cove outside the right-field
fence. The question remains: how many people will want to come out on a
cold Tuesday night in August 2003 to watch the Giants and Expos? Ownership
is counting on 81 sellouts a year, and they’ve got a lot of loan payments
to worry about thanks to their admirable attempt at private financing; the
future of the team is far more tenuous than the hype would suggest. But for
now at least, Pac Bell Park offers so many different amusements that even a
lackluster game on the field won’t detract from a good time.

Steven Rubio can be reached at srubio@baseballprospectus.com.