Finally, after a pre-season match against the Oakland A’s in 2008 and a rain-curtailed “friendly” against the Seattle Mariners two years later, I made it to my first two Major League Baseball (MLB) games at AT & T Park for the opening weekend of 2012.
On Saturday evening the San Francisco Giants entertained the Pittsburgh Pirates in the second of a three game series, and then hosted the Philadelphia Phillies in the opening game of three on Monday evening.
This is not a match report on either game, though I will briefly outline the action. It is more a series of impressions on the baseball experience.
So – the figures. On Saturday, the Giants squeezed out a 4-3 victory in the ninth after trailing both 2-0 and 3-2 earlier in the game. CRedit should go to much-maligned, and many believe, grossly overpaid, starting pitcher, Barry Zito’s second quality performance at the start of the season.
A disastrous first innings by star pitcher, Tim Lincecum, in which he gave up four runs, meant the Giants were always chasing the game against the Phillies’ Roy Halladay. Despite Buster Posey’s three hits and improved pitching by Lincecum and the bullpen, the deficit was too much for Giants to pull back, eventually losing 5-2.
One win and one defeat, not altogether unexpected, so I’ ll take that.
Although we had already printed our tickets at home back in the UK, we wanted to get to the ballpark well in advance of Saturday’s 6.05pm first pitch. We disembarked from a Muni Metro car at 3rd and King at around 4.30pm, just in time to be welcomed through the turnstiles with a large number of equally excited fans, most wearing the Giants’ orange and black colours.
One of many reasons for wanting to get to the park early was that it would guarantee us securing the day’s free gift on entry. Although on Saturday this was a rather modest foam finger, the use for which is modelled in the photograph below, we received a far more elegant A5 size Giants 2012 schedule fridge magnet at the Phillies game. This was the first of a host of fan-oriented activities on both nights.
And it is this emphasis on ensuring that the spectators, especially families, have a memorable experience at the ballpark that is so impressive about American sports in general, and the San Francisco Giants organisation in particular, and which I want to concentrate on in this article.
Amongst the other gifts scheduled to be handed out at future home games during the season were bobbleheads of the most popular players, including Sergio Romo, Madison Bumgarner and Pablo Sandoval, a Brian Wilson gnome, a Matt Cain t-shirt, fedoras, knitted hats, texting gloves (sic), trading cards and caps. Some of these are limited to the first 20, 25 or 40 thousand fans through the turnstiles, one of many clever marketing ploys to get the spectators eating and drinking early inside the stadium rather than at the bars and restaurants around the “yard”.
For children aged 14 and under, they would be greeted at selected games with snap watches, rope necklaces, and Super Hero capes. Many of the above gifts were presented by companies such as Subway, See’s Candles, Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area and PG & E.
And then there would be the games that celebrated past glories such as the “Turn Back the Century Game – 1912” and the 2010 Giants World Series Team Reunion. On another day Virgin America would be providing two for one flight vouchers for all fans.
And it still doesn’t end there!
San Francisco is renowned for its commitment to diversity, demonstrated in a range of festivals and street fairs throughout the year that showcase its ethnic communities.
And the Giants play their part. Certain games are designated “heritage nights” where the culture and history of peoples that have played a key role in the history of the Bay Area is celebrated. The list includes Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mexican (Cinco de Mayo), Irish, Jewish, Italian, Polynesian, African American, Filipinos, and, this being San Francisco, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
And then there are the games that are dedicated to firefighters, law enforcement officers, masons and even singles! And, again, it wouldn’t be San Francisco without a series of food festivals, including one where leading chefs from around the area set up stall and offer their wares at a fraction of the price that one would pay in their restaurants.
Once inside the stadium, the off-field entertainment, both before, during and, on occasions, after, the game, is excellent. In the lead up to the start of the Pirates game, the crowd was treated to Jefferson Starship ripping through their – or rather Jefferson Airplane’s – catalogue of classic songs, including Somebody to Love and White Rabbit. They returned to lead the traditional pre-match rendition of the American national anthem – not perhaps their finest hour, but I doubt the great majority of the crowd, wrapped in the emotion of the moment, were too concerned about that.
Although the breaks between innings in a ballgame are rarely more than a few minutes, the gaps are filled invariably with quizzes, competitions and interviews played out on the large screen / scoreboard, with yet more prizes and special offers available to the lucky fans. The middle of the seventh community singing of Take Me Out to the Ballpark is another tradition that raises the crowd’s spirits, even if the Giants are faltering.
Perhaps the most popular moments are when the camera scans round the crowd to hone in on unsuspecting couples whose duty it is then to kiss each other in front of 41,000 other people. These bring huge cheers, notably when a chaste peck turns into a more passionate clinch. On more than one occasion I wondered whether the “victims” had ever kissed before, might even be on their first date, such was the embarrassed on some faces. But most carry it off with good humour.
The antics of Lou Seal, the Giants’ larger than life (particularly around his midriff) mascot, contribute to the party atmosphere. A feisty character, his finest moment is when he strides and struts on the roof of the Giants dugout, leading the ninth innings rallying cry of Dont Stop Believin’ by Journey, which has become the team’s unofficial anthem since the World Series season of 2010. And it had the desired effect in the Pirates game in inspiring the team to pull round a 3-2 deficit to secure a walk-off win in the bottom of the ninth, adding a triumphant note to the spectacular fireworks display at the end.
Oh….and there’s always a baseball game going on if you get bored with all the ancillary entertainment!
I shall now turn to the other visible demonstration of the fan-friendly approach that epitomises the Giants organisation – the provision of refreshment.
For anyone unfamiliar with American sports, and, as a result, erroneously supposing that the food and beverages at venues barely extend beyond Coca-Cola, Budweiser, hot dogs and hamburgers, would be astonished to see the variety and quality on offer at AT & T Park.
Amongst the dozens of outlets at the stadium are California Cookout, Clam Chowder, Crazy Crab’z, Mission Creek Cantina, Cinnamon Roasted Nuts, First Base Carvery, McCovey’s 44 BBQ, Gourmet Sausages, Tres Mexican Kitchen, Long Taters Baked Potato, Doggie Diner, Haagen Dazs, Outta Here Cheesesteaks, Pier 44 Chowder House, Say Hey! Speciality Sausages, Port Walks Pizza, Ghiradelli, Mashi’s Sushi Bistro and Edsel Ford Fong’s. Some of these have multiple stands.
But the crowning glory, the signature dish, the product singularly responsible for the unmissable, pungent aroma of the ballpark, apart from on Grateful Dead Day when it is overpowered by the heady waft of dope, are Gilroy’s garlic fries, served up in generously filled trays at many of the aforementioned stands. These are the must eat” option, not only for the human visitors but also for the savvy seagulls that swoop and hover over proceedings in the latter stages of the game.
And yes, of course, soda and beer dominate the drinks scene, but this is San Francisco and elegant dining is available too, as witnessed by the Francis Ford Coppola wines my wife and I gravitated towards on both evenings.
My only quibble with all this eating and drinking – which clearly provides the Giants organisation with massive income – is that it is so enjoyable that a significant proportion of the sell-out crowds that flock to every game feel the need to keep going back for more – and more – and more – during the actual game, meaning that they miss a not inconsiderable part of the play. If you have the misfortune to sit behind someone who is constantly getting up out of their seat to stock up on yet more food and drink, it can be very annoying.
Now, I like a drink and something to eat when I watch football, cricket or baseball, but not at the expense of missing the play. I will get that out of the way before the game, or, occasionally, during a scheduled interval in play, such as half time in football. After all, I am there for the game, no more, no less.
But baseball, with its short breaks in play between innings, doesn’t allow one to do that. There is no lunch or tea interval as in cricket, where you may have between 20 and 40 minutes in which to satisfy your hunger or thirst.
So I do understand, not only the urge, but also the compulsion to eat constantly during the game, particularly when the fare is so tasty. And if you have children badgering you for a hot dog, coke or ice cream, during the play, it’s hard to resist.
But for some people, and not necessarily those with families, the actual game appears almost incidental – or rather that it is no more than a part of the overall experience or the excuse for attending a foodie extravaganza.
By the end of Saturday evening when we sat in section 324 View Reserve Infield, overlooking from the clouds (if there had been any) third base, I wondered whether I had been the only spectator in my block who could honestly claim that they had seen every single ball pitched during the game. Even my wife had had to make a call of nature (your fault Mr Coppola – who was at the Phillies game) during the seventh innings!
That said, I was one of the first in the extensive queue for the gentlemen’s restrooms at the end!
By way of contrast we sat in section 135 Lower Box Infield, immediately to the right of the bleachers on Monday evening and the “problem” was almost non-existent. The higher you sit in the stands the more likely you are to have people leaving their seats obscuring your view.
The situation would be worse – if that is the correct word, if it weren’t for the army of incredibly hard working vendors of hot dogs, cotton candy, ice cream and beer that flit amongst the crowd from beginning to end. Their energy, good humour and efficiency are a sight to behold.
Lessons to be learned for future visits?
1. If it’s a night game in spring or autumn (or summer for that matter) take a blanket. Although both evenings were clear and relatively still, it became decidedly chilly when the sun went down.
2.Choose seats at a lower level than section 324 – few fans struggled to make it back to their seats without pausing for breath. More chance of catching a ball there too.
3. Take more photos to supplement my report. This article would certainly have benefited from that.