Pacific Bell Park hosted its first baseball game last night, and it is a stunning jewel on the bay. The simplest concept of building a baseball park is that all the seats should face home plate, the center of the action, and the pitcher's mound, where it all starts. The stands are layered from ground level on up, halfway to the stars, surrounding this field of dreams. Beyond left field are the bleachers and the quirky attractions - the big slides, the wiffle ball field, the giant Coke bottle, the huge mitt. Beyond the jagged right field wall is McCovey Cove, where boats of all sizes cruise around, hoping to catch the first ball hit over that wall. And beyond that are the lights of the city. It's a beautiful place to spend a few hours.
Baseball is a game for friends and family to watch together, because the pace is perfect to allow conversation and contemplation. You can talk about the game, but you're also likely to be thinking about other games, because baseball, for all the innovation and upheaval of recent years, is still essentially played the same way it was a hundred and fifty years ago. The diamond at Pac Bell Park is nearly identical in all its dimensions to the diamond on which the first Giants team played in New York in 1882.
I don't often get a chance to drive anywhere other than around town. I've hardly been outside Santa Rosa since last summer, so it was a treat to get in the car and head for the game Friday afternoon, especially on such a warm, brilliant day. This is still the time of year when the hills of Northern California are a rich tapestry featuring the most all the lush shades of green. I stayed off the freeway and on the back roads as long as I could, just to have the green hills and fields so close on either side of me. And also because I missed the freeway entrance and had to go another few miles to find another one.
That would not be the last wrong turn I would take last night. But, as usual, things worked out, even when I approached the edge of panic.
We were to meet at Eric's apartment in San Rafael. David was already there when I got there, and Eric and Shane arrived soon after. We all piled in my car and headed down the freeway to catch the ferry. We were hoping to catch the 5:10 ferry, but I missed the exit for the Larkspur terminal. And then I missed the next exit, so we ended up going a few miles out of our way and doubling back. I made sure everyone was watching so that we wouldn't pass the exit again, or we could have still been zipping back and forth on that highway when the game started. I was fine when all three of the guys knew which way to go, but a couple of times I got different information in each ear. I went with whoever seemed the most certain. That was usually Eric, since he lives in the area, although David works down there, and he always seems positive about things. So sometimes Shane had to be the tie-breaker.
Amazingly, we did make the early ferry in plenty of time. It was my first time on a ferry, and we stood on the deck watching the islands and bridges go by as we headed for the terminal. It was an incredibly clear, warm day, even as the boat picked up speed and glided over the top of the water. The buildings of downtown San Francisco came into view, and after a seemingly endless wait just offshore, hovering, we finally docked at the Ferry Building.
Most of the people getting off the boat were headed to the same place we were, and we all ambled along the Embarcadero, looking for the first sign of the new park. It's amazing to see this symbol of pastoral America nestled in the heart of the City, and we were not disappointed with the beauty of the structure itself. It has enough character to distinguish it from the stadiums built in the sixties and seventies. And it has a grove of twenty-four palm trees in Willie Mays Plaza, with a statue of the greatest living ball player in action. The statue had been unveiled at a ceremony there earlier in the day, with politicians and former teammates and even Bill Cosby expressing their affection and respect for Mays.
As if to prove that this game was only an exhibition for the players and a dress rehearsal for the park, there were a few glitches to be worked out. The electronic turnstiles weren't working, and the tickets had to be torn by hand, in the traditional manner. And the scoreboard had its own problems throughout the night, sometimes flashing random symbols and at other times indicating that one player was playing three different positions at the same time. Everyone was so happy to be there, though, that no one took these little snags seriously.
When we made it through the gate and into Pacific Bell Park, it was like coming home. We walked up the ramp, and up some more, and we kept walking up the ramp until there was no more ramp to walk up. Then we walked along the outer rim, picking up food and drink along the way. We kept walking along the outer rim, until we ran out of outer rim to walk along. We found our section and walked up the steps, and kept walking up the steps until there were no more steps to walk up. Then we moved the fifty-foot coil of heavy rope out of our way and sat down. That's where our seats were.
Let me tell you how bad our seats were. (And please don't think I'm complaining, because as bad as they were, they were still good enough for us.) Our seats were so bad that a reporter from a local paper came up to us after the first pitch and asked, "How does it feel to have the worst seats in the park?" He wanted to know what we liked or didn't like about the place, after one pitch. Eric told him, "We're at a baseball game," as if this guy could understand that where you sit doesn't matter, and it's what's going on that counts. I don't think he was satisfied with our answers, because he went to the next section and interviewed some people there for a couple of innings.
There are three levels of seats at the new park. The field level is on the field, naturally. The promenade level is the second tier. The top tier of stands has been named the "view level," which is a nice euphemism. What it means is that you can see for miles around, but you should probably bring binoculars if you want to see the players. And our seats were in the very last section of the view level, along the left field line, behind the foul pole, in the top row. That's right, section 336 out of 336, row 18 out of 18. I'm sure Barry Bonds played left field in this game, and I heard later that he caught some balls hit out there, but his corner of the field was not in our sight lines, view level or no view level.
Let me stress, though, that being at the game, as Eric said, supersedes any petty complaints about the location. We were surrounded by congenial fellow fans, all of us grateful to the Giants' ownership for building this ballpark and keeping our team in San Francisco. It was breezy but warm and comfortable. The field was right there in front of us, and we were able, along with the players, to start getting used to the experience of a ballgame at this place. For the players, they are learning how the ball bounces off the irregularly shaped walls, and how to judge distances, and what the wind might do when a ball is hit in the air. For the fans, we are learning some of the same things, and also how to watch the players making adjustments and reacting to the flow of the game.
Here's how things started: Maestro Dick Bright played the national anthem with gusto on his violin. Willie Mays, who had thrown the last ceremonial pitch at Candlestick Park last September, threw out the first ball at the team's new home last night. The Giants' new public address announcer, local disc jockey Renel, has a warm voice and sassy delivery; we decided we like her. The Giants' first hit was a triple into the vast expanse of center field by their leadoff batter, Marvin Benard. And incidentally, they won the game over the Brewers, 8-3.
The game ended late, and we wandered in several wrong directions before Eric figured out which way to go to catch the ferry back to Larkspur. We were near the end of a long line that snaked back and forth in front of Pier 48. We were lucky there was a second boat waiting, because the line was cut off just as we got to the head of it. That cost us an extra half hour of waiting, while another ferry, headed elsewhere, came and went. But there was no chance that any mishaps or slipups would spoil the mood of the evening. We were meant to have a good time last night, and we did.
Skimming across the bay, watching the City lights recede as we headed for the Larkspur ferry terminal, I was staggered again at the beauty of the San Francisco skyline, so compact and with such unique shapes and angles. It was so clear that you could see the glow of every light in every building. Then you look around and see the Bay Bridge, looking like a string of lights suspended in air in the dark. If the Golden Gate Bridge is the showpiece of spans in the daylight, the Bay Bridge is its equal in beauty on a night like this.
By the time I'd dropped everyone off at Eric's apartment and found my way back on the freeway to Santa Rosa (after turning the wrong way on the first try), it was too late to do anything but crawl off to bed when I got home. It was hard to sleep, though, after such a great night.