SAN FRANCISCO - Instead of Candlestick's arctic winds and ominous, threatening clouds, the Braves were greeted by sunshine and cool breezes during their first visit to the San Francisco Giants' new home, Pacific Bell Park.
"Looking at it, I would say it's a big improvement to Candlestick," said first baseman Wally Joyner, returning to a spacious clubhouse after running laps in the outfield Friday afternoon. "It's a ballpark, instead of a stadium."
Indeed, Pac Bell is one of the newest gems among fan-friendly ballparks dotting the major league landscape, and judging by the sold-out sign hanging from the ticket windows, fans are loving it. The Giants have sold out every game this season and, best of all, the ballpark was built with private money, not a dime coming from state or city coffers. It's the first privately financed major league ballpark in 38 years.
"We knew we'd wear the scarlet letter for a while, because it's clearly not in the interest of other baseball teams to see a successful private-stadium deal," Larry Baer, the Giants' chief operating officer told the Wall Street Journal. "But now we've gone from scourge to sage: A dozen teams have come by to study what we've done."
This is a ballpark (seating capacity is 40,800) that had fans in mind from the moment the first concrete footing was poured. Home runs to right field land in San Francisco Bay. Fans can take ferries across from Oakland and enter the ballpark from center field. Wander up to the right field seats and get a wondrous view of the Bay Bridge and marina. Stand outside the right field wall and see the game (for free!) through the fence.
But, more than the giant glove that rises sentinel-like above the left field grandstand, or the quirky nooks and crannies in the center and right-center field wall, this ballpark is about weather. More to the point, the lack of weather. While no one is brave enough to suggest the downtown area doesn't have a chill factor, the weather is mild compared to Candlestick Point, where Stu Miller was once blown off the mound during a game.
"From what I hear, it's a fun place to play," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "Of course, anything would beat Candlestick. (The weather) is a big reason why people didn't like playing here. You can still experience some of the elements here, but not nearly as severe as Candlestick."
That's why fans are flocking to the ballpark. After decades of sitting huddled in blankets in freezing conditions, a whole new generation of fans is discovering how much fun baseball is when watched from a modern ballpark in pleasant conditions.
"I think everything here is very fan-friendly," Joyner said.
If the wind is blowing in here, Pac Bell is a pitchers park. The alleys are deep, and the 421-foot sign in center field seems closer to the ferry dock, than any outfielder. But, if the breeze is going out, watch out. Barry Bonds has taken aim at the short right field porch and splashed five home runs into the bay. The only opposing player to reach the water so far is the Dodgers' Todd Hundley.
Suffice to say, Pac Bell has revitalized the downtown area and sparked new interest in baseball in the city. And, after all, that was what Giants owner Peter Magowan had in mind when he envisioned his ballpark.
"(Major league officials) wanted a symmetrical ballpark," Magowan said. "We said, `No. 1, we don't want a symmetrical ballpark. No. 2, we don't have the land to build one. They initially said, `Don't build your ballpark.' We said, `You guys come out here and explain why this team is going to be put up for sale and why someone from out of town is going to buy it and move it.' When they heard that, they relented."
The result is the National League's best ballpark.
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.