The meaning of ‘meaningless’ baseball

In recent years, I’ve developed an unusual season-ending tradition. It goes like this:

Pick a ballpark I’ve never visited, take a week off, and see as many games as possible. In warmer climes, temperatures have moderated by late September; in cooler climes, the really chilly weather has not yet arrived, so almost any location is fair game.

A full week gives me the opportunity to really get a feel for a ballpark, to discover all its quirks, virtues, and unique features, as well as its faults. But I always avoid teams in a pennant race and seek out teams just playing out the schedule. That way, I know tickets will be readily available and the atmosphere will be relaxed.

In recent years, I’ve done this at Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Washington, D.C. twice—once to visit RFK Stadium in its last season of baseball, and a few years later to visit the new ballpark.

This year I narrowed my choices to San Diego and Miami. I made reservations in late July for San Diego. I don’t remember why I eliminated Miami. Probably because I had visited South Florida the previous winter.

The adjective “meaningless” is often employed to describe the late-season encounters I witness. If it seems perverse to seek out such games while pennant races are in their end stage, then so be it. Given the climate in San Diego, any time of year would be a good time for a visit, but late September works especially well. In fact, I wouldn’t mind making it an annual tradition, but that would hamper me in my quest to visit other ballparks.

The San Diego Union-Tribune (more popularly known as the U-T), has “The World’s Greatest Country & America’s Finest City” emblazoned on its masthead. Well, I’ve never lived in any other country, so I can’t give an informed opinion on the first half of that statement, but I have visited all 50 states and almost every large city in the country, so I can comment on the second half.

Indeed, San Diego is the most relentlessly pleasant American city I’ve ever visited. Granted, I didn’t seek out any risky neighborhoods or drive in rush-hour traffic, but the hostility level struck me as remarkably low. One can’t help but fantasize about pulling up stakes and moving there—until one checks out local real estate prices.

From reading lots of hard-boiled fiction set in SoCal (Raymond Chandler eventually moved from L.A. to San Diego’s uber-pricy enclave of La Jolla), I know that Angelenos used to refer to San Diego as simply Dago. Originally, this was a common diminutive for the name Diego, but it’s not in wide use today for obvious reasons. Since I was staying in a part of San Diego known as Little Italy, I thought it imprudent to question the locals about the appropriateness of the term.

At any rate, Dago was part of the lexicon when the Pacific Coast League placed a team in San Diego in 1936, just in time to showcase a local boy named Theodore Samuel Williams. When major league expansion upgraded the name Padres from minor to major league status in 1969, many observers thought success was a long shot because there were too many competing outdoor activities in San Diego.

The I-told-you-so crowd was almost vindicated in 1974 when the franchise all but moved to Washington, D.C. In five cellar-dwelling seasons, the Padres had never finished with so much as a .400 winning percentage. The franchise shift was so far along that Topps even issued baseball cards with “Washington” instead of “San Diego.” But McDonald’s tycoon Ray Kroc intervened, purchased the team, and kept it in San Diego.

Eventually, the team improved, and so did attendance. World Series appearances in 1984 and 1998 certainly helped, as did the opening of Petco Park in 2004 and division titles the next two years.

This season, the Padres played to 61.4 percent of capacity with 2,123,721 fans (26,218 average per game). That placed them 22nd out of 30 major league teams. In the NL, only Houston had lower attendance, but since the Astros are moving to the AL next year, that means San Diego will enter 2013 as the NL bottom-dweller.

Still, I don’t think the Padres’ 2012 attendance is that bad considering they were never contenders and finished the season at 76-86. Not surprisingly, the best attendance year at Petco was the year it opened: 3,040,046 in 2004. But even at its lowest ebb (2009), it was 1,922,603. I think Petco Park itself will prevent attendance from sinking any lower than that. Much like a modern-day Wrigley Field, it is a fun place to go, even when the Padres are out of the running.

Petco is on the southern fringe of downtown, easy to get to via train or bus, and just a couple of blocks from the waterfront. Also close by is the Gaslamp Quarter, featuring an abundance of bars and restaurants. If you don’t have time for pre-game or post-game noshing, Petco, like other latter-day ballparks, boasts a mind-boggling assortment of food and beverage options.

If you want to hit the beach before a game, Coronado (named the nation’s top beach for 2012 by the renowned “Dr. Beach”) is just a short drive or ferry boat ride away. If that’s too much trouble, you can buy a ticket for the “beachers,” a bleacher section in center field that attempts to recreate a beach environment. No surf here, just sand, but for families with toddlers, it is the ideal locale.

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Like nearby Horton Plaza, an open-air shopping center, Petco Park has a wide-open feel geared to appeal to the great outdoors types. It is a major upgrade over Qualcomm Stadium (previously known as San Diego Stadium and Jack Murphy Stadium), the Padres’ home through 2003. Qualcomm was part of the wave of late ’60s/early ’70s multi-use stadiums. It started out as a concrete “U” but ended up as just another concrete doughnut after the right field/end zone was enclosed.

Qualcomm is still in use for football, but the NFL Chargers’ attendance there is well below capacity, sparking rumors about a move to Los Angeles in the near future unless Qualcomm gets a major upgrade or a new football stadium is built, preferably downtown. I suspect Chargers’ management has taken a good look at Petco Park and come down with a bad case of stadium envy.

The challenge in San Diego is to come up with a facility as close to perfect as the climate. That way, even a meaningless game can make for a pleasant experience.

As it turned out, the games I saw at Petco were not entirely meaningless. The Padres were playing the Dodgers, who still had an outside chance for a Wild Card slot, and the Giants, who had already clinched the NL West but still had a slight chance to surpass the Reds and the Nationals in the contest for best record in the league and, therefore, home-field advantage in the playoffs. As it turned out, neither of those quests was successful.

Of course, Padres fans couldn’t care less about those two goals, but the hordes of visiting fans from Los Angeles and San Francisco kept the games lively. A blindfolded man listening to the crowd response would be hard-pressed to determine which team was the home team. Even so, there were no harsh words or fisticuffs, just good-natured joshing between the camp followers.

One quest that did meet with success was Chase Headley’s pursuit of the NL RBI crown. During my time in San Diego, he and Ryan Braun were neck and neck, and the schedule decreed they would go head-to-head for the last three games of the season in Milwaukee. With Miguel Cabrera going for a Triple Crown in the AL, the RBI duel in the NL didn’t get much national attention, but Headley emerged victorious with 115 RBIs while Braun settled for 112. Another under-the-radar contest was the stolen-base crown, won by the Padres’ Everth Cabrera with 44 over Atlanta’s Michael Bourn with 42.

I suspect a lot of people perusing the major league leaderboard at season’s end were surprised by Headley’s RBI crown, even though he was the NL Player of the Month for both August and September. Before this season, he hadn’t performed at anywhere near that level, and the Padres are not a high-profile team on the national scene.

As observers have noticed in years past, with the ocean to the west, the desert to the east, Mexico to the south, and greater LA to the north, San Diego isn’t exactly a national crossroads. I suspect that the borders of Padres Nation are contiguous with those of San Diego County.

I, for one, wouldn’t mind being an honorary citizen of Padres Nation. After a few days in San Diego, I realized that my Petco routine of beach and baseball had brought me full circle. This is the same routine I follow in spring training (also an annual tradition) in Florida.

Each season, I begin with the meaningless games of spring training and end with the meaningless games of a team that was eliminated from contention long before I hit town. The atmosphere is relaxed. The fans are not stressed out, as nothing is at stake. As in March, the rosters are bloated, substitutions are plentiful, and keeping score accurately is a challenge.

Of course, the ballparks of September are much bigger than the ballparks of March, they have far more rules and regulations than their smaller counterparts in Florida and Arizona, and comparable tickets are more expensive, so the experience isn’t completely analogous.

Of course, there is always the chance that one will see something extraordinary no matter how inconsequential the contest. Case in point: denter fielder Cameron Maybin taking a home run away from former Padre Xavier Nady, now with the Giants. Just a little bonus to go along with the free T-shirt on Fan Appreciation Night.

To be sure, there is plenty of “meaningful” baseball right around the corner in October, but for me (and almost every other baseball fan) it will be on television. Starting the season with “meaningless” baseball and ending it with same may sound nihilistic, but watching real games in real time without the endless chatter of commentators and commercial interruptions has meaning for me, and I don’t know that I could explain it. Human beings have an instinct to seek out meaning, even in the most unlikely places. After all, how else could one explain the popularity of Star Trek conventions?

Maybe one fine September, I’ll seek out meaningful baseball, a bona fide pennant race. But I can’t imagine that a week of such games would be any more enjoyable than my week-long experience with meaningless baseball in sunny San Diego. So, with apologies to Ernest Lawrence Thayer, I offer the following:

Oh, somewhere out in baseball land, the fans are sorely vexed,
And others, disappointed, are convinced their team was hexed.
And somewhere fans are mourning, and somewhere they just pout.
But there is no grief in Dago—the whole damn town’s blissed out.

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Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 47 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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I grew up in San Diego, yet for the past five years I have been living in Los Angeles and loving it.  For a variety of reasons, I recently decided to return to San Diego to live.  While I’m looking forward to the move, lately I’ve found myself worrying about all the things in LA that I will miss.  So this article was a nice little reminder of how lucky I am to call San Diego home and to have the privilege to return to such a beautiful and wonderful city and have it be home. Also, I love Petco… Read more »
Yehoshua Friedman
Yehoshua Friedman

If you want meaningless baseball, you can count on Cleveland.

Max L
Max L

Glad you enjoyed the city & the ballpark. Thanks for visiting & the nice writeup. You are welcome anytime in Dago.

That was a treat to have Headley winning the NL player of the month in Aug & Sep, and topping the RBI list. As a Padres fan, it wasn’t even in the radar going into the season.

@Patrick: how could you!