SAN DIEGO–There was a time when San Diego’s Petco Park was considered a paradise for pitchers. The dimensions were deep, particularly in right field, and the damp marine layer coming in off the bay created atmospheric conditions, particularly at night, where well-struck baseballs dropped like latkes before they could get to the fence.
The year the park opened in 2004, the host San Diego Padres managed only 57 home runs in Petco. The issue took center stage when first baseman Phil Nevin launched a shot he thought should have gone out. Instead, he had to settle for a double. While standing on second base, Nevin looked up to then-general manager Kevin Towers, seated in his box, and spread his arms wide in exasperation– an early viral moment that sent media atwitter.
“When we first moved in, there were no buildings or structures around the park,” said Nevin, now the New York Yankees’ third base coach. “The fences were too far out. All the complaining was blown out of proportion, but at the end of the day it had to be fixed.”
That’s evidently what’s happened. Judging by this year’s postseason, home runs are no longer a problem. Last week, the Padres hit six of the nine total homers en route to defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in a three-game National League Wild Card Series. San Diego hit 54 homers in 30 home games this year, 101 in 2019 when the full complement of 81 home games was played in the last full, non-COVID season.
The Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, now squaring off at Petco in the American League Division Series, are hitting the ball out of the park with a regularity more akin to Yankee Stadium– 3,000 miles away. In the first two games of this neutral-site series, the two teams have combined to hit 12 taters, six each.
“Balls are going out everywhere now,” said Nevin. “They didn’t do that, obviously, when we first moved into the park. And even balls hit now are going places where I didn’t see balls go.”
For example, already this week the Yanks’ designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton has hit two majestic blasts. His ninth-inning grand slam on Monday night landed well beyond the centerfield fence. But his fourth-inning shot on Tuesday night went where few usually go—into the row of seats above the leftfield second deck of bleachers, just below the giant video board.
“I thought it was going to hit the scoreboard where that was going,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone of the 458-foot lunar landing, Stanton’s fourth in as many postseason games to tie a club record with Lou Gehrig and Reggie Jackson.
“Giancarlo can make any ballpark look small,” said Nevin—but construction around Petco that has altered its playing conditions also helped.
The teams are tied at a game apiece in the best-of-five series with Game 3 Wednesday night and who knows what havoc they can still wreak.
Boone remembers the days when Petco was considered a wasteland for hitters, although he was quick to point out he hit three homers in 22 at bats here in his time playing for the Cleveland Indians and Washington Nationals in 2005 and 2008.
“I took [Jake] Peavy out in straight away center,” Boone recalled. “And then I got [Randy] Wolf to left. But we digress.” About the way the ballpark has played here so far this series, Boone added:
“I mean, it seems fair to me. It’s changed a little bit. In batting practice in the afternoon, the ball seemed like it was really flying. By the end of the night the air was heavier. It was still warm. It wasn’t like that damp, cold air that you get at night in L.A, Anaheim and San Diego. It’s literally night and day in Southern California the way the ball flies.”
Any study of the playing conditions at Petco has to be framed against the construction history itself.
It took former owner John Moores eight years to build Petco at the cost of $456.8 million. To get there, the club went through two public task force searches for a ballpark site, won an advisory vote by the general populace to build in East Village just after the Yankees swept them in the 1998 World Series, won a vote of the City Council, and had to survive 16 failed nuisance lawsuits filed by former Councilman Bruce Henderson.
Of Petco’s final price, $225 million was paid by municipal bonds drawn on a raise in downtown hotel/motel taxes, $57.8 million from a designated redevelopment district no longer deemed legal, $21 million from the Port of San Diego, and $153 million contributed by the Padres.
The ballpark was one element of the project. It’s the centerpiece of a 26-block district that Moores was responsible for privately developing in downtown San Diego’s East Village, a neighborhood that was moribund as the new millennium began.
As with the growth around ballparks in San Francisco, Denver and Washington, the East Village is now replete with hotels, restaurants, office buildings and condo complexes. Although the Padres haven’t conducted a recent atmospheric study taking into consideration the high-rise construction that has grown around the ballpark, it’s obvious that the conditions for hitting a baseball have changed.
A shorter right-field porch with an outer fence to the original wall makes a difference. It’s now 390 feet, about 10 feet shorter in right-center than it once was.
“I still like the old ballpark before the dimensions were changed,” Moores said. “That was really Kevin Towers’ ballpark. Maybe the guys are much bigger and stronger now, too. The damn Yankees look like a professional football team as anything.”
Towers was a former minor league pitcher who ran baseball operation for the Padres from 1995-2009. Towers talked often about building a deep right field to suppress the powerful left-handed hitting back then in the NL West, which included Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants and Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies.
Towers, who died from anaplastic thyroid cancer in early 2018, presided over two division winners in the years immediately after the new ballpark opened.
Ironically, Bonds tied Hank Aaron on the all-time homer list at Petco on Aug. 4, 2007, when he hit his 755th homer to the opposite field below the original scoreboard.
But it took a generation for the Padres to catch up.
“It looks like something’s working for them,” Moores said. “They’ve got some bats.”
Back to Nevin. The heralded confrontation with Towers generated a lot of publicity at the time, but he says now the gesture of frustration wasn’t meant toward the GM. The right-handed hitting Nevin actually hit 26 homers in 2004, 12 at Petco. It was the lefty-swinging Ryan Klesko who really took it in the chops, going from eight of his 21 homers at Qualcomm Stadium in 2003 to three of his eight homers in the new ballpark a year later.
“K.T. thought I was yelling at him, which I wasn’t,” Nevin said. “We wound up sitting around the clubhouse drinking a few beers and laughing about it the rest of the night. But the damage was done because there was media in there that heard.”
It remains to be seen how much more damage the Yanks and Rays will do as the rest of the week plays out.