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The Inside Track | FIRST PERSON

Die-Hard Fans Enjoy Stadium Sleepover

July 02, 2006|Lisa Leff | Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — My family of four does not worship at the Church of Baseball. A few seasons of Little League, semi-regular rounds of catch and a handful of major league games each summer make up the extent of our collective fandom.

So when I heard that AT&T Park was hosting a slumber party, it was the novelty -- the chance to put another notch in the "been there, done that" belt -- that appealed to me and my 8-year-old daughter more than the idea of unfurling a sleeping bag on the hallowed ground where Barry Bonds and other Giants roam.

Following the lead of the Chicago White Sox, the Giants once a year open the outfield grass to fans with tents -- no stakes, of course. Yosemite it's not, but for those with faith in the sport and its heroes, the ballpark for one night literally becomes a field of dreams.

This year's sleepover came on the longest day of the year. The timing fit since we were told in advance that the stadium lights wouldn't go off until 2 a.m. -- following back-to-back movies on the giant video screen -- while cleaning crews would start work at 6:45 a.m.

"Ooooh, cool!" my wee lass chimed from the back of the minivan as she surveyed a 21-hour schedule of events that included a Giants-Angels matinee, player appearances, a Kodak moment captured by an official team photographer and access to tot-sized batting cages.

And, even more important to an 8-year-old, there's the new stadium store where people who don't sweat paying $7 for a hot dog can buy an orange teddy bear for $20 and outfit it in an impressively authentic uniform for another $15.

With tickets costing $180 each (a substantial discount from the $300-plus the Giants charged in previous years), I'll admit the price of entry colored my experience. I showed up expecting club seat treatment, only to encounter conditions that felt decidedly more like the bleachers.

Or, in the words of a colleague who is even less of a die-hard fan: "For $180, you too can sleep where Barry Bonds spits and scratches."

Maybe it was finding that the only route to the fan deck, with its Coca-Cola slide, batting cages and teddy bear store, was still littered with peanut shells, squashed cups and other debris from the game, which the Angels won 6-3.

Maybe it was discovering that the infield was off limits, carefully enshrined behind cones and a temporary fence. There would be no timed races around the bases or feeble throws from the mound.

Or maybe it was having to feed a hungry child hot chocolate and an ice cream bar for dinner because the promised pizza and salad were gone before you could say "strike three." This, while the electronic message board kept flashing "a Giant thank you" to the companies that donated the food.

True, everyone was given a goody bag containing a Giants T-shirt, playing cards, flashlight pen, pompoms and pennant. But if an umpire had been there, I would have been tossed out for arguing.

I apparently was alone in my disappointment. To every person I put the question, "Are we happy campers?" the answer was an unqualified yes. Standing in line to get a ball autographed by pitcher Noah Lowry, playing air hockey and other arcade games set up on the warning track, and gleefully using the dugout bathrooms (for the record, the floor was concrete and the toilet seat cold), more than one described it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Ken Webster brought his 5-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. With a dreamy smile, he gazed out from the visitors' dugout and mentally took measurements. His tour already had taken him behind home plate to see how hard it would be to hit a home run, and across the outfield to get a sense of how much ground players have to cover.

"I wanted to stand in certain spaces to see what the players see, imagine if the stands are totally packed what it would be like to be down here looking up at it all," Webster said.

Memories of more innocent times were on the minds of many grown-up campers, who appeared to be having more fun than the kids.

The bright lights ruled out stargazing, so by 10 p.m., most campers were hunkered down in lawn chairs and on air mattresses for the double-feature of "Chicken Little" and "Little Big League." Unlike the pizza, snacks were plentiful. My dinner-deprived daughter loaded up on red licorice ropes, peanuts, popcorn and more ice cream.

Due to tent failure, we camped in the open air, surrounded by strangers and separated from the city by locked gates and security guards. My little one fell asleep clutching a stuffed monkey dressed in an Oakland A's uniform with the lights still up. Her head snuggled against my neck and her breath smelled like chocolate.

We were wrapped in a blanket of dew when morning arrived along with sounds of the stands getting washed down and weary parents packing up their belongings. "Rise and shine, campers," a voice chirped over the public address system. Check-out time was 9 a.m. sharp.

"We're outta here," I told my daughter after finding the coffee urns already empty when we reported for breakfast at 7 a.m.

Yet my appreciation for having done something unique grew as we trudged back to my office five blocks away. People on their way to work grinned at a little girl wearing a Giants T-shirt, her brother's hand-me-down baseball pants and a 49ers cap.

A week later, the minor aggravations had receded. I still don't know if sleeping where Bonds spits is worth $180. But I do know that even though we skipped having our picture taken by a team photographer, the longest night of the year produced memories I'll savor for a long time.

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