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Padres are no longer San Diego's pet team

The days of quality baseball and embraceable stars are long gone, and attendance has plummeted even with a new ballpark. And don't even get San Diego fans started on the Chargers.

September 29, 2009|Tony Perry

SAN DIEGO — These are unsettling times for San Diego sports fans.

The Padres, despite a second-half surge, appear destined to finish fourth, 20-plus games behind the hated Dodgers, who arrive tonight for a two-game series. Local fans have voted with their seats.

Season attendance will end about 500,000 below last year, 1 million below the record 3 million of 2004, the first season at downtown's Petco Park.

A passel of would-be stars has arrived but none has yet grabbed the public's heart like those of the past: Tony Gwynn, Ken Caminiti, Steve Garvey, Dave Winfield, Trevor Hoffman. An ownership change has brought added uncertainty.

"There are better days ahead, but it's going to be a long run," said Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton, longtime San Diego sports broadcaster, now with XX1090 Sports Radio. "I think the Padres have lost this market emotionally."

For Padres fans who have turned their attention to the Chargers, it's not much better. The team is 2-1 after Sunday's 23-13 win over the Miami Dolphins, but injuries have struck LaDainian Tomlinson, Shawne Merriman, Nick Hardwick and Jamal Williams. Then there's the ever-present possibility that the team could leave town.

In another city, the prospect of losing an NFL team or seeing a baseball team steadily decline might be occasion for civic uprising. Not in San Diego.

"West Coast fans are different from East Coast," said Walter Mitte, 59, a retired Department of Defense employee who grew up midway between Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park but has been a Padres season-ticket holder for a decade.

"Back there, every bar has the game on, and everybody is talking about the game," Mitte said. "But San Diego is a tough market. The weather is so nice and there is so much more to do than just sit in a ballpark and spend money."

With the NFL, the real threat for San Diego fans isn't even on the playing field but in the Legislature in Sacramento, and in a place most San Diegans could not find on a map: the City of Industry.

After a long and contentious relationship with San Diego City Hall, the Chargers have the contractual right to shop the team to a new locale. The Spanos family has made it clear that it wants to keep the team in San Diego but only if a new facility replaces aging Qualcomm Stadium.

The consensus, however, among San Diego politicians has been resolute: Using public money for a new stadium is a no-go. Talks between the Chargers and the cities of Chula Vista and Oceanside appear futile. Escondido may be the last local hope. Meanwhile, a proposal by Ed Roski Jr. to build an $800-million stadium in Industry is proceeding and the Legislature appears on the verge of exempting the plan from the state's strict environmental review, over the protests of San Diego legislators.

"It's getting late, I think we've got to have something real by the end of the year," San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts said. "The Spanos family is not going to wait forever."

Losing the Chargers -- particularly to Los Angeles County -- would be a civic hurt of great magnitude because San Diego is a city where "L.A." is a swear word.

George Mitrovich, president of the City Club of San Diego, the city's premier public forum, thinks it is inevitable that the Chargers will leave and warns, "San Diego's always fragile psyche may never recover from their departure."

Tim Garfinkel, the Padres' new president and chief operating officer, had heard how tightly woven the city's psyche is with the success or failure of the Padres. Soon after arriving from the Arizona Diamondbacks' front office, he ordered up polls and focus groups to gauge the local zeitgeist.

He said he was pleased to learn of the depth of local passion for the Padres and the depth of baseball knowledge. But scientific instruments are one thing, real-life demonstrations are another.

Garfinkel was sitting beside New York Mets General Manager Omar Minaya during a game at Petco Park when an umpire made a questionable call on Padres rookie shortstop Everth Cabrera. For several innings, fans razzed the umpire.

Minaya was taken aback. He is accustomed to moxie from hard-core Mets fans but not from Padres fans.

"I was real proud of our fans," Garfinkel said.

Garfinkel was hired after Jeff Moorad and his partnership completed the first phase of their ownership agreement this spring with John Moores, who was forced to sell because of a divorce settlement.

The history of multi-partner ownership here has not been rosy and veteran Padres watchers are being cautious. Still in the collective memory is the ownership by a lightly capitalized group headed by Hollywood producer Tom Werner (1990-95), the resultant fire sale of popular veterans and Roseanne Barr's screechy rendition of the national anthem.

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