SAN FRANCISCO — Say what you will about Barry Bonds, the retired San Francisco Giants slugger who shattered home run records while serving as poster boy for baseball’s inglorious (and seemingly never-ending) steroid era. But he built one helluva ballpark by the bay.
OK, not literally. Bonds did not personally finance what is now called AT&T Park — although he probably could have, given his staggering career earnings. Yet as Giants season-ticket holder Will Durst explained to me during my visit to the ballpark earlier this summer, it was Bonds whose electrifying play — and he was electrifying — revitalized a moribund Giants franchise in the mid-1990s, boosting attendance and revenue with each mighty swing of his bat.
Without Bonds, noted Durst, a well-known political satirist and Web columnist, it’s unlikely that team ownership, which had flirted with moving the team to St. Petersburg, Fla., would have gambled on building a $357 million ballpark now widely considered to be among baseball’s finest. AT&T Park is not a “lyric little bandbox,” as John Updike once famously described Fenway Park, but a spacious, ultra-comfortable facility with breathtaking waterfront views and family-friendly features galore. It has a reverent sense of Giants franchise history (its street address is 24 Willie Mays Plaza) and an appealingly retro ambience, notwithstanding its many modern amenities.
“This whole area used to be known as Dogpatch,” said Durst as we watched the Giants play the Mets in a mid-July afternoon game. “It was a little dodgy. It’s not like that anymore.”
Indeed, it is not. I had been inside the park, which opened in 2000, once before, although not during a regular-season ballgame. As someone who divides his baseball loyalties between the Red Sox and the Giants — it’s a long story — and who has reveled in San Francisco capturing two of the last three World Series titles, I had ample reason to book a visit during a work trip here, one that happily coincided with a Giants homestand.
I was not disappointed, either. Once a rundown industrial area with all the charm of neighboring Alcatraz Prison, the ballpark’s setting in the up-and-coming China Basin area is a glittering example of urban redevelopment done right.
From its surrounding sidewalk cafes and marinas to the kayakers bobbing outside the right field wall, waiting for a home run ball to splash down in McCovey Cove, to the Wi-Fi access available throughout the park, the vibe could not be more San Francisco — unless they tie-dyed the outfield grass and made every night Grateful Dead Tribute Night. (This year’s observance took place Aug. 5.)
You can even take a ferry to the ballpark. Or take advantage of the valet bicycle parking. Or catch a few innings for free by peering through right field wall archways that open along the waterfront promenade.
Boston fans, even diehard defenders of Fenway’s antique charms, must admit to feeling a wee bit of stadium envy when they catch a ballgame here, as many must have at the Giants-Red Sox series last week.
AT&T Park is not simply gorgeous. It’s what Red Sox owners might have built a decade ago, had they not opted to refurbish Fenway instead. Look around the Hub’s burgeoning waterfront area, Sox fans. Now imagine a handsome, brick-facade stadium nestled in the middle of all that development, one offering comfy seats, unobstructed sightlines, a wide variety of food and beverage options, and majestic views of Boston Harbor and the city skyline beyond.
You say you’d miss the Green Monster? Heck, build one of those, too.
“Nostalgia is one thing, but things are meant to change,” said Giants fan Paul Parises when I stopped him and his daughter, Sophia, 8, and mentioned that I was visiting from Boston, where Fenway fever still rules.
Sophia had just whizzed down the Guzzler superslide, one feature of the kid-friendly Coca-Cola Fan Lot, located above the left field wall, which includes a miniature baseball diamond where preschoolers can bat and run the bases and a giant-sized, four-fingered baseball glove of 1927 vintage.
It was Sophia’s first trip to AT&T Park. Her favorite player? Buster Posey, the Giants’ MVP catcher, she said. I congratulated her on her sound baseball judgment. Then Sophia and her dad waved goodbye and went off to find another local treat, a Ghirardelli Chocolate ice cream sundae.
I, in turn, set about sampling the ballpark fare, or at least as much as I could comfortably consume. My choices? There was the Dungeness crab sandwich, served on grilled sourdough bread ($16.50); the Cha-Cha Bowl with jerk chicken, pineapple salsa, rice and beans ($10.50); the lamb sausage ($6.50) and sweet potato fries with chipolte sprinkles ($6.50); the sea salt caramel hot chocolate ($6.50); the Stinking Rose 40 Clove Garlic Chicken Sandwich ($6.50); and an array of tempting drink options, from craft beers (e.g., Goose Island Honker’s Ale) and Napa Valley wines (Francis Ford Coppola Pinot Grigio) to hot cocoa with peppermint schnapps. (Even balmy summer days in the Bay Area can get chilly when the fog rolls in.)
Alas, the Giants did not win that day. Their best starting pitcher, Matt Cain, did not survive the first inning, while hometown hitters were shut down by Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler, a former top Giants prospect traded away two years ago. That’s baseball.
As a fan with deep loyalties to two cities, I will still enjoy my time at Fenway, with its cramped seats and limited ballpark fare.
I’ll even sing a chorus of “Sweet Caroline” in the bottom of the eighth inning. Yet I’ll always wonder how a stadium like AT&T Park would look in Boston.
So good, so good, so good.