By David Marasco
The scenario for the last at bat at Qualcomm (Jack Murphy) Stadium could have come out of Hollywood. The home team Padres, down by two runs, had lit up the visiting Colorado Rockies for a pair of hits to start the home half of the ninth. Colorado brought in Justin Speier (whose father Chris Speier played plenty of baseball there himself), who proceeded to strike out the next two Padres. Gary Bennett strode to the plate. A home run would win the game, failure would mean the 1401st and final Padres loss in the stadium they had called home for the past 35 years. Bennett was in the hole early, the first two offerings from Speier were strikes. The Padres catcher battled back, but on the ninth pitch he struck out swinging. It was the end of the game, but not quite the end of an era.
The Padres did their homework for the final game in the Q. San Diego did a good job of picking the best from other final ceremonies and wove a memorable event.
When fans entered the gates, 60,988 strong, they were given small models of the Q, which serve as ticket holders for their embossed final passes. This was a neat improvement over Houston, where the aluminum Astrodome tins made nice candy trays, but aren't really display cases.
As it was Sunday, local tradition dictated that the starting lineups were announced in Spanish. The Q was one of the first American stadiums to put sushi on the menu, the Padres have always been inclusive. As things got rolling, a huge American flag was unfurled in the outfield, and Anisha Gwynn, daughter of Tony, sang the national anthem. Throwing out the first pitch was Ed Spiezio, father of Scott Spiezio, and owner of the first hit and homer in the ballpark.
The game itself quickly degenerated into a slugfest. Brian Giles notched the final triple and later came in to score in the first inning. Juan Uribe answered in the next frame with a monster three-run jack that traveled over 400 feet. The Padres held a 5-3 lead when the Rockies came to bat in the seventh. Their bullpen collapsed, allowing five runs on three dingers. Padres fans insisted on throwing back potential final home run balls because they were hit by the visiting team.
Adam Bernero trotted out to the mound with an 8-5 lead. He walked the first batter, and then took a nasty Mark Kotsay liner to the body. He recovered and threw to first, drawing Helton off the bag. The umpire ruled that Helton had come off after the catch, the runner was out. Bruce Botchy strongly disagreed, and this led to the final ejection in stadium history. Xavier Nady put one in the seats, the ump's call cost the Padres the tying run.
The eighth saw a controversial decision. With two runs in, two out and a man on second, Rod Beck had run the count to 3-0 on Todd Helton. Albert Pujols had finished his day, a hit by Helton would give the Rocky the batting title. But the bat was taken out of his hands, ball four floated in as an intentional walk. Helton lost the closest batting race in National League history.
In the bottom of the eighth Mark Loretta launched the final home run in the Q. It was also his 185th hit of the year, a new mark for Padres second basemen.
Trevor Hoffman pitched the ninth, an honor well deserved, save situation or no save situation. Although thy put up a valiant effort in the bottom of the ninth, it was not to be. The teams cleared the field to the sounds of "There Used To Be A Ballpark Here." The music that played on the final day came from the closing day canon - Green Day's "Good Riddance", Field of Dreams, and The Natural...
A short video covering the early history of baseball in San Diego was screened on the JumboTron. The flags that represent the 1984 and 1998 National League pennants were brought down to the playing field. A gate opened in the outfield wall and a bright red Hummer rumbled to the infield. Fears that they were delivering the frozen head of Ted Williams were dispelled quickly when the grounds crew went to work on the removal of home plate. This was the only part of the festivities that did not go smoothly (and although the Chicken made an appearance on Friday, he was missing Sunday). Home plate was anchored by a large plug of cement, and after the plate and the cement were removed from the ground a sledgehammer had to be used to separate the plate from its now disinterred foundation. The plate had an honor guard of four Marines (to make sure that Al-Qaeda did not strike a blow against America by stealing home), surly they could have handled the extra bit of weight even if the owner of the Padres and the Mayor could not. Later, when home plate arrived at PETCO Park, it was simply presented to representatives of the construction crew. In Detroit there had been an elaborate planting ceremony, the work performed by hand-picked minor league prospects - the future of the Tigers inaugurating their new home. Simply handing the artifact to Joe Hardhat fell a little short.
Once home plate was removed, the Padres shifted gears and brought back their old players. The night before they had introduced their all time team, with video clips and a public address announcer welcoming back the returning heroes. Sunday they went the Tiger Stadium route, they dropped the PA voice and simply let the on field camera do its job. The fans saw faces, some aged more than others, and as the players ran by the names on the back of the uniforms confirmed their identities.
The Prodigal, Ken Caminiti, exiled due to crack cocaine and steroid revelations, was welcomed home with a huge ovation. It was obvious even from the upper deck how emotional the moment was for him. Dave Dravecky, who came back from surgery to pitch before cancer eventually took his arm, also got a big reception. But warm greetings were not just reserved for longtime stalwarts like Gary Templeton and Steve Garvey; players like Archi Cianfrocco also got loud cheers. Everyone knew the big names would be there, it was the small surprises that brought unexpected joy.
After the alumni had all ambled to their former positions, the current team took the field. Phil Nevin and Gary Matthews Jr took a small child to right field with them. When the camera zoomed in on the trio the fans were able to read the name on the kid's uniform - Darr. Mike Darr Jr, the son of the Padres player killed in Spring Training a few years ago. Closing celebrations range somewhere between parties and wakes, but all of them have a moment when your heart jumps into your throat. Mike Darr Jr on the shoulders of his friends was that moment in the Q.
Once everyone was in their place, the sound system cued up "Hell's Bells" one last time. Through a fountain of fireworks Trevor Hoffman came in from the bullpen one last time. He handed the ball to Tony Gwynn, who threw the last pitch in stadium history. Two comments. First, while nobody can dispute Gwynn's standing as Mr. Padre, it seemed more fitting that the ultimate closer should throw out the final pitch, perhaps to Gwynn as catcher. Second, after an afternoon of archived film footage of a younger Gwynn, some fans were surprised at how large Gwynn had become. This stood in stark contrast to the situation in Pittsburgh a few years ago. There fans were shocked at how thin the ailing Willie Stargell looked as he threw the final pitch at Three Rivers Stadium. It was his last public appearance before his death the following spring.
The JumboTron then played video detailing the history of the stadium. There was a touching moment when Mets announcer Bob Murphy described his feelings about the stadium named after his late brother. In an awkward turn, the voiceover noted the Qualcomm bought the naming rights in 1997. The scoreboard then counted down from 35, representing each year the Padres played in the stadium. The crowd joined in for the last ten, and then the fireworks went off. The current and former Padres on the field then exited through a gate in right field, evoking images of the players disappearing into the corn of the Field of Dreams.
In Milwaukee they had their beloved radio announcer Bob Uecker say the final words. In San Diego generations of fans have listened to Jerry Coleman call Padre games. He said some nice words and then closed with his trademark "You can hang a star on that one!"
Hang a star indeed.
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