Number of games seen: 4, plus 1 tour
First game: July 31, 2009
Most recent game: June 25, 2017
PHOTO GALLERY at bottom of page
By Cole Shoemaker
Written in 2017, architecture and aesthetics section in 2009; ratings updated yearly when necessary
Back in 2009, I wrote that Petco Park was the J.D. Drew of ballparks.
The metaphor was simple: like the player, Petco Park was great, but it had all of the tools to be the greatest in baseball and failed to put everything together. Petco Park had (and has) incredible originality, the best local scene in baseball, great amenities, great sightlines, beautiful landscaping, a great climate, an unmistakably high-quality exterior design, and a gorgeous contextually based interior aesthetic, all centered around elevated concepts.
While he was always a good player, things never really materialized for J.D. Drew to the degree that was expected. Luckily for Petco Park, stadiums evolve and don’t have expiration dates like baseball players. J.D. Drew never became that game-defining player, but I think Petco Park has become just that.
By my careful assessment and analysis, examining every metric top to bottom, Petco Park is the best ballpark in baseball, and it isn’t particularly close. As always, we’re excluding Wrigley, Fenway, and Dodger Stadium from the discussion.
I first want to address any accusations of recency bias based on my trip in 2017, because I understand this is a (somewhat) bold claim. With a series of improvements in the mid-2010s, Petco Park’s enhancement projects had been brewing in my mind for a while. I actually know every nook and cranny of a ballpark before I go, and Petco Park exceeded my already high expectations. If anything, I was looking to falsify my hunch that the Padres’ park was going to blow me out of the water.
So, how did Petco Park become the best ballpark in baseball?
Well, the Padres’ home was already a top-5 ballpark back in 2009, just one that was more defined by missed opportunities. So, much of what I’ll detail already existed. As a design concept, it’s always been the most original and ambitious ballpark of the post-1991 era. The idea of removing the restaurants and other amenities away from the seating bowl, thus carving out an open air, canyon-like concourse, is a welcome innovation. You’re basically splitting the ballpark up into a number of outer structures separated from the seating bowl, with the main concourse open to the sky and bridges above connecting the upper deck concourses to the outer “garden buildings.” Other concepts, such as “neighborhood seating,” the suite towers, and the “Park in the Park,” are undoubtedly novel.
Through a series of tweaks and enhancements, those concepts have been refined into something unmistakably brilliant in practice. With its superior setting, Petco Park is beautiful, despite not equaling the aesthetics of PNC Park (Pittsburgh) or AT&T Park (San Francisco). Unlike those two however, the Padres’ sparkling pad is now nearly flawless in more objective categories, especially in terms of amenities. I think it’s through that equation that you get the best ballpark in baseball. Let’s look at the recent areas of improvement and some other specifics.
One of the primary complaints about Petco Park was how the outfield concourse and the “Park in the Park” wasn’t well integrated with the rest of the interior aesthetics. By removing the silly sandbox (“the beach”) and adding a new “social space” in that area, the fan-field connection became much better. (You know, where actual fans can enjoy the game as opposed to five year-olds playing in the sand who look like they’re about to get smacked by a home run ball.)
Perhaps most importantly, development around the park continues to accelerate, enhancing Petco Park’s setting and interior aesthetics. Compare this to the former look. Wow! I think we see the redevelopment project at full fruition today, with nearly every space occupied by a condo, hotel, or office building, except the Park in the Park. It’s a great look: an urban village with a park in the middle.
Can you think of another park where the views have improved so much?
With a lot of these ballpark categories, you get anchored into giving acclaim just based on reputation. When discussing ballpark food, for example, the reflective answer is always that AT&T Park in San Francisco or Safeco Field in Seattle has the best ballpark food. This was a bit of a sore spot for Petco Park in the early years.
During the 2010s, Petco Park made a quantum leap in this department. The Padres showcase a wide variety of BBQ, Mexican, Latin, Asian, sandwiches, and seafood, all provided by local, high quality restaurants in the San Diego area. Both the breadth and depth are remarkable. When you couple the cuisine with San Diego’s craft beer, I think you have a system of concessions that are the best in baseball. This is perhaps the most remarkable ballpark transformation this decade in any category.
Another common criticism of Petco Park was the lack of Padres’ history integrated into the park. People always remarked that the structure was beautiful, but it didn’t look like a ballpark, and you couldn’t tell who plays here. This was rectified before the 2016 All-Star Game with a tasteful interactive museum. It seems like the Padres went down the list of ballpark shortcomings and poured millions of dollars into correcting them.
When you add these improvements to an already solid array of features, Petco Park absolutely blows everyone else out of the water in terms of amenities. The Padres’ series of restaurants and bars was always their strong point, and they continued to astonish me upon my return visit in 2017.
Just to hammer home the point, let’s provide an exhaustive list. Note that all of these areas are accessible to anyone with a ticket, and these are bona fide destinations, not concession stands or walk-up bars. On the main concourse, Petco Park has (1) an accessible outfield social bar overlooking center field, (2) a full-service restaurant/bar behind home plate, (3) and an indoor wine bar behind home plate. It has a full-service restaurant/bar in the (4) Western Metal Supply Co building. On the accessible Toyota Terrace level, the Padres have a (5) full-service restaurant/bar, (6) a full-service sushi bar, (7) an informal fast casual eatery and bar, and (8) an outdoor bar overlooking the San Diego Bay and Coronado. In the upper deck, we have yet another (9) full-service restaurant and bar, open to the sky and providing great views of the ocean. The upper deck also has (10) an informal fast casual dining area on top of the warehouse. That’s before getting to any picnic areas or any premium seating clubs.
The exceptionality of having such a wide array of restaurants and bars open to all fans can’t be emphasized enough.
The Padres’ intention of opening up most spaces to all ticketed fans is notable, in what could be construed as an “anti-Yankee Stadium,” mostly free from exclusion and division. Looking at the amenities overall, if there’s one word I’d use to describe them, it would be overwhelming.
I often remark on ballparks that take more than one day to explore, but Petco Park takes at least three days. After enjoying the exemplary regular concession stands, all 10 eateries and bars, the premium clubs, the museum, and the entertainment in the Park in the Park, I was actually exhausted by the end of the weekend.
Make no mistake: Petco Park is inarguably the best park in baseball for not watching the game.
The fact that Petco Park so overwhelms a ballpark fanatic hints at the stadium’s only objective flaw: the concourse functionality. I was hoping my memories from 2009 were exaggerated, but Petco Park is very difficult to navigate. At every turn on the main concourse, you’ll encounter some encumbrance. There is no ease of circulation here, as moving from the outfield to the infield even requires ramps down the right field line. The concourses are mostly closed from the field as well. I’ll elaborate later.
While you could enjoy an entire weekend here without ever seeing a pitch, there’s another layer of peculiarity to that fact: while Petco Park is the best park in baseball for the non-baseball fan, it’s also the best park in baseball for watching baseball.
As has been publicized, Petco Park has some of the best seating cantilevers in baseball. The terrace level (mezzanine) extends almost 15 rows over the seating below, and the upper deck extends far over the mezzanine. While PNC Park is lower, Petco Park is actually closer to the field (horizontally) from the upper levels. With no separate suite levels, Petco Park isn’t prohibitively high either. While there have been complaints about outfield obstructions from left field, the Padres have baseball’s best sightlines judging by both field proximity and seating geometry.
So what’s in between watching baseball and not watching baseball? Is this just a pedantic way of telling you Petco Park is the best stadium in baseball overall? Do these two facts make Petco Park literally the perfect ballpark?
No, actually. While the exterior is striking, many of my complaints about the interior aesthetics still stand. As a general theme, Petco Park is too disjointed, built around an old brick warehouse then reframed through the prism of a sandstone nautical motif. That doesn’t make much sense conceptually.
While the Gaslamp Quarter seeps into the ballpark’s aesthetic schema, I wish we saw more elements reminiscent of the San Diego Bay. Where are the water features, the plush greenery, and the palm trees of San Diego? Yes, they are well integrated into the concourses, and you see these elements through views from the restaurants/bars, but I would have liked to have seen those features throughout the outfield.
If Petco Park looked more like that rendering, we might literally have the perfect baseball stadium. As it stands now, the park’s interior aesthetics are good but not great, failing to reach high bars established in Baltimore, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh.
The reason you don’t see Petco Park at the top of every ballpark list is because fans who make these lists on a site like Buzzfeed or Thrillist just look at pictures of the panoramic views. I think Petco has always been highly regarded, but it’s not instinctively great because so much of what you read on social media is from people ranking ballparks based on pictures. If you take time to actually explore every ballpark in baseball, I think you’ll find the notion of Petco Park being the best ballpark quite persuasive.
You’ll note that other great ballparks fall in the 87-90.5 range of my ratings system. Most other parks in the middle tier (#10-#18) are tightly distributed in the 80-86 range. At 93.5, Petco Park is an outlier (in an informal sense of the word), head and shoulders above all other major league baseball stadiums across the North America.
Despite not equaling the interior aesthetics or panoramic views of the best parks, Petco Park is good enough in those respects, while being nearly objectively flawless unlike even more beautiful parks in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. And I certainly don’t want to undersell Petco Park’s raw beauty. At a basic level, it almost resembles the well-roundedness of Comerica Park in Detroit. However, Petco Park begins to lap the field by possessing many superlative qualities like the best local scene in baseball, arguably the best exterior architecture, the best concessions, the best series of restaurants and bars, the most beautiful concourses, the best sightlines, and arguably the best amenities overall.
In its best scoring categories, Petco Park is often exceptionally outstanding, all the while lacking any disqualifying or glaring flaws in even its lowest scoring categories.
Petco Park has staying power as the best ballpark in Major League Baseball for years to come. Given the margins by which the Padres’ park exceeds others in our carefully considered and meticulously weighted methodology of rating baseball stadiums, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to call this one of the best sporting facilities in the world.NEXT - Setting