Within the past few years I have heard about several other teams hosting pre-season fan get-togethers, including the Padres. Reports the past few years have been that the FanFest was a professionally run and much enjoyed event, so I made a point to keep my eyes out for any information about the 2014 event.
Fortunately it fell on a weekend that I was able to get away and, after acquiring "early entry" passes from a friend of a friend, my brother, Chris, and I were standing in line outside of Petco Park far too early on a Saturday morning.
Having never been before, I wasn't sure how the autograph sessions worked. All I knew was that there were vouchers for the various sessions and that you needed a voucher to get the autograph. I misunderstood what I was told by a Padres employee and thought that the earliest sessions would be available to the early entry guests and tickets for the others would be staggered throughout the day.
Chris and I grabbed our vouchers for the Yonder Alonso/Robbie Erlin session and headed over to the Padres Garage Sale. The sale is where the Padres sell all sorts of things left over from the previous season(s), including jerseys, bats, caps, and banners that hung around the ballpark.
There was a sizable crowd when we got there, but it wasn't unmanageable and we managed to peruse all of the items without any issues. While flipping through the jerseys I happened across a 1984 Padres "throwback" jersey that had been worn and signed by Anthony Rizzo and I was sold immediately. The funny thing is that I had thought just that morning that had I gone to the FanFest the year prior, I could maybe have grabbed a Rizzo jersey since he had been with the club sporadically throughout the 2011 season.
I wound up spending a little more than I had planned to acquire the jersey, but it is now one of the prize pieces of my baseball memorabilia collection, and well worth the expense in my mind.
After finally checking out, which took a very long time due to Wi-Fi issues with the credit card readers, Chris and I looked at the time and saw that we still had over an hour before we could even start queueing up for our autograph session, so we decided to enjoy a walking tour of the Padres clubhouse and facilities.
I had already seen the clubhouse on my tour of Petco nearly a year before, but it was a good way to kill time and there were various areas open that had not been accessible on our tour. Plus, it's always fun to see the "behind the scenes" areas of the ballpark.
After the clubhouse, we popped out into the Padres dugout and relaxed for a few minutes as we decided what to do next.
There were several tents set up in the outfield grass, so we decided to see what was happening out there. Sidenote:One of the benefits to going to a fan event for a team that plays in a warm climate is the ability to walk on the field, a perk that is not offered on any ballpark tour that I have experienced, or even read about.
While on our way out to left field, we ran into the Friar and had to get a photo with him. The tents seemed to be for local radio stations and all of the lines to reach them were quite prohibitive, so I leapt at the outfield walls a few times, like I was robbing a home run, completely disregarding the fact that I have no jumping skills whatsoever, and decided to head up to the Alonso/Erlin signing.
The best part about having the voucher for the session was that the queue was basically just sitting in the nice shaded seats and waiting for the players to show up. They arrived on time and were fairly quick with the signings, even though they were both very good about talking with the fans who came up.
I had Alonso sign a ball for me, but unfortunately I wasn't paying close enough attention and he signed in blue sharpie before I could ask him to use my own pen. I told him that I thought this could definitely be an All Star year for him and he thanked me and said that he was feeling really good this offseason.
I had decided not to get Erlin on a baseball, so I didn't have him sign anything, which I regret in retrospect.
At this point Chris and I headed back to where the vouchers had been distributed to try and get some for a later autograph session. As it happened, the vouchers were not staggered throughout the day, they were given out as soon as the previous session had run out of vouchers. So, rather than waiting until 10:00am to give our the 11:30am vouchers, they were given as soon as the 11:00am session had "booked out."
The system makes sense and I don't have a real issue with it, though I wish that there had been better communication with the fans and more of a premium given to the early entry (read:season ticket holders) attendees. For example, two of the more desired autograph sessions were Jedd Gyorko and Andrew Cashner, both of whom only had one autograph session in the late afternoon. I would have hoped that the Padres would have had them available early, as a premium for the early entry folks.
While bummed, Chris and I weren't devastated, as we were trying to make it to USD for the USD alumni game featuring Cubs top prospect, Kris Bryant, and after getting out and throwing a few pitches in the Padres bullpen, that was just where we went.
After finally finding parking on campus, we made our way to Fowler Park, the brand new USD baseball facility. To say that it is a gem is to sell it short. This tiny, college ballpark is nicer than some major league spring training facilities that I have visited. (Maryvale, I'm looking at you!) and if I were a student, I think I would be wiling away far too many hours not studying, sitting in the grandstand.
When we arrived, Bryant had already been officially presented with his Golden Spikes Award, for the best college baseball player, and the game was in the bottom of the first inning. After sitting down I noticed a crowd of people in the stands by the third base bullpen not watching the game.
I made my way over, and sure enough, there was Kris Bryant, signing autographs for anybody who wanted one. I had him sign a ball for me and inscribe it "Go Cubs!" which he did with no hesitation. Bryant didn't play in the game, presumably as part of the contract he signed with the Cubs, but there were a lot of other alumni who did, including Orioles starter, Brian Matusz.
One of the highlights for me was hearing the guys on both the current USD team and the alumni giving each other a hard time and I found myself cracking up after several exchanges.
As the game drew to a close, we made out way to the first base dugout where the alumni team was situated. In addition to Bryant, another Cubs prospect, Corey Black was there throwing a bullpen session and I was hoping to have him sign a ball for me as well, a goal which sadly ended in failure.
After the game I stood by the dugout with several other fans, hoping to grab a few more autographs. As Matusz walked into the dugout, two kids next to me asked him if he'd sign. He said, sure, with a big smile. The kids then asked him for a ball since they "didn't have anything for [him]." Matusz then said he didn't have one and disappeared into the dugout, ruining it for the rest of us.
While standing there, I heard rumblings about going to wait for Bryant by the clubhouse door after the game and thanks to my patient brothers, we were able to meet him again and get a photo. My brother, Jonathan, also had him sign a ball with a "Team USA" inscription.
All in all it was a fantastic weekend to welcome back baseball and a great boon to my Cub collection, despite both events being held in San Diego. Not long now and spring training games will start and then the regular season will be upon us. I can't wait, as I have big plans this year!
Thanks for reading, and keep tripping baseballs!